Nobody games alone anymore. That’s never been strictly the case, anyway. Video games have always been relatively social, despite the old basement-dwelling, Cheeto-stained stereotypes. It’s 2019: we’re all gamers now. Part of that is because video games are more accessible now than they ever have been — smartphones are just tiny consoles! — but another part of it is also that games are more visible now. They go viral just like everything else does. (Honk!) That second bit, however, is relatively new. Games are more visible because the way we share them with each other has changed. And a big reason for that is the PlayStation 4.
It all started with the console’s design. Back in 2010, according to our friends over at Polygon, its designers decided to make sharing a key part of the system’s architecture. In a 2018 interview, designer Toshi Aoki said that a button dedicated to sharing was just an obvious, easy thing to understand. “But more than that, it’s a message for the PlayStation side of things, that users can share out, connect, show other players their epic moments. It just matched up,” he said. And at the time, that wasn’t easy to do without a lot of expensive technology. Aoki and the rest of the team settled on redesigning the PlayStation’s signature DualShock controller as the best way to accommodate the console’s new sharing features. They got rid of the Start and Select buttons and turned them into “Options” and “Share,” respectively. It was a quiet revolution. (“The joke is that Start never starts the game, and Select doesn’t select anything,” Aoki told Polygon.)
Here’s what the button does: when you press Share on the controller, it brings up a menu that allows you to upload screenshots or video clips from the game directly to your favorite platform, share your screen / play virtually with another person on a different PS4 with Share Play, or stream your gameplay directly to sites like Twitch. All of these features (which were absolutely ahead of their time) have since come to be thought of as standard and will almost certainly appear in the next generation of consoles, which are due out next fall.
Even Nintendo, a company typically behind the curve when it comes to the internet, included a similar share button on the Switch. (You have to remember that 2010 was before Minecraft, before Fortnite, before, in other words, the rise of truly social gaming.) At the same time, live-streaming was in its infancy: Justin.tv wouldn’t become Twitch for another year, and YouTube Live was only a few years old.
And now, games are made specifically to be shared. Some of the biggest first-party Sony games — Marvel’s Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn, and God of War, among others — feature robust photos modes designed explicitly to get players sharing. It’s much easier to build attention around your game if it finds its way to memehood.
More than anything else, the act of sharing has defined Web 2.0. Its promise is what’s gotten all of us onto the ostensibly free services the internet giants maintain, and it’s what has given those same corporations their inordinate power over our lives. Sharing thoughts and ideas used to be solidly in the province of IRL. Now, it’s different: the world is being constructed and optimized for sharing — think the now ubiquitous Instagram pop up experience, or, less frivolously, the way mass movements select for visibility through pictures and videos and hashtags. For me, it’s gotten to the point where it sometimes feels like sharing is really just the act of bearing witness in a way. Even though we know “retweets ≠ endorsements,” it does feel like taking a position publicly, one way or another, is engaging with something in a way that’s productive. That has also meant that not sharing something has become a signal.
Performing your tastes in public has also become a large part of the discourse around video games, at least online. It’s a way for people to find each other. (Gamergate is the most obvious, horrifying, and relevant example.) That’s partially because of the deeply human tendency to sort into groups, but it also happens more frequently now because it’s so much easier to find people like you online.
The promise of the internet was that we wouldn’t have to be so lonely. And for the most part, it has borne that out. The PlayStation 4’s Share button is a reminder of how the internet has shaped the world in its image.