I don’t usually report on individual tweets, but one tweet from Xbox started off a storm of discourse today, and it got me thinking up some thought bubbles of my own. To get the lede out of the way: the assumption that many people have that subscription services are good for discovering games that a person wouldn’t have played otherwise (particularly indie titles) is vastly over-estimated.
Now, the background: Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Twitter account took umbrage at a Kotaku story about people giving up on Xbox Game Pass. “A drought of AAA games has spurred some to unsub from Microsoft’s games-on-demand service — for now,” the Kotaku article reported.
“tell (sic) me you limit yourself to only AAA games without telling me you limit yourself to only AAA games” came the Game Pass response via Tweet, complete with the deliberately terrible grammar and overused snippy catch-phrase that dominates Twitter these days. What a hellhole for intelligent thought and discussion…
I digress. The point here is that Kotaku reported on people being disappointed with the lack of blockbuster content that was appearing on Game Pass, Game Pass made an argument via meme subtext that there’s more to it than blockbuster games. Game Pass wants you to believe that it’s actually a great platform for independent and B-tier games, and just like that we had the recipe for the day’s discourse.
A lot of people came out in support of the argument that Game Pass lacks blockbusters, and a lot of other people came out in defence of it. I couldn’t care less about that argument. What I did see as well, was a lot of people using an argument that I see repeated frequently as a glowing recommendation for the value of Game Pass and other subscription services. It is, to paraphrase, this argument: “I would never have played X, Y, and Z indie art game were it not for Game Pass, and therefore Game Pass is a great service.”
As I said, I’ve seen this perspective rolled out a lot over the years, and it’s never sat well with me, though I’ve never been able to articulate why. The more I thought about it today, though, the more I think I know what it is: putting aside the concerns I have about the commodifying impact that subscription services have (I’ve argued that in the past and that’s beyond the scope of this piece), there’s the assumption that making art accessible in the specific no-effort way that subscription services do is an inherently good thing.
I don’t think it is.
When someone says “I would never have played this game were it not for Game Pass, but I did and I loved it,” it’s not so much an anecdote about how the platform helped the audience find a game they loved. Rather, it’s highlighting that the audience wasn’t motivated to find the game. Think about it: the whole value proposition of Game Pass and other subscription services is that they make content effortlessly accessible. In doing so, you don’t need to discover the game for yourself. You don’t need to research whether you’d like it. You don’t need to read reviews, watch videos, visit publisher websites or talk about the game on social media. You see it there (perhaps because the algorithm recommends it to you), you click on it, download it, and play it.
If you loved it, then great. The algorithm got it right. But the question then becomes: why aren’t you discovering games that you love without the big corporation’s sterile algorithms throwing them at you? Why aren’t you out there actively looking for games to play, and why are you passively letting corporations decide what games you play?
Most critically, why are you not concerned that you might be missing games that you would also love that aren’t on Game Pass?
I firmly believe that art has three principal roles in society: Art educates, art encourages thought and discussion, and art creates emotion. If you’re not engaging with an artistic medium on all three levels, then it’s not really behaving like an artistic medium. If all you’re doing is passively consuming content, then all you’re really doing is participating in productised entertainment. You’re not engaging with the arts.
Engaging with the arts means actively participating in it. It means actively going and looking for things that you love and want to talk about. It means taking control of discovery yourself, and it means being truly aware of the scope of what is available out there. The more disengaged we become with an art form, the less we’re motivated to let it challenge us, and the more at risk we are of seeing it as a commodity and no more valuable to us than a Mcdonald’s burger that we eat because we’re peckish. No one researches a Mcdonald’s burger before they hit up Uber to get one delivered. But fine dining? Yes. People do research restaurants, get recommendations about the chef’s specialties and the stand-out items on the menu, and then people talk about the experience.
No one talks about the Mcdonald’s cheeseburger. People went to great lengths to try Peter Gilmore’s incredible Snow Egg masterpiece dessert – I was a tech journalist when it was really big, and companies would book out the restaurant to hold events there simply because absolutely everyone wanted to try this Snow Egg. People wrote entire articles about that dessert. Commoditisation Vs Art.
Do people still say things about games that are on Game Pass? Yes, but it has a different texture and timbre to the discussions around something like Elden Ring, as a game that people needed to “discover” for themselves. It wasn’t algorithmic recommendations that dropped Elden Ring in front of people. It was the fact that people didn’t shut up about it for months on end. It was the massive, Internet-wide discussions in reviews, videos, viral social posts and more that drove Elden Ring. People were active participants in that game before they bought it, as they were playing it, and after they were done with it. People are passive participants in any game they “discover” on Game Pass. They’ll mention it, and perhaps roll it out to prove how great Game Pass is with content. But the level of engagement is just not there and the entire platform is specifically designed around moving you on to the next game as quickly as possible.
So there’s this idea that Game Pass makes discoverability easier. That’s both true and false. It’s true that you need to do less to discover a game that you love. However, it makes discovering games that you would love that aren’t on Game Pass harder. Game Pass discourages you from diving deeply into itch.io or other similar platforms to find indie games that you love. You’ve already got Game Pass. Why should you buy games when you’ve got that? Game Pass discourages you from reading websites to look for new games to play. When you’re not paying for a game, then you don’t really need to figure out whether you’re interested in it or not until after you’ve started playing it. And you can always rely on the algorithm to give you good recommendations. Essentially, the more people get invested in Game Pass, the less exposed they get to anything that isn’t nestled safely within Microsoft’s walled garden, and that is by definition narrowing effect, rather than a broadening, especially given that Microsoft has a vested interest in keeping what you experience narrow and commercially safe.
You don’t really get led down rabbit holes with subscription services. I can give you an example from film. I discovered my favourite film of all time, Chungking Express, by diving down a deep rabbit hole. I don’t remember the precise pathway that got to that film, but vaguely: I remember that it started with me enjoying a Jackie Chan film and deciding that I wanted to learn more about his early work. That led me into the world of Hong Kong cinema (which at the time I knew little about), and being surprised that it wasn’t all action stuff (because, again, at the time I knew little about it). Then, being interested in arthouse cinema and fascinated by this “new” art cinema from Hong Kong, I discovered Wong Kar-wai and, finally, Chungking Express. I have had hundreds of discussions around Chungking Express in the years since.
Meanwhile, Netflix told me I’d like In The Name Of The Father. The algorithm was absolutely right about that. I find the IRA and The Troubles to be a fascinating part of Irish history, and the film is powerful in that regard. I loved watching it. The algorithm knows enough about my tastes to reliable recommend to me films that I will enjoy. But I didn’t work to discover that film. There was no effort there on my part, and subsequently, less engagement with the film. I watched it, enjoyed it, and that was it. It’s considered quite an artistically valuable film, but this is the first time I’ve written anything about it, anywhere.
I’m no psychologist and couldn’t begin to explain what might be the underlying reason for this phenomenon, but I would bet that there is something to it. Because it’s there and easy to observe by casually looking at how people use these subscription services. They very clearly make us passive consumers of content, rather than active participants in the audience role within the arts. This is a problem because it is part of the shift that is taking the medium from art to product, and, to get right back to the original point here, as far as game subscription services are concerned it doesn’t actually help you discover games that you love. Rather, it just limits you from discovering games that exist outside of the garden walls.