I’m not the gamer I once was. Over the past year, my gaming habits have undergone a fundamental shift. Where once I’d spend my play time parked on the sofa submerged in the blue-white glow of the TV, these days I’m more often to be found in odd nooks of the house or outdoors, playing games in the palm of my hand. This is all thanks to a new device in my life: the Steam Deck.
This portable gaming PC, which was released at the beginning of the year, has finished the job started by the Nintendo Switch in 2017 — and it has revolutionised handheld gaming. Though portable devices were pillars of gaming through the 1990s and 2000s, the arrival of the smartphone seemed to spell the end of that era — why have a separate machine for games when you can play them on your phone? A decade later, everything has changed. Handhelds are in the ascendant once more. At least six companies have announced or released portable consoles this year alone. But why are people choosing handhelds over powerful smartphones or home consoles? And what does this tell us about the future of media consumption?
The first Game Boy in 1989 was a revelation. This was the device that set games free. Now you could decide what and where you wanted to play. It only had two main buttons and a black-and-green screen, but it was enough — you could play Super Mario Land or Tetris while taking the bus to school and nothing would ever be more magical than that. Sony put out two sleek and appealing handheld consoles, the PSP (2004) and the Vita (2011), but when the latter flopped it retreated from the handheld market.
Nintendo had more success with the DS, a bizarre device that had a hinge, two screens and could be played by blowing into a microphone. It was the epitome of the whimsical hardware innovations that continue to distinguish the company today. This year’s retro Playdate console, which can be controlled using a windable crank, is a throwback to that era.
With the advent of powerful smartphones around 2010, it looked as though handheld games consoles would be usurped just like watches, calendars, calculators and MP3 players. Yet the early promise of mobile games has still yet to be delivered. Mobile games pull in more profit than PC and console games (though their market shrank this year), but have never developed a reputation for offering quality gaming experiences because the predominant free-to-play business model encourages the creation of shallow and money-hungry games. Meanwhile, many gamers lament the lack of buttons — touchscreens do not suit many genres — and the fact that notifications can interrupt their sacred game time. Rather than replacing handheld consoles, phones created an adjacent market for casual players.
It took the Nintendo Switch in 2017 to redefine handheld gaming. The company’s innovation was to offer a hybrid console that could be played on-the-go or inserted into a dock and played on TVs at home. The established boundary between blockbuster home-console games and more basic handheld ones crumbled: now Nintendo’s top talent was making ambitious games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which could be played anywhere.
The Switch was innovative, but its hardware is weak by today’s standards and only operates within Nintendo’s closed ecosystem. This year’s Steam Deck remedies both of these issues by offering a portable (albeit bulky) gaming PC, powerful enough to play Elden Ring. It is also radically open — you can use it to access the entirety of your existing PC game library, emulate older consoles and even use Netflix or Xbox Game Pass.
Now Logitech and Razer, two hardware manufacturers with strong gaming pedigrees, are planning to enter the handheld market with devices intended for cloud gaming, meaning gameplay is processed on a distant computer and you simply stream the results. These developments are indicative of a growing consumer expectation that our media should be seamlessly available on whatever device we have to hand. We are becoming hardware agnostic.
Even at home with my TV available, I find myself drawn to the smaller screen. While for some, multi-screening might seem like a harbinger of a tech dystopia, I find it soothing that I can curl up on the couch and play a game while my housemates watch TV, knowing that I’m not dominating the room with gunshots and blood spatter. If we’re going to spend a portion of our free time alone, buried in our screens, then at least we might be alone together.