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How To Define A Generation

We’re on the cusp of yet another console generation. Well, it already started with the Wii U, so I guess you could say it stumbled a bit off the line. That’s not any commentary on the quality of the console (great) or the software (okay) but rather that the Wii U launch was unequivocally problematic. It definitely wasn’t a disaster, but so much of it could have been better. Hopefully the next Sony and Microsoft consoles will do better.

They had better, anyways, or they will have much bigger problems to face than a lack of identity and awareness. There will be a bevy of Android powered devices (led by Nvidia Shield, Ouya, and GameStick and whatever else people feel like Kickstarting along the way) and the resurgence of PC gaming to deal with. And then there’s the fact that most mobile gaming originates on iOS devices and mobile gaming is becoming an increasingly bigger and bigger player on the field.

What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of noise on the gaming platform front. It is no longer just the PlayStation and the N64. It is no longer just the Game Boy. The gaming console landscape has become so muddied that it might as well be mire of proprietary technology and services. As a consequence, it has also become more and more difficult to define what a “generation” of gaming is.

This is especially true given the fact that this console cycle has been inordinately protracted. Eight years it’s been going on. Eight. Years. November 16, 2005, was when the Xbox 360 was first released in the US and that was when the clock started ticking. It ticked and ticked and ticked and it’s long run past its alarm.

Before this, the longest a generation ever went was six years and the delineations were much easier to deal with. From the hardware standpoint, each console iteration was such a sizable leap forward that it was nigh inconceivable such devices were ready to purchase for somewhat reasonable prices. Do you remember all the hullabaloo about the PS2 being powerful enough to run a space shuttle or something? That may have been mostly nonsense (it was before anyone realized that space shuttles are by necessity easy to power and manage), but it was still in stark contrast with the fact that the PS1 would not have been capable of doing the same. When we doubled the memory in each Nintendo console, it was a big deal. We couldn’t believe that suddenly so much was capable in our video games.

We went from 2D to fake or limited 3D to full-on 3D to…what? We hit 3D and then did what? Those previous jumps were enabled by these hardware improvements and facilitated our definition of what made a console generation: just look at what our games are capable of. But now that there is just about no limit to the correspondence of what we want and what we can make, that dividing line becomes much harder to find.

Motion controls helped, but that was a trope. 3D displays were mostly a novelty (look at its sudden disappearance from CES). The defining trait of this seventh generation might be that this was when we were sated. Obviously technical specs will be improved and the like (the Wii U is a fucking haus compared to the Wii), but for the most part, this is like how few people will notice or appreciate the difference in using a PC with 32 GB of RAM instead of 16 GB.

And then you throw into the mix mobile games and we’ve got a big ol’ mess. New iOS and Android devices come out so fast that the joke of the phone or tablet you buy today is the one you throw away tomorrow is pretty much a natural law at this point. The devices make such huge jumps in terms of power in such short amounts of time but the games remain compatible, so they have little to no discernible gaps that provide easy definitions. 2009 saw the release of both Canabalt and Angry Birds. Today, we have Joe Danger Touch and Angry Birds Star Wars.

The differences are negligible because on the mobile front, games are distilled and boiled down to their entertainment essence. The additions to the endless runner formula and the Angry Birds formula have obviously come from years of refinement, but any mobile game today could have come out back when iOS debuted and no one would have called witchcraft.

With the rapid rise of mobile gaming and the exploration of its homogenized harvests, the home console counterparts of video games has fallen into the same track of imperceptible generational boundaries that PC gaming has had for years and years and years. PC gaming has largely mirrored home consoles in terms of generational titles since games are often ported to or from the mouse-driven hemisphere. Its interminably and freely upgradable hardware leaves the question of what belongs to where up in the air.

But now that PC gaming has come back up thanks to the help of Steam, it has become less “mirror” and more “peer.” However far PC developers want to push user machines, that’s how far they’ll go. There is no generational gap for them. And since consoles can now operate on a lower magnitude of PC power (instead of distinct releases for the two), people no longer see the console jumps as much as they used to. PC is now an evergreen preview of what’s to come next.

All of this works in concert to muddy the waters; we can no longer see the sharp steps we have to take up to the next generation. It’s all a gentle slope, but it’s kind of amazing no one has even asked whether or not we need to take the journey. Obviously we do, but sooner rather than later, the answer may change to obviously we don’t. It’s a question of how much longer will our aspirations outstretch our means.

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