The Vita’s Identity Question

In the past week I caught two telling images of Sony’s brand-new mobile gaming device, the PlayStation Vita. The first was a man leaning face-first into the carpeted corner of a GameStop, his back turned darkly to the actual store like a Blair Witch victim, transfixed by something just out of sight. The figure of abject desire, he held a Vita attached to the wall by what looked like an aluminum trachea. The second was my own face in the New York subway hovering atop my Vita’s black widescreen, my eyes downturned in focus and my hands gripping the left and right sides of the device in the wishful claw that is rapidly becoming an outmoded gesture—the clammy grip that gamers have, since the first home console, tightened around plastic controllers to cast lightning bolts, fire submachine guns, throw hadoukens, and save princesses.

This gamer grip, still invoked by the fat curves of the Xbox 360 gamepad and the black prods of the DualShock 3, is a sign of identification with the hardcore, another quaint idea that I assume will soon join the ranks of cyberpunk and the Information Superhighway. This is the idea that to play games is to be swallowed whole in a lifelong pursuit of playing games better (Vita is Latin for “life”). David Cronenberg brought the term to its risqué endpoint in his 1999 film eXistenZ, in which futuristic gamers play by plugging big fleshy gamepads straight into their spinal cords. Unlike most films about virtual reality, the point of interest here isn’t the sharp part that penetrates the skin, but the naked part that is caressed by the hands, which undulates with a horrible muscular sensuality.

Recently on this site Jason Johnson wrote about the many images conjured by the term “gamer,” from slackers to escapists to losers to criminals and crazy people. United primarily by their grip, these gamer archetypes are otherwise at odds with each other. But the image cast by the Vita is unambiguous. It’s how Johnson characterizes those gamers who “live life in the fast lane,” the “self-destructive bad boys” who are the technologically enabled cousins of bikers and unapologetic drug users. Less flatteringly, it’s every commercial photograph that depicts you, the device owner, as a casual Friday male with spiked hair who teeters on the edge of his couch, threatening to be yanked straight into the racing game on the television so long as his hands grip the controller. His face is frozen in shock, though we can distinctly apprehend a smile buried within his gaping mouth. In the horror movie The Ring, people die of fright from watching an unimaginable videotape. Turn their twisted death masks upside-down and you have the face of this gamer.

This is clearly not a selling point, but a cultural stance that emerges from holding and playing with the Vita. It is partly a response to Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which challenge Sony in two areas close to its heart: hardware and gaming. An iOS game like Cut the Rope, Temple Run, or UFO on Tape, which can be conquered with the tip of one index finger, or a simple turn of the wrist, embodies Apple spiritual guide Dieter Rams’ mandate to produce “as little design as possible” in order “to leave room for the user’s self-expression.” The industrial designer, concerned by the world’s “impenetrable confusion of forms, colors and noises,” would probably be repulsed by the Vita’s directional pad, two joysticks, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, front touchscreen and rear touchpad, gyroscope and accelerometer, and twin cameras, as well as its digital and physical library of apps that range from Uncharted to Facebook. And its size and heft and inability to be understood fully in less than half an hour, or mistaken for something plainly functional and not hardcore.

The Vita’s argument is that playing videogames is an intrinsically complicated act, that a surplus of control is needed to achieve some kind of gaming fidelity. It’s rather convincing. Giving the device the subway test, I find not only my hands, but my whole body wrapped around the Vita as if it were a cello. Pressing one button twice, to bring a tiny golfer to swing her golf club, uncovers a healthy resilience like thick overgrown grass. I suddenly wonder why I had thought the iPhone’s inscrutable touchscreen to be enough. (For what?) That device’s single Home button, with the smarmy square-fitting-inside-a-circle, is unmasked as a vulgar necessity, Apple’s admission that apart from not doing unneeded things with buttons, we also deeply need to be able to press a button. The Apple grip, holding the device with one hand while scratching distractedly at its face with the thumb, stinks of bourgeois idleness. Meanwhile the Vita indulges me in the power of operations, its horizontal rectangle a formless antidote to the iPhone’s vertical monument to good form. On the screen is Super Stardust Delta, a game in which I jam the two joysticks into my thumbs to shoot glitter and sparks and whip out what is best described on a family site as a hot-pink flaming lasso. The drum & bass soundtrack clocks in at 170 beats per minute. I imagine my hair growing and sharpening into a golden mohawk worthy of Goku and Super Sonic. This is what the Vita does to you.

Games must be allowed to be the dumb facts of virtual soccer and televised basketball and BrickBreaker on the Blackberry and Hangman on the Kindle, and no more. 

I am so rapt in my game that I miss my stop. In fact, I missed it while watching the futuristic racing game WipEout 2048 load the next race track, crawling in single digits from zero to 100 percent, the six blocks between New York University and Union Square. I suddenly realize that no one in transit has time for a loading screen. And while there is a nihilistic pleasure in being able to do literally nothing but play games, there is also an awkward insistence to the act. “You’d better sit down for this,” the Vita says, because you won’t have any hands free to hold on to the pole when the conductor rams the brakes or Nathan Drake almost trips on a South American rope bridge. Just as awkward are some of its cultural reference points, which channel the false hipness of The Matrix in 1999: the establishment reading of more provocative texts. WipEout in 1995 coasted on the electronica wave; by 2012 that’s aged into overdriven douchebaggery. Lumines Electronic Symphony, a flashy puzzle game that purports to elicit synesthesia with second-rate Chemical Brothers songs, is equivalent to an Astoria cafe bar in which no surface is not lit from beneath by a pink or purple lightbulb. Forget the mirrorshades. Where’s the tanning bed?

By far the best game in the Vita’s early life is FIFA Soccer, a game about playing soccer with buttons. The technological flash is mostly reserved for FIFA’s opening menu animations; and the game that proceeds is soccer on a screen, as seen by a distant sports camera while heard from the field. Held at a fixed length from the players, each a centimeter tall, I am transfixed by the clarity of the game rules, which recede as individual positions, players, and people take their place between my hands. The graphical and gaming fidelity of the Vita, in other words, is not flaunted but merely sufficient—a medium on which games may exist without emphasis. This is vital. Games must be allowed to be the dumb facts of virtual soccer and televised basketball and breaking bricks on the Blackberry and Hangman on the Kindle, and no more. That is when we can recall the naive fantasy of portable gaming was not to be trapped in 960 x 544 resolution but to have a controller with a screen on it.

Image via The Plasma Pool