Xbox Live as a social network site?

On: October 8, 2008
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About Stefan Keerssemeeckers
New Media Ma Student, Games journalist, coffee-addict. More after the jump!


While my own Xbox 360 is still being repaired, a hapless victim of the dreaded ‘Red Ring of Death’, gamers everywhere are using the console’s social network programme called Xbox Live. Rightly so, I might add. Microsoft’s Xbox was the first gaming console to add an online social aspect to videogames. How does Xbox Live measure up against Danah Boyd’s (with capital ‘D’ and ‘B’) definition of ‘social network sites’? Microsoft’s marketing blurb is certain: It’s a social network!

First, let’s take a look at Boyd’s definition. “We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.”

Xbox Live is an online social service, part of which is accessible via a website. The lion’s share of the application is available through the Xbox and uses an internet connection but is not really ‘web-based’. It’s features are: a friends list, the possibility to see the friends of your friends (although you can turn this option off to protect your friends from unwanted attention), view trailers, download demo’s of new games, extra’s for existing games, invite friends to play together, voice chat, video chat, recommend games to your friends, etc. It’s a paid service you can activate with a credit card or a pre-paid scratchcard for about 60 euro’s a year.

The bounded system and the (semi-)public profiles are in place. Every user shares a connection by default, they are all in possession of an Xbox 360 and presumably like to play videogames online. The friends-lists of their friends, or even the people they ‘recently played with’ are open to explore. Where Xbox Live differs from most other social networks is in the fact that messages are being sent on a one-to-one, or one-to-many basis. It’s possible to communicate with each other directly but the messages that two other friends are sending towards each other remain private. Xbox Live forms a sort of ‘Microcosmos’, controlled by Microsoft, with players doing stuff that Microsoft allows them to do. In a sort of Machiavellian way, this makes it very difficult for gamers to form coherent groups as well. Plus, now and then a new patch is forced unto the users. Gamers with a ‘modded’ Xbox, that can play copied games, find their consoles made useless by the software upgrades. In a sense Xbox Live thus assumes that every user is an enemy.

Future updates will introduce an Avatar-system and the possibility to share pictures with your friends, broadening the social network aspects of this service. Although the functionality of Xbox Live is working very well, I actually have some mixed feelings about the system.

Online play via Xbox Live is a very important aspect of owning an Xbox 360. Multiplayer settings are an important feature in a lot of videogames. Without a Live-subscription it’s impossible to access these features, although a free ‘silver subscription’ is available for everybody which allow you to send messages to other gamers but not play with them. It seems that Microsoft is selling a half-baked system that comes to life through a payed subscription. Paying 60 euro’s a year lets you use a broken social tool within a constrained system. It’s impossible to ‘add’ anything to the social network, except for recommending stuff Microsoft put on it. As a thanks you’re being monitored, and considered a troublemaker by default. It’s Foucault’s Panopticon on steroids. It has to be said: MSN Messenger is integrated into the Xbox Network. The problem is that you can’t play games while using it, it takes forever to compose a message with the controller and the specially developed ‘Messenger Kit’, a miniature keyboard that only work if your fingers aren’t bigger than that of an eight year old, will leave you wanting.

As much as Xbox Live is streamlining the online gaming experience, its social network elements seem to be lacking, for now. It’s not all bad news, in the end of this year a new update will implement ‘live chatting with 8 friends at a time’. Although it looks like this means that Xbox Live will make you contact people in your ‘extended network’ better, it’s unsure if it will make the ‘Live Experience’ a bit more like a real social network site.

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