Why consoles?

Though I have spent far more hours than I care to admit playing video games, I have never owned a game console. That’s not to say I haven’t used gaming consoles. Over the past two decades various friends and family have purchased all the major consoles from the early NES and Saga platforms of the 80s through to the modern “next gen” consoles of today. So, over the years I have spent time on virtually all the game consoles, from NES to Xbox to Wii, and have had the chance to watch them evolve. Each generation the graphics get a little more intense, the controllers typically get an extra button or two every few years and the game media gets more storage space.

It has been interesting, for me, to get to see gaming consoles evolve from a outsider’s point of view. With each console generation I get a few dozen hours of game play, get to see the interfaces change, but I don’t get immersed in the console culture. I haven’t purchased any consoles or console games and so my opinions on gaming consoles come from a certain place of detachment. Consoles are devices I look at with a certain degree of interest (both as a gamer and a technology enthusiast), but I don’t have any particular attachment to any console or brand.

The majority of my gaming experiences over the past 25 years have taken place on personal computers. I’m not proud or ashamed of that fact, it’s not a part of my identity, but it may help readers to understand where I am coming from when I say: I appreciate why gaming consoles were so popular in the 80s and 90s.

I remember what it was like typing in strings of commands to get a game to work on a PC. I remember configuring and re-configuring the sound card of my computer back in the DOS days. I remember going through menu after menu to get a video card to function. I remember swapping floppy disks during game installations, hoping that diskette #7 of 8 would not be produce an error, causing the whole process to start over. In the 80s and much of the 90s, there were a lot of problems with gaming on PCs. One always had to be upgrading their computer to keep up with increasing hardware demands made by popular titles, early versions of Windows were frequently buggy and crashed, games could be awfully picky about where they were installed and which video card you had.

So I get why consoles were so appealing. It was refreshing to be able to visit a friend’s house, plug in a cartridge and just start playing. No configuring the joystick, no long loading times, no walking through a dozen configuration screens. Console gaming was beautifully simple. At worst one might have to remember which channel the game console talk to the TV on, but that was a small price to pay for a dedicated gaming console that always worked with games designed for the hardware. The financial investment in a gaming console during that time period made a lot of sense as it meant a person did not need to be a computer wizard just to play the latest RPG.

It has probably been about four years since the last time I turned on a console and fired up a game, so I have been admittedly out of touch with consoles and what is considered typical behaviour when dealing with a gaming console. Until this past week. Someone I know went out and purchased a PlayStation and, having heard lots of hype without actually seeing one of the new beasts in person, I sat down to watch the unpacking and first game play of the console. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

During its first hour of use I watched as the PlayStation had user accounts created on it, the console downloaded software updates, applications were installed, an account on the PlayStation Network was created, more applications were installed, more updates were downloaded. Physical discs were placed in the console, a game was installed, more updates were downloaded. Looking back, I’m not sure if any actual game play happened in the first hour and a half.

A feature I took note of was the ability to install music players and a YouTube client on the console. This makes the PlayStation more of a multipurpose entertainment system, which sounds nice, at first. However, the console has a controller much better suited to operating a FPS than searching for YouTube videos. In fact, if a video has a long title it can take about as long to “type” in the name of the video with the controller as it takes to watch the actual video. We also tried playing a DVD in the PlayStation, which didn’t work, the console had trouble with recognizing the disc. (We later tried the same DVD in my computer and it was immediately recognized and played.) Meanwhile, I can pull my phone out of my pocket and quickly access videos, play a couple of casual games, check my messages… and it all goes much quicker on my hand held device than it does on the console.

All of this brings me around to a point (at long last). It seems to me that in the 80s and 90s it made a lot of sense to get a console for games. Consoles were sort of the “point and click” and “just works” technology of their day. But in the past 10-15 years I feel as though the tables have gradually turned. These days I can hook up a new computer, install Steam (or open my application manager) and just start downloading and playing games. I can even install multiple games at once and play one while another is downloading. With my personal computer software updates are handled automatically and downloads can happen in parallel. My personal computer comes with a music player and YouTube viewer built in and they are easier/faster to operate. While sitting at my PC I can quickly shift between multiple tasks while the PlayStation seems to be stuck on doing one thing at a time, or at the least makes switching tasks a bit clumsy. For about the past ten years my desktop computer has “just worked”, for gaming, for productivity, for watching movies, for browsing YouTube and for listening to music. I don’t need to put discs in the PC, I don’t need to pause what I’m doing to wait for updates, I almost never need to sit around and wait for something to finish before I can get on with my game/work/entertainment. I haven’t had to upgrade my computer hardware more than once about every five years to keep up with PC games, which is around the length of a console generation, give or take a little.

Meanwhile, consoles seem to have gone off in the other direction. Switching between games seems to always involve swapping discs, applications for most simple (by PC standards) tasks need to be installed, updates cause things to come to a stop. This makes me wonder, and this is a serious question to you console owners out there: What is the benefit of owning a console? A modern console has a huge number of buttons compared to consoles of the 80s and 90s making them more complex, yet a controller can’t come close to the efficiency of a keyboard when it comes to navigating music or searching for items on-line. The console doesn’t appear to be able to deliver games any faster and it requires more downloading/waiting than what I usually experience on a PC. The days of PC hardware compatibility problems are long gone, in my experience, making dedicated console hardware seem redundant.

I’m not trying to bash consoles, I’m not on a campaign to bring PC gaming to unwashed masses or anything like that. I’m not trying to say consoles are no longer good at what they do. I’m trying to understand the benefit. Why do people these days buy consoles? What does a console offer gamers and entertainment seekers that a PC does not? The prices of both seem about the same for similar hardware, but my PC’s interface (keyboard mouse) appears to be much better suited to most tasks and, for gaming, I can hook a console controller up to my PC, so console hardware doesn’t seem to offer any perks. If you’re a console gamer, please e-mail me and let me know why you bought the latest generation console because I really, honestly, want to know how current generation consoles are preferable to PCs when it comes to gaming experience.

Thank you in advance for your kind responses.