Blog Post

Cloudgaming and Its Consequences

Early last month the OnLive cloud gaming system quietly began operations in earnest. The system is an attempt to re-imagine the gaming industry, harnessing cloud computing technology and the increasing quality of broadband services and networking technologies in U.S. households. It is also a response to various factors in gaming culture: the rise of mobile and social network gaming, the desire to share game videos and achievements, and the general shift toward electronic distribution and away from physical media.

The "Now Era" of Games
In his Dice2010 presentation OnLive founder Steven Perlman suggests that we are entering a new era of instant gaming, which he calls the "Now Era." In the Now Era it is the gaming experience that defines media rather than the device, and the gamer is able to play any game on demand. The problem has been that the physical devices (Xbox360, PS3, Wii, PCs, Macs, NintendoDS, etc.) have controlled the flow of gaming and game design by linking processing capacity to individual gamers and the economy of hardware. With cloud computing the processing is no longer done at the point of gaming - the player input is sent to the cloud and only streaming video is sent back, thereby making any internet-connected screen (with speakers and input interface) a possible gaming site. Here's a visual of how it works from the OnLive blog:

Teaching with OnLive

Gaming in this way will be a potential tool for critical inquiry into videogames in academic contexts, mainly because it is more efficient to assign one device-and-service purchase (viz. OnLive microconsole 100$, play pass 10$/mo) than to purchase 3 or 4 games with diverse hardware requirements (which cause the chaos of troubleshooting across the students' experience and resources). If you have taught or been in a class where a game experience was required you are no doubt familiar with the added labor and frustration of getting everyone on the same page in terms of access and basic gameplay. OnLive streamlines many logistical aspects of teaching games: teach students how to use one system for all the games, all points of reference for discussion are uniform (with respect to controls), as are the game versions they will gain access to. But while tidying up the logistics of assigning games in class is nice, OnLives inclusion of a component they call brag clips will make the difference that matters most (see system menu below).

Brag Clips is a function that allows gamers to record their play at will and archive it in clips for sharing and commenting. This is not a new technology. We in the PC gaming community have used applications like Fraps to do this for years. But there were always the hassles of performance, encoding, and storage all prohibitive to the layman and especially wasteful of a students study time. A one-button solution to the problem of sharing out of class game experiences in class discussions is hereby solved. Furthermore, if OnLive allows for download of these clips, we can imagine students turning in critical writing with embedded video media, or even more non-traditional critical projects like voice-over essays.

Centralizing Control by Decentralizing Processing
One of the ironies of this promising development, though, is that while cloud computing decentralizes processing so that we're no longer tethered to a single processing unit such as an Xbox360, the OnLive system actually effects a greater centralization of computing, and hence, external authority and control. One of the consequences of the possible shift to this type of gaming norm is the elimination of unauthorized interventions into game media, such as hacking, modding, skinning, cheating, etc. This is not new to console gaming, but it is more absolute. Gamers can still hack their consoles and game media because they have "physical" access to the processing unit and storage (of saved games, game code, etc.) . But with OnLive, all of this is remote - what you purchase is a connection to the cloud, its storage, and its sanctioned protocols, but you are afforded no way to manipulate or modify how the game media is processed, or what types of input or output are possible. For example, if one is playing Oblivion on a PC, one can install mods, input cheat codes, or even alter the game files; yet, if one is playing this same game on the OnLive system, one can only manipulate the game media and the way it is processed with authorization from OnLive (and presumably the game companies).

All Pull, No Push
Another consequence (we can imagine many more, positive and negative, than I have outlined above), is that the OnLive system is really a radicalization of the tendency of most networked media toward walled-garden experiences which use the internet but cut off the Web.

Graph from Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff's Wired article "The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet"

OnLive (just like the Xbox Live environment) has a lot of pull - getting players to spend time on their system recording clips, getting achievements, watching others play live, and so on; yet there is no push out to the wider Web the gamer commons par excellence. The reasons for this are obvious in a business context, but in terms of gamer culture Im not sure this is such a good thing.  For one, game culture benefits from its transmediality. Secondly, game criticism (academic or otherwise), counter-gaming (such as modding, hacking), and gamer collaboration (such as game lore wikis, YouTube tutorials) benefit from decentralized computing of game media, especially when the gaming device is connected to the Web, not just the internet. So, I welcome cloudgaming with mixed feelings and a host of implications to reflect on.


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