At GDC 2019, Google announced its game-streaming service called Stadia. Pitching it awkwardly as the natural evolution of games and sports stadiums over centuries (watch the announcement video above and judge for yourself), Google is hoping to build an accessible playground for games no matter what device you’re using, the caveat being it needs to be able to run Google Chrome and have a connection to the Internet.
When YouTube Gaming launched in 2015 to compete with Twitch, it seemed like the end game was always going to tie gameplay videos directly to game sales. Under Amazon’s ownership, Twitch gained the ability to buy games you watched streams of, and while game ads and streams have been prominently featured on YouTube, Google hasn’t sold games straight to the consumer…until now.
Google knows a lot about us as Internet users, whether you use Android, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, or YouTube, and along with Amazon, it is one of the major monopolies at the backbone of tech. That Google wants to monetize game streaming further should come as no surprise, as they tout over 50 billion hours of gaming content being watched on YouTube in 2018. I wrote about this last year when rumors swirled about Google’s gaming initiative, but its telling that Google is going to be the company that tries to solve the technical issues behind game streaming effectively, while CEO Sundar Pichai admits in front of developers that he’s “not a gamer.” It seems that from their point of view, Stadia, as ambitious and accessible as it might become, is a necessary way for Google to track all of our habits through big data more easily.
I’ve been catching up on my games backlog and playing Watch Dogs 2. The late 2016 title idolizing a bunch of activist hackers fighting against a surveillance state is a little on the nose against the Stadia announcement. Protagonist Marcus Holloway and Dedsec would probably be working to bring down a platform like this (“They’re stealing your fucking freedoms, man! Fuck!” he says in an early mission). Most of what you do in the game’s missions revolves around bringing down capitalist systems that are mostly fronts to collect and manipulate people’s data in ways not originally intended.
Like a lot of contemporary games, Watch Dogs 2 has an end user license agreement that states that “UBISOFT may collect and store data about You in relation to Your use of the Product,” and that “certain data is recorded, archived, analysed and used to create user statistics.” Not only does the game strip-mine players’ personal information, but places this fine print behind an eff-the-man plot about disrupting intrusive corporate surveillance. Irony much?
I’m not some pearl-clutching Luddite: the quality of video games and accessibility have dramatically improved as a direct result of the industry surveying its players. Yes, it’s resulted in games riddled with microtransactions and ones that don’t really need to be online, yet are connected to servers anyways. But ostensibly this all gave valuable data back to developers that made something like Apex Legends possible, all from the way people played Titanfall 2’s multiplayer. Trophies and achievements have told developers that most players never reach the end of games, so some games have gotten shorter (and usually better) as a result.
Game companies are just now finally getting around to the cloud after tracking all of our behaviors. Whether through Google, Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, Nvidia, or Valve’s efforts, the next generation of games is poised to be a paradigm shift in how we think about owning and playing games. We’ve long been living in a world where disc-based games are really digital licenses and installers for the servers that drive many of our favorite games, but what happens when you don’t even have the hardware? Sure, there won’t be that upfront console cost or worry of your stuff getting broken when a game like Anthem updates, but you’ll also never be able to play anything that appears on the platform when the server gets unplugged.
“The future of gaming is not a box,” according to Google. “It’s a place.” A place where you’ll be able to watch a clip of a game and then instantly play it or even start at the same point in the game of the clip you were watching. A place where streamers will be able to matchmake with viewers to join and play with them on YouTube.
It could also be a place where the data collected under Stadia is used as a cudgel against players. One of Watch Dogs 2’s missions involves Dedsec stealing a smart car, but the car doesn’t recognize Marcus because he is black, a reference to facial recognition software struggling with identifying nonwhite faces. The car actually says it doesn’t have a reference for “black,” to which Marcus retorts: “Of course you don’t.” Imagine if you couldn’t play a game because the algorithm decided it didn’t want you to, either because of something in your profile or browsing history? There is already a precedent for game companies threatening users with YouTube bans and DMCA-related takedowns for streaming parts of games they don’t want out there. It is not hard to imagine access on Google’s platform cut off because you’re using the same device “to watch that porno you like so much,” as Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann mocked on a recent Bombcast.
Worse yet, radicalization on YouTube has had real world consequences and marrying that relationship closer to games’ most violent clips could make things much worse. The Christchurch shooter called out “Subscribe to PewDiePie” before going on to murder 50 people. Did you notice that arguably YouTube’s biggest star didn’t make it up on the content creator portion of Google’s Stadia presentation at GDC? What happens when the dregs of the alt-right shimmy up to a clip of Doom Eternal and use it to justify the next mass shooting? Combining the lack of moderation on YouTube with your game distribution platform creates a recipe ripe for abuse.
This is not to mention the other worries over Stadia. The input latency issue doesn’t seem to be resolved for people on less-than-stellar Internet connections. Also, how much will each game cost? Google is somewhat known for starting tech projects and then abandoning them two years later; will this happen to Stadia? Kotaku has an excellent breakdown of what we know so far and an interview with Stadia boss Phil Harrison. Until more information comes out this summer at E3, this all seems tenuous.
With Stadia as the bulwark for what’s next in gaming, you have to wonder if big data is finally going to make Internet-enabled games ultimately worse for us all. Is it time to create a real-life Dedsec to stop it?