The Xbox One: the ultimate platform for ignoring gamers

New Halo, new MGS, new Dark Souls… so why did the Xbox One launch feel so empty?

Microsoft kicked off its 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo press briefing on Monday with a showcase focused almost entirely on its new home console, the Xbox One. The company unveiled the new system last month at its Redmond campus in Seattle with uncharacteristically little fanfare, choosing instead to focus on a straightforward approach that highlighted the company’s biggest push yet for taking over the living room.

Unlike its predecessor, the Xbox 360, which has been on the market for almost eight years, the Xbox One’s focus is not solely on games. Microsoft made this abundantly clear when it dedicated almost half of the Redmond showcase to talking about television. (A sore point for the Xbox’s longtime gaming consumers, who hadn’t anticipated this change in strategy.) The Xbox One’s numerous television services and applications – which include live television streaming, a TV guide that integrates video-on-demand results with currently trending shows and an application called “snap mode”, which allows side-by-side multitasking like internet searches or the ability to make Skype calls through the console, all without the need to pause whatever is streaming – appear to be driven by the desire to appeal to a new kind of modern family, one whose diverse interests and short attention spans make it hungry for an all-inclusive entertainment solution that takes advantages of modern technologies like voice and gesture recognition and cloud platforms. This is the box, Microsoft is telling its consumers. There’s no longer any need for all the other stuff cluttering your television cabinet. Of course, believing in this vision requires consumers to put a lot of faith in Microsoft.

But – for gamers especially – this is no longer as easy as it may have once been. Last week, Microsoft announced a series of restrictions for the Xbox One, starting with the news that the new console will require an online “check-in” every 24 hours when playing games, the justification for which appears to be a need to ensure consumers still own the licenses for the games they bought. The second restriction concerns the idea of ownership: with the Xbox One, individual publishers will get to decide whether they will allow their games to be traded and resold between consumers, and whether a fee will be required to do so. This last point is a particularly thorny one for gamers: it means they’ll no longer be able to really think of the games they own as their own exclusive property, more like extended loans.

It’s for this reason perhaps that Microsoft made no mention of television, digital rights management or game ownership at its E3 press conference on Monday, instead focusing entirely on software in the hope to finally win over anyone who still remained skeptical. There was the announcement of continued support of the Xbox 360, including a hardware redesign, upgraded Xbox Live memberships and three new games including World of Tanks and Dark Souls II. There was a long-awaited glimpse at Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 5 and reveals of new gaming franchises from Crytek, Remedy and Insomniac Games, as well as Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall. There was the news that Microsoft Points are finally on their way out, to be replaced by real-world currency.

Even Microsoft’s flagship crowd-pleaser Halo made an appearance: a new title coming in 2014 and a reaffirmation that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is teaming up with Microsoft’s 343 studio to create a live-action Halo television series for the Xbox One. But ultimately, the showcase was as predicable and disappointing as the initial Xbox One reveal, where, after switching focus from television to games, Microsoft reaffirmed its commitment to financial interests above artistic ones with lengthy demonstrations of top-selling franchises like Call of Duty, Forza, FIFA and Madden. There was no mention then of the all-inclusive diversity the company has been so careful to associate itself with in the past, no mention of how it plans to support independent developers, casual gamers or anyone whose taste likes outside shooters and sports games. While Monday saw the company showing slightly more interest in convincing gamers it hasn’t forgotten about them, the majority of “exciting” and “groundbreaking” projects it showed off consisted of just more of the same types of games designed appeal to the same core group of gamers, a group that’s no longer an accurate representation of the gaming market, and hasn’t been for a long time. What happened to all that talk about advancing the artform and giving game developers the chance and means to experiment and create new experiences? What happened to trying to push the boundaries of the medium and diversifying the scope of games and the audience that plays them?

Microsoft Studios president Phil Spencer closed today’s briefing by talking about “revolutionizing entertainment”, calling the Xbox One an “ambitious system built for a modern, connected living room.” Only then did he thank “the fans” for their support. The sentiment may just be too late.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.