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Online gaming coming Home

Could consoles dictate our future?

Sometimes it amuses us to look down upon the console gaming landscape, have a benevolent chuckle and go back to stroking our elaborately bump-mapped white beards.

However, a nasty surprise and involuntary beard yank recently resulted in me head-slamming my keyboard; the two halves sank into the wood like symmetrical Titanics and disappeared. So I'm dictating this with Vista's voice recognition software.

Dear aunt, let's set so double the killer select all... delete that.

Here's the thing. Windows is bringing on a brave new multiplayer world, but has a recent announcement from Sony rendered it out of date already?

As you surely know, Vista is letting us loose upon the pad-waving console crowd directly, by letting us play certain games against Xbox gamers via Games for Windows Live. Surely you're already wondering, as we are, how that'll work out. All things being equal, we should slaughter them with our laser mice and our boom-headshots and our mad skillz. And if all things aren't equal, why should we bother?

But although Xbox Live is extremely popular - it's just passed the six million users mark - and Sony's previous attempts to get their console online made lethal injection seem kindly, it seems the PlayStation maker's recent announcement of their 'Home' community for PS3 has stolen Live's thunder.

Home is not where the heart is, it's like The Sims or Second Life, but with even less 'game'. Instead of lists of friends, games and achievements a la Live, Sony has unveiled a virtual world where all online functions are embodied in aspirationally stylish 3D. Your personalised avatar must visit the cinema to view movies, for instance, lurk in public spaces to chat with disguised perverts doing moronic dances, or take people back to their invitation-only, custom decorated apartment to admire statuesque achievement trophies.

Disguised perverts? Delete that. Pesky ambient noise.

The idea is for this virtual space to grow as the community expands past the 10, 15, 20 people who can afford Sony's Blu-ray player-cum-PS3, then for advertising and even shops to appear in it. It's true we don't see enough Burger King signs these days. Can't wait for that.

Whether Sony can implement its network properly this time remains to be seen. But if it works, and Sony dominates this generation of consoles as it did the last, it could make the long-lived and well-honed Live seem suddenly very old and grey. Will Microsoft feel compelled to respond, for the sake of the 360? Could Live change just at the point it joins hands with billions of PCs - and consequently go on to affect the way teh internets goes about its gaming?

It's a thought. But then so's "Home is a glorified chat room where 'personalisation' means pre-approved homogeneity and freedom of expression is a varnished illusion; a gimmick that'll turn right-thinking adults off." But, according to the psychotherapist in my cupboard, it's a cynical one that may reflect my own lack of self-worth.