Xbox Is Not Your Friend

Xbox Is Not Your Friend

Xbox, the games industry’s most well-funded publisher and hardware maker, made almost 2,000 people redundant this morning.

I’m not sure if you can visualise what a group of 2000 people looks like. Jump over to Google and have a look for a sec because it’s basically a small army. A mass of human lives, with dogs and kids and parents and hobbies and annoying habits and favourite shows and bills. And now, without a job.

At the time of writing, we are hours out from the latest devastating wave of lay-offs hitting the video game industry. Microsoft announced approximately 1,900 job cuts across its gaming division, including Activision Blizzard, ZeniMax, and Xbox. 8.6% of its colossal 22,000-strong global workforce. It is an unfathomable number of workers impacted by the single stroke of a pen, the news coming by way of a memo by industry darling and head of Xbox, Phil Spencer.

In it, Spencer writes of the “painful decision” being made today, a direct result of Microsoft’s lengthy and highly scrutinised acquisition of Activision Blizzard to the tune of $68.7 billion. Despite historical precedent that such a massive consolidation would likely lead to job losses and a broader negative industry impact, the tone around the merger was largely dominated by vocally supportive Xbox players and commentators. Swathes of people who had been not so subtly directed by years of marketing for such a moment.

In the 2020s, Xbox has been working overtime to curate, project, and enforce a market image composed of good vibes and even better intentions. While its corporate efforts to engulf as much talent as legally possible continued, so did Xbox’s precise infiltration of fandom spaces and some media circles. These two concurrent pushes resulted in a landscape that was, at best, reluctant to discuss the potential harm of its acquisitions and, at worst, actively rejected it because Xbox’s “good guy” image and messaging had so thoroughly seeped into the foundations of shared community spaces and broader gaming consciousness.

It’s the ideation endgame of the console wars, a term I felt physical pain just typing. The us and them, the blue and the green (nobody seems to mind what the red does), the Xbox Community and the rest. This divide is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook, but Xbox has infused it with contemporary internet language and cosy vibes; “How do you do, fellow children?” in a kitten sweater and RGB headset. It ceaselessly pumps out gimmick hardware, ranging from controllers to minifridges to toasters. It uses free marketing arms like the Xbox MVPs to push them, reassuring everyone involved that not only is Xbox in on the joke, but so are you. Its social media presence is awash with cutesy community affirmations and gamer-first hashtags.

ID@Xbox, the self-purported celebratory arm of Xbox’s indie game focus, recently caused a stir by using AI-generated imagery in its holiday season post (now deleted). Meanwhile, Microsoft’s push into AI with Designer was heavily promoted in gaming spaces. Droves of Xbox influencers took to social media to share ghoulish Funko Pop renditions of themselves while Microsoft laid off its entire AI ethics team. And who could forget the #PowerYourDreams campaign that likely saw Microsoft drop half a million on the Las Vegas Sphere to promote the nebulous idea of ‘Wake Up and Dream’, only with an Xbox.

The superficial artifice of Xbox’s brand permeates every corner of video game marketing. It’s an endless parade of phrases that don’t quite mean anything and campaigns designed to romanticise and humanise the company’s seemingly bottomless appetite for growth at all costs. It so successfully emulated the aesthetics of community engagement and industry care that many chose to ignore or excuse its actions despite the clear contradictions.

Blue Check accounts obfuscated concerns over such an aggressive consolidation of workers and IP by espousing recycled Xbox talking points and stitched-together notions of community, as understood by its relationship to explicit and unwavering support for Xbox. “But Xbox needs a way to regain a share of the console market!” “This will actually lead to more job security and creative freedom!” “IMAGINE THE HEXEN REBOOT!”. A world was created in which the very idea of being opposed to the deal was to be effectively opposed to fun, too economically left-leaning, or just a hater. It’s the kind of hearts and minds campaign that would deserve to be dissected for its effectiveness if it weren’t so existentially terrifying. 

Gamers writ large are an enthusiastic bunch, a trait that I often find endearing and intimidating in equal measure. Hype cycles are so easily spun up for the same reason communities so swiftly galvanise. Media coverage, old and new, commercial and enthusiast, perseveres despite a lack of funding. This ferocity for the art form is just as often soured in service of product, too. The same vine that grows passion is just as likely to bloom entitlement. It’s an audience ripe for the kind of exploitation Xbox has wrought, giving thousands of vocal, deeply committed players a direction to aim their fervour, complete with figureheads to cheer and ideologies to embody. Consumerism becomes identity, and Xbox wants you to identify with it above all else.  

Even as I wrote this piece, Microsoft closed the day with a $3 trillion valuation for the first time in the company’s history. As the maligned former CEO of Activision Blizzard, Bobby Kotick, lands softly from his golden parachute, and as Phil Spencer’s exhaustive, years-long effort to become the face of the average gamer, all Xbox’s carefully stored goodwill is deployed to announce a catastrophic number of job losses. The landscape as laid by Xbox more closely resembles scorched earth than the verdant pastures promised to its employees and customers. The only green left emanating from the minifridges gathering dust in the corner.

Image: Stock, Pedro Truffi

This piece has been republished since it first ran on January 26, 2024.

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