Sony's new PlayStation Vita handheld sports a good amount of ways to connect with people. It will let you share your trophies, passively trade and unlock game content, and even broadcast how you're feeling about the games you're playing.
Well, to a point. As it turns out, the Vita won't let you tell people if you don't like a game.
The Vita's most comprehensive and interesting collection of social features is "Near." Near is something like the Nintendo 3DS' spot-passes and street-passes - the idea is to let you passively connect to other players. Its coolest feature is the ability to scan of your local area (a 3 kilometer radius) to give you information on all of the PSN activity around you.
It also keeps a running bulletin board tracking the popularity of various Vita games. One of the first games to pop up on my chart was Uncharted: Golden Abyss. I decided to take a look at the page for the game and see what was what.
Upon arriving on a page called "Players' Voice," a message popped up: "Tap 'Pick Some Emoticons!' to share your opinion of this game."
Okay, Vita. I already shared my opinion of this game, so I have a pretty good idea of what it is. I hit the "emoticon" button to assign an emoticon to this game. Presumably, this emoticon would then be broadcast out to the people I connected with via Near, letting them know what I thought.
A window popped up featuring a handful of emoticons. I looked for the one marked "disappointment" or "sadface." And yet what I saw were… only positive emoticons.
"Funny," "moving," "exhilarating," "engrossing," "rewarding," "cool," "captivating," "amazing," and "heartwarming." Those were my only options.
That means that the Vita is telling me that it's fine if I share my opinions with my friends, but only if they're positive. I didn't really think that Uncharted: Golden Abyss was any of those things! There wasn't even an emoticon for "good graphics."
Ironically, despite the exclamatory energy behind the "Pick Some Emoticons!" feature, the menu's baseline icon—a collection of three grey, flat-mouthed faces—comes the closest to actually conveying my feelings about Golden Abyss.
Engineered positivity isn't new to social media. There is a reason that Facebook doesn't have a dislike button - from a business perspective, social networks need to grow to survive, and positivity helps growth. "Liking" something on Facebook doesn't even necessarily mean that you're expressing approval - sometimes it's merely a way to put something on your page and share it with others, thereby helping Facebook to grow.
But all the same, there's something vaguely sinister about how the Vita muzzles players who want to provide their honest take on a game they've played. It's so falsely cheery; the simplistic Orwellian (actually, Huxlian) undertone of the mandatory smiley-face.
So no, this alone is not the harbinger of some terrifying dystopian future. And we're still able to give star ratings to games in the PSN store. But this feels calculated nonetheless. If Sony wants us to use their social features and contribute to their social network, they could at least let us express how we actually feel.