Games

Why Do People Care So Much About How a PlayStation 5 Looks in Their Home?

A conversation between two people with different views on what it means to bring a new object into the house.
October 29, 2020, 1:05pm
An image of the PlayStation 5.
Image courtesy of Sony

Several of us at VICE Games now have a PlayStation 5, but there's not a whole lot we can talk about just yet, especially when it comes to games. One thing we can talk about, however, is what it looks like, especially how it fits into our individual homes and apartments.

A new console isn't just a new generation of gaming hardware, it's the moment when you introduce an object into your space. Some people, like me, don't think this is a big deal and aren't quite sure why people are so stressed about what an object will look like on a shelf. (This is separate from the practical concern of whether it will actually fit.)

Other people, like Rob, understand how one's environment is an expression of one's self and influences how they feel about a place they spend so much time in. 

The truth is, not shockingly, more complicated for the both of us, and so we decided to jump past Twitter and spend a few minutes talking through what I meant by my flippant comment on social media:


Patrick Klepek: The truth is, Rob, that design is not my passion. Earlier today, I made a flippant tweet saying the following: "I…don't really understand the obsession over how a console looks on your media shelf." I said this after seeing a flood of tweets and photos of various media folks passionately discussing how the PlayStation 5 looks in their office or living room. I could not care less how the PlayStation 5 looks, because it's a computer that I'm putting on a shelf and then forgetting it exists, except for the times I will use it as a Blu-ray player and need to figure out which button handles eject.

I think the PS5 looks weird and fun, and it's absolutely enormous in ways that are less weird and fun and I think people have legitimate worries about whether it might fit in their home. But I also can't find the energy to care too much about its aesthetic beyond that practical concern. Does it match my furniture? Don't care. Does it look a little awkward? It's a video game machine. That's the end of my feeling on it!

The reason I feel that way is likely because, at my core, I'm a function over form person. It's in my bones. It even explains why, yes, I buy Costco branded scotch because it's cheap. It does the job, and I move on with my life. It's not that I don't care how something looks; it's of course nicer when something looks pleasing and interesting! I also like expensive scotch. But given that I have no control over the PlayStation 5, because it just is what it is is, all I can do is embrace the chaos because everything that's come before this, my personality of embracing function over form, has prepared me for this moment. 

I say this the same week I finally replaced a five-year-old iPhone with a new one, and I picked the cool blue color because it's cool, and then when it showed up, I put it in a case that hides the blue because I'm more worried about the expensive device breaking than seeing the cool blue that I'd picked out.

A lot of people were mad at my tweet. I get it. Sort of. Were you?

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Rob Zacny: On the scale of Bad Tweets, your post didn't really rate and honestly it encapsulated some of the things I like about you, even if I struggle to relate to them. Your capacity to simply tune out form, to boil your relationship with things down to their most functional and pragmatic, is something I find genuinely mysterious and quintessentially Patrick. So I liked your Tweet because I like you, even when you are being your most reductive and obtuse.

I'm wired a bit differently. To the point that I think we experience reality profoundly differently from one another. I can't fully explain or justify why this is, but the spaces I inhabit, the things that fill those spaces, have a huge influence on how I feel and the thoughts I have. When something is wrong, when there's something that annoys me about a space, that is not an observation that I make and then discard. It is like a particle of frustration being fired through the neural supercollider that is a poor attention span, slightly faulty emotional wiring, and a compulsion to solve whatever is bothering me. I look at a thing and think, "I wish that were different." And then hours or days or weeks later it won't just be that thing I see there, but all the things I wish were different, all the little things I meant to fix or accomplish that remain undone or disappointing.

The opposite is also true: when I'm in a space that reflects back to me the things I love, the values and aesthetics that bring me joy, the planning and thoughtfulness behind them, then I'm closer to my best self. My thoughts don't churn, they flow. I'm not surrounded by frustrations, but by possibility. This isn't about good taste or bad: I would wager if you fed an AI a late 2000s Kenneth Cole collection and the first three seasons of Mad Men, it would be able to predict my preferences almost exactly. Or procedurally generate an entire season of Suits. The point is, the fact of liking or disliking an aspect of my experience isn't just an isolated feeling. It alters the experience itself.

Part of that experience is having a decent home theater where I play games. I don't have a large place so my living room doubles as an office and so the entire space is dominated by electronics. Now as laughable as it is to say this, most of those electronics are invisible to me at this point. Even the giant Carver speakers that cover almost half of the wall. I think they're pretty if I stop and contemplate them, but they also fade away and just do what they're best at: producing really nice sound. All the stuff on my TV stand, the receiver, the consoles, the center speaker… all of it's generally boxy and black, but that also means eventually they stop registering as aesthetic objects and are instead purely functional ones. In a darkened room, they disappear even further. They are no-nonsense in the way that you are, in that self-portrait you offered above.

But the PlayStation 5 is not doing that or anything like it. It badly wants to be noticed. You don't care because you are especially indifferent to questions of form, but you're looking at it the wrong way. The PlayStation 5 leads with form. If it fades out of your awareness, that's all well and good, but it should be obvious that the device itself is not intended to do that. So we have to consider its properties as an object that is pointedly trying to summon our attention to it.

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Patrick Klepek: This got me thinking about all the different places I've worked over the years. And in this case, it's not the amount of different publications, it's the physical locations. For a time, I worked both at home and in offices in equal measure, at least until I moved away from California and shifted permanently to working from home. But in the past, here have been some of my "office" spaces:

  • A closet that I could barely fit a chair inside.
  • A dark basement with windows that barely brought light in. 
  • A table that doubled as a desk and was incredibly uncomfortable to sit next to.
  • The back room of my mom's house, where my wife and I had desks next to one another, because it was the only space to be away from my mom. She spends her days on meetings, I spend my days trying to write into a blank document space. 
  • And finally, the house that I currently reside in, where I have more space than I know what to do with.

None of those were ideal places to think and write, yet I found a way to make it work. I had to.

On top of all that, some context: during my 20s, my wife and I moved almost every year. This was partially driven by circumstances, like having to move for a new job, and partially driven by knowledge that we would, eventually, head back to the midwest and start a family. We wanted to experience different neighborhoods and cultures, so our apartments were never precious, furniture was never considered beyond whether it could survive a move. And even if it shouldn't, could you find a way to prop it up and make it survive? We kept some IKEA furniture going for far longer than it should have.

Anyway, this is all to point out what you already did, that I've conditioned myself to survive and thrive in environments where I've ceded what I can control in favor of what's most effective. It's been a hard habit to break now that I have a house, where I've run into a different problem: you have infinite time to customize a house, so you can find a million reasons to never, ever do any of that personalization!

You're right that the PlayStation 5 asks to be looked at, demands attention, as such, invites critique and understanding. Where I break is that I have no choice over the PlayStation 5. It just is, and as such, the fact that it looks ugly is something that needs to embraced: "Look at this garish object," I cackle. Look at it!" I can choose which entertainment stand goes in my living room, I can change the color of the paint on the walls, I can pick exactly the right poster to compliment the theme of a certain room. With the PlayStation 5, it's either one with a disc drive or one without? (At least with Xbox, you can choose to have an Xbox Series S, which I believe to be the coolest device of the next-gen lineup.)

I also do not think we can separate the reaction, and equally the divisive reaction to my own tweet, from the emotional attachment imbued in generational transitions. Unlike a new phone, which at this point has become an incidental event based on when you drop it enough times to make it useless, the buying of a new console is a transition. It's meant to be a big moment, one weighty and important, even if the reality is that you're spending money on objects you can't do much with yet. But because we've all spent decades experiencing these transitions, especially older ones where things truly did change monumentally from one piece of hardware to the next (i.e. 2D to 3D), there's this psychological expectation that we're bringing into our homes a vital, important object. I have to care how it looks.

The reality, though, is that gaming hardware is pretty quickly becoming like phones, too. Incidental.

Rob Zacny: Ah but see our history of workspaces and living spaces is shockingly similar! The difference is that you accepted each space as-is in order to function. I became even more particular because the constraints were so severe. If I'm going to be jammed into a poorly ventilated closet with a small desk and a too-large gaming PC, by God it's going to be my closet. The lack of space, the lack of escape, only made it more imperative to customize. I think that's why whatever fussy tendencies I had before I left home, they've only gotten stronger here in my thirties.

But you've put your finger on just the thing: you don't have a choice. Whatever bowerbird nesting ritual you've performed to create a cheery little living room setup for yourself, Sony just dropped a white and piano-black sculpture into the middle of it  and gave you the following two choices: do you want Pixar Orthanc towering over your living room or would you rather have a small scale-model of a technology HQ corporate park lying in the middle of it? I might also suggest this isn't purely an aesthetic consideration: do you find handling the PS5 itself a bit odd? Every time I pick it up to move it, I feel like I don't have the best grip on it and I never trust that plastic shell not to just break off in my hand. As imposing as it looks, it feels kind of insubstantial.

Having said all this, I think it's time to confess that I kind of like the absurdity of this thing for the reasons you describe. I am still not sold on the notion that we needed a new hardware generation (so much as we needed to bury the launch PS4 and Xbox One). There are so few games available in this launch window that can make a convincing argument that there are new experiences to be had that simply were not possible with the old hardware. And so there is something aspirational about the PS5. They could have made a box like the aggressively utilitarian slab that is the Series X, a device whose pointed functionality gives lie to its unobtrusiveness and calls almost as much attention to itself as the PlayStation. But instead we get these odd flowing lines, this attempt at evoking motion and flow from an everyday object that will likely sit steadily accumulating dust and fingerprints as we all get used to it and it becomes just one of the machines we play out games on.

This console transition doesn't really feel like it's that important for the form of games, even if it's going to be crucial for the industry of games. But you're right, this is supposed to feel important. A new hardware launch should feel like it matters to the people buying the new stuff. And so, as misbegotten as it may be, I find the PS5 endearing. It's self-important, in a way I can recognize, laugh at, and sympathize with.