Before I begin, a brief advisory: I'm working with a half-baked theory that needs more time in the oven. So if this one's a bit soft in the middle, you'll know why. ;-)
In my interview with N'Gai Croal yesterday we spoke about some of the differences among the consoles, particularly the Xbox 360 and PS3, and how these may reflect differing sensibilities in visual design and aesthetic appeal. I've been thinking about this conversation ever since, and I've been percolating a theory that I'll toss out and then quickly run from the room: My Xbox 360 is a macho man and my PS3 is a sultry woman. I might also say my Wii is a clever child...but I'll save that for another post.
If you're still reading, let me explain what I mean. And remember what I said about the half-baked theory.
Gender, and the assumptions we make about it, play a huge role in the design and marketing of products, from cars to cameras to cosmetics. A product's shape, color, packaging - even the font chosen for the label - all convey a carefully chosen set of messages sent from manufacturer to consumer.
When I look at my Xbox 360 - when I turn it on; when I hold the gamepad in my hands; when I hear the signature startup sound - everything about that experience feels masculine to me. With the exception of its concave casing (its sole bit of softness, echoed in the Dashboard design), the entire aesthetic experience seems designed to deliver an aggressive high-tech charge of energy. The Dashboard separators most of us would call tabs are labeled "Blades" by Microsoft.
Even the logos for the online services convey telling differences.
My PS3, on the other hand, delivers quite a different experience. The softness of the unit's convex lines (there's no way I can do this non-sexually, so I'm not even going to try); the elegant swoosh of color on the XrossMediaBar; the orchestral startup sound; the lightweight Sixaxis controller and the soft feel of its buttons - all communicate an entirely different and, in my view, feminine aesthetic.
Please note that I'm not advocating for an essentialist view of gender here. Men can be soft and women can be hard. It's all good. I'm simply relying on commonly held notions of gender that exist in the marketplace and making assumptions about the audiences these two consoles are aimed at.
Nor am I trying to boil this down to "men play Xbox and women play PS3." Not at all. Gender differences are way more complicated than that, of course. What I am suggesting is that the PS3 speaks to my feminine side and the Xbox 360 speaks to my masculine side.
I'll take my half-baked theory a step further to suggest that we can see these aesthetic differences played out in the games for each system, especially those released for Xbox Live and PSN. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time playing PixelJunk Eden and revisiting flOw, and I've been following coverage of flower, which developer ThatGameCompany describes as a "poem." These games have an unmistakable artistic signature I would characterize as pensive, elegant and graceful - words one might use to describe a woman. Even Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter can be seen as a fluid and feminine take on the shooter genre.
Am I equating "artsy" game with "feminine" game? I guess I am. That, too, could be half-baked.
It's difficult to find parallel or similar experiences on offer at Xbox Live, which focuses much more on action arcade and classic coin-op titles. Recent news from E3 suggests that Microsoft my be trying to soften up the Xbox 360's image with Mii-like avatars and more family-friendly games. But these efforts seem to be focused more on luring the Wii crowd, and it remains to be seen if developers of games like the PixelJunk series will see their work appear on Microsoft's box.
Xbox 360 from Mars, PS3 from Venus. That's my half-baked theory. Does this cake rise or collapse?