The Staying Power of Handheld Gaming
Echoing through the corners of the videogame obsessed social media landscape is a familiar proclamation: “I’ll be waiting until it comes to Switch,” or the bygone equivalent, “I’m still holding out for a Vita version.” These expressions exhibit a strong preference within a community of gamers to withhold their experience with a particular title until it is available on a dedicated, handheld platform, despite availability elsewhere. What may appear at first glance as stubborn fanboyism or a cheap attempt to form an online identity can instead be clarified as a legitimate preference when examined through the lens of affordances.
Pioneered by American psychologist James Gibson in 1979, the theory of affordances explains the possibilities for action offered by an object. This notion highlights that when our brains see a chair we know by virtue of its form that it is for sitting, that hammers are for hitting, or that doors are for opening. Intimate knowledge of the material composition of the item isn’t necessary for us to immediately infer the meaning latent inside.
When we apply this mode of thought to dedicated handheld gaming consoles like the Nintendo Switch or the PlayStation Vita, we get obvious but crucial information. The dual joysticks, labeled face buttons, small triggers, and centerset screen communicate immediately to a large subsect of gamers that the object is for playing. The hardware produces a narrow spectrum of possible actions focused entirely on gaming.
However, we must take the basic concept of affordances a step further in order to describe the preferential behavior of gamers to dedicate their time to handheld machines over other platforms. Experiential affordances reveal that how an object affords action is dependent on the subject. For example, a plate of food affords eating to a greater degree when we are hungry, or a movie affords viewing when we have an excess of leisure time.
Going beyond the basic needs of the subject, cultural backgrounds and self-concept have an effect on the experiential affordances of an object as well. If a dedicated handheld can afford a narrow range of action concentrated intensely on play, then engagement with the device becomes a direct indulgence in the hobby. Furthermore, the joysticks, “A,B,X,Y” or “Cross, Triangle, Square, Circle” buttons are cultural symbols that generate a gravitational force that pulls players in.
While the aforementioned description could also be applied to console controllers, the separation of machine and remote in this example dilutes the intensity of gaming imagery in comparison to handhelds. With handhelds such as the Switch, combining machine and controller into one elevates the affordances of play to a greater degree. Just as easily, it’s entirely possible the Switch could lose the intensity of its affordances, and thus affection of its fans, should Hulu’s colonization be a sign of the wave to come: the retreat into the bastion of Vita imminent.
Personal histories modify experiential affordances further, as droves of players who grew up when the gaming landscape first introduced handheld machines are filled with nostalgia from those days. For some, gaming on handhelds in the present serves to reinforce a personal narrative started in childhood, and can give a comforting validation of habits initiated long ago. Tangentially, videogames such as the classic JRPG, Persona 4 Golden, become inextricably tied to the handheld experience and produce a longing when the sequel is only offered on other platforms.
In the end, dedicated handheld platforms radiate an allure to gamers given their straightforward affordance as an object meant only for play. Combine this with the cultural status of the machine and the personal narratives of those who gamed in the past while parents ran errands on the weekends, and it becomes clear why so many are willing to wait for a handheld release, or even rebuild an entire library on a new mobile machine.
–Edited by Malia Hamilton