Welcome to the Machine
It is black, muscular, alien. I've seen pictures of it in motion on TV -- its skin opens up into two wound-slits and leaks green light in the shape of an X. I've heard kids talking about it on the bus, in an agony of desire, the way they would normally talk about sex or liquor. Something has made them want it, has made their boy voices crack with the first sounds of manhood as they say its name: Xbox.
I want it too. It's a creepy feeling, noticing that you're being sucked into wishing for something by the crassest kinds of P.R., advertising, and corporate frenzy. And it's even worse for me, an advocate of free software, that the thing inspiring my consumer fantasies is made by Microsoft.
First, I wonder if I'll get one of these brand-new console game systems for free. Wired ran a cover story on the thing, so it's obvious that other tech journalists are getting advance Xboxes. A game reviewer for Time.com tells me he got two of them: one to play beta games and one to play everything else, like the blockbuster first-person shooter Halo. I start twitchily writing e-mails to all the tech journalists I know, trying to find out who got Xboxes.
Nobody at Salon.com got one, although staff tech writer Damien Cave says he heard IDG, publishers of PC Gamer, got a bunch. Over at high-traffic site SFGate.com, tech editor Amy Moon hasn't gotten an Xbox either. This doesn't make any sense. Microsoft has said openly that it's selling the Xbox at below cost in order to popularize it. Why not send free ones to everybody in tech journalism -- especially people here in Silicon Bay -- so we can spread the good word? What kind of P.R. is that?
Images of fully rendered explosions and dual-processor action dance in my mind as I decide to call Edelman P.R., the company handling press about Xbox for Microsoft. Should be easy to get one -- I get review copies of tech stuff all the time. But the first person I reach sighs heavily. She refers me to somebody else, who never returns my message. Finally, after calling several other Edelman people just for the hell of it, I get referred to Andrea in the Los Angeles office. Oh glorious Andrea. She's the one who hooks me up.
But it's not exactly the hookup you'd imagine. She won't send me a review copy, just a loaner. And to get the loaner, I have to be "approved" (via Bill knows what oversight process). Then I have to sign a six-page contract with Microsoft in order to get my loaner. Six pages! Andrea tells me they've had "lots of trouble" with journalists stealing the machines.
And yet when the contract arrives, it's not really about keeping me from stealing the thing -- although I do have to promise to return it. It's about reverse engineering. I'm exhorted not to try to find source code for the Xbox and not to use the machine for "unauthorized" purposes. It reads just like a real user license agreement would, except that they've thrown in some extra language about how I can only use the Xbox for the purpose of "publishing reviews."
And was it all worth it? The spastic desires, the weird e-mails to my colleagues, and most of all, the six-page contract with Micro$oft?
No, my dear geek, it was not. Yeah, Halo was pretty cool, and it was neat to be able to rip CDs and play DVDs with the Xbox, too. As advertised, the Xbox is a PC in its own right, and there was a certain cinematic novelty to its play. My roommates and I spent about 48 hours straight playing with it, but they'll do that with anything: when we had a Dreamcast, Ed used to play Soul Caliber until we had to feed him intravenously. A true game nerd can get his or her hits from other high-quality game systems just as easily as he or she can from Xbox.
So my advice? This holiday season, flip a fucking coin on whether to buy the Nintendo Game Cube, the Sony PS2, or the Xbox. No matter what you do, you'll have to sign a contract forbidding you from using the machine that you own in the ways that you want. And I'm starting to think that that's the point.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who might be reverse engineering her loaner Xbox right now. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.