At the dawn of any new hardware cycle, we're asked to pick a side. Around us in the unrelenting frenzy of the global marketplace, the battle lines are being redrawn, the advertising troops are being mobilized and retailers begin stockpiling supplies. This year as Sony and Microsoft plotted their opening, fateful moves which are likely to define the next decade of home entertainment, it comes at a time when gaming has never commanded such power.
It may seem unthinkable, then, to see the console war heading for a truce. Over the years social theorists have predicted that, eventually, all media content is going to flow through a single black box into our living rooms. Uncannily, Xbox One has been touted as such a device. Less of a games console and more a total entertainment hub - the universal delivery system of the future - even down to its iconoclastic name, unassuming matte-gloss veneer and Kinect prerequisite. In many ways, the PlayStation 4 has followed suit. For these machines, gaming serves just one function of an ever expanding and conflating amalgam. To 'play' now means to browse, watch, listen, talk, share, touch, move and switch, all in varying combinations, all the while connected.
The acceleration of media convergence has made all technology multipurpose: televisions now have app stores, your smartphone works as a spirit level and the PlayStation 3 let you fold proteins. With the release of each newer gadget, it becomes harder to define what it actually does. In the Onion News Network's satirical report on the release of 'Sony's New Stupid Box Thing', an early adopter stood outside BestBuy states his reason for getting one at launch. "It's got... a whole bunch more memory, and megapixels... and whatnot, than any of the other TV shit that I already have". The console war, once a battle between chalk and cheese, is now being fought with Swiss army knives.
Critics have predicted that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will be defined not by graphical performance, but by their integration of social services and extended functionality. Living in a world of second screens, multi-tasking and media stacking, our lives are in thrall to what's in essence a bastardised version of tabbed browsing, with our tablets and smartphones providing further distractions from the initial distraction. The new threats to the established order in the form of Android and iOS are versatile and incredibly popular among casual audiences, who are seduced by the price, availability and cross-compatibility of their digitalised fun. And yet, this boom in 'free-to-play' comes during the same period GTA V earned a billion dollars in three days. Videogames aren't becoming vulgarized or losing their sense of distinction, they are simply diffusing in every place and entangling with every thing - music, cinema, books, radio, you name it.
Leave it to Andy Serkis, the actor and motion capture artist who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings, to elucidate. "I was listening to Classic FM this morning and the third top-ranked piece of music created uproar, because it was from a video game. It just goes to show where convergence is at," he told the Guardian. His London performance studio was used for development of the Xbox One launch title, Ryse: Son of Rome, encapsulating the fluid exchange of ideas across cultural properties in contemporary society. It came as no surprise to hear Steven Spielberg announce plans for a Halo live-action TV series. Microsoft are adhering to a grand view of interconnectivity, with the streaming of gaming content via the cloud proving perhaps the most innovative yet predictable development this time around. Lingering offstage is the Wii U: faltering, confused, and trying to solve its own identity crisis.
To the layperson, the differences between PS4 and Xbox One are almost indistinguishable, with nuanced comparisons limited to frame rate and resolution issues between the same concurrent multiplatform releases. Time will tell if their paths diverge, but at present it's like comparing an Apple with a Samsung: the patents are all that separate them from quasi-homogeneity. The software developers are merely satisfying the needs of the consumer when their content is made available on every possible format. The public demands familiarity.
This explains why it's now harder than ever to decide what console to buy. Either way, you feel like you're going to end up with the same thing: a feature-laden black box that plays games and does a bunch of stuff slightly better than before. The theory that all media content will inevitably converge into a single, ominous device was rejected by the media analyst Henry Jenkins, who labelled it, 'The Black Box Fallacy'. As he points out, we are in fact being overrun with more, not less, boxes and gizmos and clutter under our TV sets. Perhaps, then, the choice is the illusion.