Google Stadia: A new player has joined the platform wars
You either die an information utility, or live long enough to adopt the politics of platforms.
Imagine video games no longer being tied to the hardware boxes they’re designed for, but instead being playable anywhere, on any device. We are supposedly set for this ‘fundamental shift’ in the way gaming content is produced and consumed. Wired announced, “after numerous stalled efforts throughout the ‘00s, cloud gaming is poised for its highest-profile deployment yet (…)”. Microsoft, Tencent and EA are all working on their own platforms, but Google Stadia will be the first one to emerge later this year: “Google’s bet that the next generation of gaming would leave consoles behind and bring people games wherever they were, thanks to the power of the cloud (Wired.com 2019).” Instead of buying and playing on a traditional console, users will stream their gameplay through Google’s cloud infrastructure onto a range of devices.
“With cloud gaming, particularly the idea of compute being sharable across multiple CPUs in a data center, now this transition to gaming being data-centric is going to a really fundamental shift. (…) we said the games are no longer device-centric. Games are data center driven and what that means for developers is a fundamental shift in the way that games are designed, made and played.”Head of Google Stadia Phil Harrison on Variety.com
Revisiting Greenberger’s information utility
The concept of cloud gaming might seem brand new, but interestingly enough, it is not. Let us revisit a much discussed 1964 article by MIT professor Martin Greenberger. In “The Computers of Tomorrow” Greenberger envisions an infrastructure he calls the information utility, a network of distributed computing power connecting users through dumb terminal equipment (Edwards 149). The idea was to provide computing from a giant centralized mainframe, rather like an electric power plant supplied electricity (Campbell-Kelly & Garcia-Swartz 21). “The resulting economies of scale, [analysts] argued, would keep prices low and ensure sufficient computer power for almost any task, provided on demand (Plantin et. al. 300).” This concept saw some success in the following decades, the 1980 French Minitel system perhaps being the best example of an information utility as a public service (Cats-Baril & Jelassi 2).
We can see a clear resemblance in Google’s dream of a ‘Gaming Cloud’. Google builds upon the existing infrastructure of the internet to deliver high quality video game streaming to users. This is typical for a new infrastructure: It does not grow de novo, but builds on an installed base and inherits its strengths and limitations (Star & Bowker 231). The centralized mainframes are Google’s cloud servers and the ‘dumb terminal equipment’ consists of devices most people already own. Martin Greenberger mentions, “Perhaps the most important question of all concerns the legal matter of government regulation. Will the information utility be a public utility, or will it be privately owned and operated?” As we can now see, in the case of Google Stadia the answer is the latter, which comes with its quirks. Looking at Google Stadia as a platform-as-infrastructure and vice versa, as proposed by Plantin et. al., shines light on the crucial role Google plays in shaping this new gaming environment (307).
Neutral facilitator & empowering liberator
“We’ve got this incredible world of players and this incredible universe of creators and viewers of game content,” Google head of cloud gaming Phil Harrison said last week, describing the new service. “And because Google has some unique capabilities in this area, we thought it would be amazing to merge those two worlds together.”Google head of cloud gaming Phil Harrison quoted on Wired.com
By describing Google Stadia’s role as merely a platform connecting players, creators and viewers together, Google positions itself as a neutral facilitator, downplaying its own agency (Gillespie 358). In the interview with Variety.com, Harrison states Stadia breaks through the ‘glass ceiling’ of the box that is game development. Here, instead of downplaying their role, Google trumpets its role as some kind of empowering liberator, battling injustice that apparently held back game developers up until this point. The way Google describes its role follows the politics of ‘platforms’ as described by Gillespie: “[A term like “platform”] is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside particular discourses” (359).
Google’s not-so-neutral role as a commercial platform becomes apparent when we look at the way it handles interoperability with competing platforms. Google announced Stadia will enable cross-platform multiplayer, allowing users to play alongside console and PC users. While this may seem like a breath of fresh air from the walled garden console wars that are still prevalent to this day, reality may be different. As Wired.com notes, on launch Stadia will be playable on Chromecast devices, PCs and laptops through Chrome or ChromeOS, and using the Stadia app on a Pixel phone. This means Apple users will be excluded from using the platform for the foreseeable future: “The platform wars persist, even in the cloud” (Wired.com). On top of that, users will be subject to Stadia’s bandwidth requirements, starting at a minimum of 10 Mb/s. According to research by Akamai only the countries with the most developed internet infrastructures would qualify. So ‘any device, anywhere’ really means: Using Google’s operating system/software, in one of these 14 well connected countries. While the issue of internet connectivity is inherited from the infrastructural base Stadia is built upon, the earlier described platform wars could be avoided.
Shaping forces in cloud gaming
When a huge platform-as-infrastructure like Google Stadia is introduced like a revolutionary, liberating force for all parties involved, we need to be especially critical of the role Google really plays in shaping this new environment. When convenient, the role of the platform is cunningly downplayed. By doing this, Stadia is presented as a neutral facilitator that simply intermediates between its different types of users. In other moments Stadia positions itself as an open platform, breaking the boundaries of traditional consoles – while at the same time building a new walled garden, on their own terms and conditions. As Gillespie concludes, “[a platform’s] choices about what can appear, how it is organized, how it is monetized, what can be removed and why, and what the technical architecture allows and prohibits, are all real and substantive interventions into the contours of public discourse” (359). While Stadia may be revolutionary in the sense of opening up new technical possibilities, it is unlikely to put an end to the ongoing platform wars.
Further research into the emerging field of cloud gaming (e.g. issues of ownership, monetization and governance) is vital in understanding the politics at play.
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