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Yesterday, I came home from a long day at work, changed into comfortable clothes and proceeded to boot up my PS4. After searching through Netflix for something to watch, I came across a show entitled “Black Mirror.” Being from the States, I hadn’t heard of this show but after learning it’s premise, I was intrigued. This show presents a new story each episode, questioning whether or not technology can ruin our lives. Now stick with me, if you are on this site at all, you are probably just as fond of your tech toys as I am. But as I watched Episode two of this series entitled “15 Million Merits” I was disturbed on various levels, and forced to question my hobbies and even some of my career choices.

*MINOR SPOILER ALERT*

If you wish to watch this episode with no prior knowledge, go watch it and come back! I will try to convey the premise and certain talking points, but I will exclude major narrative points!

An unknown man stirs from sleep, his room covered from floor to ceiling in monitors. A subtle animation begins to play all around him, as a virtual sun rises. A chicken then jumps onto a fence post, and begins to crow. He swipes in the air at the chicken projected on the screen, his alarm. He sleepily walks out of the brightly lit room to prepare for the day ahead. Apps and commercials flood his bathroom mirror as he trudges through his morning routine. A brightly glowing number is present on every screen he encounters, the number of merits (currency) he has. Everything costs merits, the toothpaste dispensed for his morning brushing, even skipping the obnoxious commercials on his bathroom mirror. His face is a mask of boredom and apathy as he makes his way to work. He and a few others spend their day pedalling a stationary bike day in and day out, generating power. In order to distract workers from what would be an utterly boring task, screens before the riders offer an array of entertaining content, drawing the first parallel to our own world.

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Before the rider, is a dashboard that looks eerily like something from the old days of the Xbox 360. An avatar stands next to the streams of content, known as “Dopples” (oddly similar to avatars or mii’s). The rider swipes, using motion controls similar to Kinect, through each stream channel filled with content ranging from silly reality shows to humiliating game shows.

After a hard day of cycling, our protagonist can be seen laying in bed, the walls of his room aglow with more programming. Reality TV commercials depict a lavish life of excess, and appear to be the only way to escape working day in and day out. Skipping these commercials would cost Merits. After skipping yet another commercial he engages in some gaming, a first person shooter. We can see that his Merits decrease yet again, paying for the game to be streamed to his home (Similar to services such as Playstation Now).

Having provided this context, and hopefully convinced you to watch a really good show, I come to my point. In ushering this A la cart take to gaming, have we slowly shackled ourselves to a system of nickel and diming? Have we created a gaming world where we are sold customize-able hat packs and DLC that carries little to no actual value? Are we spending too much money on virtual content, spending real world time and currency on objects that don’t even actually exist? Are we overly monetizing our virtual worlds as much as our real one?

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Gaming is not the only medium being streamed or consumed digitally. Services such as Netflix have killed the family movie collection, and Itunes and Spotify have helped us get rid of massive CD towers (although perhaps that was good for the best). Ownership has basically died, as a trade up for the ability to carry massive music, video, and Ebook libraries in your pocket. Is this trade really worth it? In one shining example of the problems digital goods can bring, gaming publisher Konami has recently overstepped a rather large boundary. For those unfamiliar with this recent event, Konami has made a brutish effort to destroy all traces of a playable teaser, or demo, of a now cancelled project. Titled P.T., this horror packed teaser was hailed by fans and critics alike as a huge milestone in gaming. But sadly, as this project was scrapped, the demo was removed for download from PSN’s online store. While this was saddening, the real betrayal came when P.T. was also made unavailable for those who had previously downloaded it. Normally, players could freely delete applications to make space on their harddrive, with the ability to redownload at will, but at Konami’s request, even this was no longer possible.

What is the alternative then? Game developers and content creators should be paid for their time, they need to eat too. But rather than just meaningless cosmetic upgrades, consumers should demand more. Perhaps developers can even release more tools to their audience, allowing their user to generate their own content, feeding their own gaming community fresh ideas and gameplay. We as users would still be allowed to experience this a la carte freedom of paying for what we choose, but community content creators could be rewarded with even more creative tools, keeping the community vibrant and alive, also freeing up the dev studio to focus on more engaging content.

Perhaps I’m wrong, I am no economist or game dev, but it is food for thought. Is that spiky hairstyle for your avatar really worth those hours at the job you hate?

 

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