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  • Michael Iantorno

Consoles and Capital

Consoles and Capital

Clamouring to purchase the latest gaming console is, by no means, a new phenomenon in videogame culture. As fans scramble to get their hands on the latest offering by Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft, each console release brings about a slew of pre-orders and midnight line-ups. However, Sony’s PlayStation 5 (PS5) has become a curious case study in electronics supply-and-demand, as it brought about one of the most prolonged periods of widespread scarcity out of any game console in history.

While Sony recently announced that consumers would finally witness the end of console shortages in 2023, it is still quite shocking that it took over two years for the market to stabilise (the PS5 was first made available to North American audiences in November of 2020). Additionally, the electronics giant has indicated that they will be raising the retail price of the PS5 in many jurisdictions—a major departure from the gradual price declines that usually accompany ageing hardware—even with the consoles' increased availability.


This blog post attempts to unpack some of the barriers folks have faced in acquiring the console over the past two years. Capital plays a large role in these discussions, perhaps most evidently through the economic funds needed to purchase expensive electronics. However, there are also types of social and cultural capital required to navigate the console-purchasing landscape. With scarcity comes competition and gatekeeping, meaning that only certain types of “gamers” are deemed worthy of gaining access to waitlists and other pathways to console ownership.


Videogames as Luxury Items

The pricing of videogame consoles has long entrenched them as big-ticket expenses for North American households. Christine Gailey, reflecting on Nintendo’s early successes in the home toy market, remarked that the basic package of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) could be considered as “a luxury item within the reach of working and middle class parents” (1993, p. 81) that is often reserved as a holiday gift due to its great expense. While the narratives that drove the console wars of the nineties often focus on technological features and marketing savvy, the reason the so-called “war” existed in the first place was the assumption that most households would only be able to purchase a single console. In addition to upfront cost, the initial console purchase necessitated a number of follow-up game and peripheral purchases. This fact was not lost on the console manufacturers. For example, the Sega Genesis’ backwards compatibility with the Sega Master System (by way of the Power Base peripheral) was touted as a huge value-add feature for the console, allowing consumers to keep playing the games they owned while benefiting from an existing, affordable games library.


Although the videogame market has certainly changed since Nintendo and Sega bombastically squared off in the nineties, home consoles still occupy the role of relatively affordable luxury electronics. A 2015 Pew Research Institute study indicated that Americans in the lowest income bracket (under $30,000 in take-home salary) still boasted 33% console ownership, and that roughly 40% of adults across all incomes owned at least one videogame console. While middle- and working-class stratifications are difficult to pin down due to innumerable shifting cultural and economic factors, these numbers reinforce Gailey’s consoles-as-luxury-goods argument in regard to low-to-middle income earners. This is not to undersell their expense, as households with higher incomes are overwhelmingly more likely to own a console—ranging from 60%-70% ownership depending on which study you look at (Euromonitor International, 2022). However, when compared to a high-end gaming computer, a flagship smartphone, or a big-screen television, their pricing makes them much more affordable.


Gatekeeping and Gaming Capital

While it is important to acknowledge economic factors, the sustained elusiveness of the PS5 served as a sordid reminder that money is not the only barrier in purchasing the “latest and greatest” gaming technologies. Many folks who possessed the means to purchase a PS5 found themselves floundering in a marketplace that requires specific types of expertise and effort to navigate. At the peak of its scarcity, acquiring a PS5 often involved consistently refreshing online marketplaces, placing calls to brick-and-mortar retailers, and “making nice” with game store employees who may hold inside information about incoming shipments. In addition to only being available to those with the privilege of spare time, these methods required a certain amount of gaming capital to take advantage of. Mia Consalvo suggests that gaming capital—an offshoot of Bourdieu’s cultural capital—provides a “key way to understand how individuals interact with games, information about games and the game industry, and other game players” (Consalvo, 2007, p. 4). Capital, in this sense, is similar to traditional understandings of class, as it divides people into hierarchical groups. However, the currency that stratifies group members is not purely economic. It may include expertise over games and marketplaces, membership in certain social networks that circulate information about games, or matching in appearance and identity of a stereotypical “gamer.”



The latter point on identity begs more attention as, during periods of increased product scarcity, brick-and-mortar store employees (and other economic intermediaries) seem to have found a renewed importance as the gatekeepers of gaming. The importance of these stakeholders has long been diminished due to the proliferation of online marketplaces, but in-person locales can occasionally increase in prominence as the arbiters of in-demand products, such as the PS5. A number of consumers from marginalised groups reported that their requests for information about the console had been rebuffed at retail locations such as EB Games and GameStop, with employees ignoring their requests to be put on wait-lists and declining their questions about console availability. In the above excerpt (copied with permission from the original poster), a racialised gamer reports how she was told that there was no waiting list for the PS5, only to witness the employee happily fulfil the same request for the next (male) customer. In this case, simply presenting differently from white and cis-male erases any gaming capital at the point of sale; hearkening back to an ignominious history of sexism, racism, and prejudice in gaming culture.


While online spaces may offer the promise of circumventing in-person gatekeepers, the intricacies of digital platforms add additional wrinkles in accumulating and exercising gaming capital. In an attempt to provide perks to those on the PlayStation Network, Sony implemented algorithms to gauge a user’s “previous interests and PlayStation activities” (Hill, n.d.) in order to determine who to pass along PS5 purchasing opportunities to. The inner machinations of this ‘console-worthiness algorithm’ were, and remain, somewhat mysterious. Members of the gaming press hypothesise that opportunities may have been tied to “how long you've had an account, what subscriptions you have, and perhaps even the number of games you own” (Hill, n.d.). Presuming that these claims are true, this sort of distribution method fosters a rich-get-richer environment where those who have already purchased a great deal of gaming content—and possess the free time to engage with it—are put at the front of the queue for PS5 purchases. Sony’s efforts to reward its most dedicated players has further enforced long-standing inequities in its fandom.


Closing Notes

Of course, these are only a few of the reasons that folks found themselves without a PS5 over the past two years. Geographical factors (folks may live in an area without access to game stores or quick online delivery), global supply chain issues (Sony simply cannot make enough consoles to meet demand), and robust resale markets (in which scalpers purchase consoles en masse in an attempt to turn a profit) could all be fruitful avenues to explore this regard. But it is important to remember that economic elements do not exist in a vacuum, as gatekeeping fueled by gaming capital is entwined with almost all purchasing options for the console. While the PS5 was difficult for anyone to get a hold of, these factors made the marketplace particularly hostile for marginalised folks who cannot invest as much time in the process, or may simply be rejected at the point-of-sale for not embodying the traditional idea of a “gamer.”


Bibliography

Consalvo, M. (2007). Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. MIT Press.


Euromonitor International. (2022). Video Games in Canada (p. 14). Euromonitor International.


Gailey, C. W. (1993). Mediated Messages: Gender, Class, and Cosmos in Home Video Games. The Journal of Popular Culture, 27(1), 81–98. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1993.845217931.x


Hill, S. (n.d.). Tips on How to Snag a PlayStation 5 (Good Luck!). Wired. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-buy-sony-playstation-5/

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