“So that’s your homework,” said Ben Hoyt of 47Games, then chuckled. This was Friday.
Ben’s been a good friend for years now. I met him back in 2006, when he was working for EA. I’ve never known anyone who can deconstruct a game as skillfully as Ben; he’s made for this industry. He’s a ludic genius. We don’t hang out enough – he lives in California and I live in Michigan and we only see each other at conferences. My homework was to get a copy of Halo 4 and play it, because we’re planning to record a podcast on the Mass Effect series and he wants to add a discussion of Halo to it, since they’re both epic sci-fi shooters and we’re going to contrast them.
I haven’t even completed the first part of my assignment (get a copy of Halo 4) – I was going to do so today. But last night I thought I’d fire up the old 360 and watch some Netflix, only to see a painfully familiar series of blinking lights on its display.
This is my seventh Xbox 360. Seventh. The first started returning “Disc Not Readable” errors during my play of Dead Rising. The next five died the usual way – red-ringing out of the blue. This one here I’ve had for a couple of years, and I’d recently – like, in the past three days – told a colleague that I was pretty sure Microsoft had finally ironed out the problems with the machine. Shows what I know.
Since I’ve been playing mostly PC games recently I can’t recall the last time I turned on my 360, but I’d guess it’s been within the past ten days. Worked fine. I haven’t moved it since then, there have been no electromagnetic storms, the cat stays away from it. Yet there they were, those three glaring ruby eyes, blinking fiercely at me.
I really did. I don’t know why. It was almost manic. I guess it’s because I’m in a position where I could buy a new 360 if I wanted to. My friend Pete has a spare I bought years ago, so I could just collect that one, though we like to get together at his house, connect the two systems, and play games together. Maybe it was the pure ridiculousness of the situation. But I laughed.
Meanwhile, my friend Phil has been through three 360s – or, rather, he’s about to get a third, since his second red-ringed on him a couple of months ago. Phil has steadfastly refused to buy a new one because it’s against his principles to replace a system that broke for no reason. Being a technical fellow, he even took apart his broken machine and followed instructions from the internet to fix it himself, but no luck. But with Black Friday coming up and his kids wanting games for Christmas, Phil’s decided to invest in one of the deals. He’s going to do okay – about $250 for a 250GB 360, a controller, a copy of Skyrim and Forza, and the reasonable conviction that the device won’t blare its furious crimson lights at him for at least six months.
You know what’s funny? I wrote an exasperated article about 360 failures for The Escapist five years ago. And in it I made clear my contempt for Microsoft’s shoddy hardware; for its shoddy customer service; for its shoddy treatment of people in general. Let’s not forget that Xbox 360s – along with many of your favorite consumer devices – are manufactured at Foxconn, a slave camp responsible for everything from torture to withholding needed (and promised) medical support to – if you don’t want to put too fine a point on it – murder, given that workers have turned to suicide to escape its hellish facilities. That western consumers have not revolted en masse against Microsoft and Apple alike for refusing to change manufacturers is a black mark against us and our supposed love of freedom and humanity.
I am not angry for myself, 37 years old and in a financial position where I could go out and replace my 360 today. Sure, it’d be a waste, but I’ve spent more money on stupider things in the past.
I am not angry for the legions of 360 owners who’ve seen those damned red lights.
I am angry for the Child Steerpike, the little boy who had a Nintendo (a device that steadfastly refused to break even though I blew on cartridges and pounded it when I lost a game and still sits in my parent’s basement and would loyally work fine if I hooked it up today after two decades among the dust and darkness and neglect and spiders). I am angry for the kids who can’t go out and get themselves a new 360 on Black Friday or any other day. I am angry for the children and grown-ups who are screwed when the lights go red.
When I was little my parents were pretty darned understanding about my obsession with video games. They may not have understood it, per se, but they loved me and tried to understand me, and they knew it mattered to me so it mattered to them. Even so they wouldn’t have understood how lost I’d have been had my Nintendo broken, how helpless and rudderless it would have rendered me because I would have been powerless to fix the problem. Now, powerful, I can fix the problem with three clicks of a mouse, so I feel not for me but for those who can’t. Maybe I laughed last night because when I was a kid I would have cried.
My vacuum cleaner also broke – not last night, about a month ago. I have never treated it very well. It was responsible for cleaning up cat vomit despite a clear warning in the instructions not to use it on fluids. When it died I banged it against the floor a few times, and when it refused to start again after that clear message I went to Woot and bought myself one of those Dyson ones, whose pretentious commercials advertise “no loss of suction,” whatever that means, instead of taking my old Eureka vacuum to one of the repair shops we inexplicably have around here. First thing I used it to slurp up? Cat vomit. So far so good. It has no lights, so nothing can blink redly at me, at least.
I wish I could take a stand and say I won’t be buying a new 360, but I probably will despite the fact that the device is at the end of its life, despite the fact that it’ll be my eighth, despite Foxconn and Microsoft’s contempt for building things that work. I’m in the middle of Darksiders 2, you see. And I don’t like the PS3’s Netflix interface… though I must add that I’m still only on my first PS3 and when the 360 died last night I turned it on and put in my Watchmen DVD (my actual DVD player hasn’t been hooked up for years, it just sits on its shelf because otherwise there’d be an empty space there, creating asymmetry).
I am tired of you, 360. I am tired of buying new things because old ones break. I doubtless sound like a curmudgeon, but when I was a kid stuff didn’t break unless you broke it. My 360 hadn’t been touched, yet when I hit the button on my remote, there were those scarlet eyes, pitilessly glaring at me.
My seventh 360 doesn’t say something about itself, or about the complexity of modern devices, or about Microsoft or about Foxconn. It says something about us… because sooner rather than later I’ll probably have an eighth, and I have no one to blame for that but myself.
I’m sorry, Ben, we may have to just talk about Mass Effect. Unless my headset breaks.
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