Maybe it’s because a teraflop sounds like something you’d use to satisfyingly slap a person’s cheek – like a wet fish – but we really like to fight over our consoles’ specs. Much has been said about the technical abilities of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X, but it’s the value of the cheaper machines – and the services they offer – that for many is more important than size or horse-power.
Wealth isn’t a topic that we talk about enough in gaming, yet it’s one of the core questions our head asks our heart when buying a console – “can I afford this?” For those who might have sighed and answered “no,” the Xbox Series S opens a route into this new generation of play and takes a step towards a larger pool of game-makers who will help shape what comes after.
To recap: The Xbox Series S retails for $299. It has reduced specs, but while you won’t be able to run games at 4K, you can play next-generation games for $100 less than Sony’s cheapest offering. That’s huge.
While it’s impossible to resell the One S’s digital-only games, there’s Xbox Game Pass, which lets you play over 100 games (including new games on launch day from studios like Bethesda) for just $9.99 a month. That’s cheaper than most phone contracts. Throw in Xbox Access, which enables players to spread the cost of their new Xbox with monthly payments that grant access to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and you have incredible value-for-money.
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If you’re a student, single parent, or anyone else with a more limited income, Xbox has opened a door for you to experience cutting edge console gaming where you otherwise might have been shut out. Step through that portal, and those hours spent exploring worlds carved from code might set your mind sketching the blueprints of a game of your own. Level Designer at Cardboard Sword Erin Harrison, who grew up in a working-class household, tells IGN, “My limited access to games consoles meant that it didn’t click for me until very later on that the games industry was a viable career path.” It was only by watching free Let’s Play content on YouTube that Harrison was finally introduced to the fact that gaming is capable of “blockbuster” stories beyond mobile and free-to-play games, and that meant a job existed somewhere writing them.
The notion that the games industry has few working-class developers isn’t just conjecture, the research backs it up. Our talent funnel feeding the gaming workforce has many roots that start in childhood, and data proves that a higher-than-usual proportion of game developers come from wealthier families. The UK’s games trade association, UKIE, surveyed British studios this year and found that 12% of the industry workforce attended a private school, which is nearly double the national average for employees in a given field.
The census went further, revealing that 62% of video game professionals grew up in households where the main earner worked in a middle-class managerial role. That’s higher than nearly every other creative sector – including film and TV – and eclipsed only by those working in professions like medicine and law.
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There’s no denying that gaming has traditionally been an expensive hobby, and it seems that those who had parents who could fund their fun are the ones turning a hobby into a career. Technology access has a huge impact on teenagers choosing where or whether to pursue higher education. A seventeen-year-old from a low-income family who’s never owned a games console will have less information to decide whether to study game design than a child who’s grown up with an Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and/or a powerful family PC. The trouble is, according to the data, that degree is needed to carve a path into the industry. 81% of the workforce holds at least an undergraduate degree, rising to 88% for core games production roles in art or programming (as opposed to fields like marketing or QA). This is considerably above the 57% average for other creative industries. Of course, it’s possible to get into gaming as a career well into your 30s or 40s, but with such a high proportion of development jobs requiring a degree, the choice facing 17-year-olds around the world of whether to go to university is heavily weighted – and heavily influenced by their families’ circumstances.
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One small step to fixing these skewed scales, then, is to have consoles that even families on a budget can splash out on. Harrison says that “affordable, accessible consoles will widen the pool of who aspires to be a game developer, and in turn, will boost the diversity on our teams, and the narratives we choose to develop and shape for players.”
Of course, solutions like the Xbox One S are just a small tweak to the industry. There are many other deeply-ingrained reasons why, if you’re from the working-class or low-income area you’re unlikely to make video games for a living. Starting wages in studios are often low, making it difficult to pay back the student debts required to get the necessary degrees. Early work experience and internships are not always paid – especially at smaller studios under less public scrutiny – yet many games companies are based in cities where affordable housing is scarcer and living costs are higher. Here, those who have access to a parental bank account stand a much greater chance of staying afloat.
Then there’s the fact that before even getting to a studio, sparking a new generation of game developers requires tools. In some ways, it’s like a teenage Jimi Hendrix being able to pluck away at a guitar in his teenage bedroom and hone the skills that would place him on global stages. Chella Ramanan is a narrative designer at Massive Entertainment, the makers of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and points to the importance of having technology like Raspberry Pi in low-income schools. She argues that free Unity, Twine, and Unreal engine tools allow more people to experiment and make their own games at an early age.
“There’s a disconnect between playing games and understanding it as an industry with a viable career path,” she says. “That’s something we need to be better about communicating as an industry by working with schools and educators.”
Both Ramanan and Harrison agree that making PC gaming more affordable would mark a significant step in closing the wealth gap, even more so than cheaper game consoles would. “Why? Necessity,” says Harrison. “Every family needs a good PC, but every family does not need a games console.
“If you want the low-income players you’ve suddenly garnered to sustain their dream to be a game dev long term,” she says, “invest in supplying them with the tools to make games – PCs, laptops, a stable WIFI connection. Our luxury industry demands skills taught on luxury tools, yet we shake our shoulders at why the workforce isn’t diverse enough.”
In the UK, some steps are being taken to close that gap. The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) is a non-profit organization running programs like Digital Schoolhouse, which offers children free creative computing workshops inside their primary school. It works to empower their teachers to deliver lessons on [subject examples] – even coming up with creative pen and paper workarounds if the school doesn’t have the finances for tech. There are currently 60,000 students being supported by the program.
Of course, one of the best ways of equipping the schools with the proper equipment needed to teach the specialised skills required for game development would be through donations. UKIE encourages UK games studios to give old computers to schools to help bridge the technology divide. Some schools only have a few ancient PCs available for the entire student body, but since game studios have to upgrade their development equipment to the latest models every couple of years, why not give the old units to students who could really use them?
Digital Schoolhouse’s Director, Shahneila Saeed, told us “Giving children access to devices they might not have at home in their schools is a great way to inspire children from disadvantaged backgrounds to think about a career in games. The industry is constantly upgrading devices. If we donate [the older units] to schools, then we can – even at a small level – play a role in overcoming the huge digital divide.”
Cheaper tech, programs like Digital Schoolhouse, and access to games are important because – at the end of the day – a video game is a cross between a theme park and a lifeboat. It’s a pastime and a reprieve: the funfair that lights up our skies when the nights are darkest. Unlike buying clothes, a car, or some nice spendy scatter cushions for the sofa, buying a game actually makes you a little bit richer. You ‘Press Start’ and become extraordinary: a titan, a superhero, or a raider of tombs. Better access to educational tools, services, and cheaper devices like the Xbox One S – or better yet, an affordable PC – means you’re not restrained by the money in your pocket. Instead, you’re unleashed into virtual worlds to chase the digital horizon – and that experience, that access, might lead you to build your own game along that curve.
Many of the issues facing low-income game designers are baked into systemic problems, like postcode poverty, that reach beyond the games industry itself. But while there’s a long way to go down the path to a deeper and more diverse pool of industry talent, we’re now a step closer thanks to programs like DS and consoles for almost every budget and consideration. Heading into this next console generation – particularly looking at the pricing options for these new machines – neither PlayStation nor Xbox are the winners here; players are.