I dread flying. But as I was preparing to travel to San Francisco for this year’s Game Developers Conference, I had one reason to be excited: It would be my first flight with the Steam Deck. I downloaded several games onto the handheld and gleefully stowed it in my carry-on, right next to my Switch OLED.
That excitement quickly turned to embarrassment thanks to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
As I reached the front of the airport security line, I pulled my laptop out of my bag as I normally would. I asked the TSA agent standing by if I had to remove any game consoles as well. She asked if I meant the Switch, and looking to avoid a needlessly complicated explanation, I said yes. She told me to remove any systems, so I did. First, I pulled my Switch out of its soft slip case. Then, I pulled out the Steam Deck’s comparatively hulking carrier and flopped the beastly device right next to the Switch. That’s when I noticed a strange, almost suspicious look on the TSA agent’s face.
“That’s a Switch?”
“No, no, this is a new thing.”
“… That’s too big.”
That last line, delivered with an incredulous laugh, has stuck with me long since my flight, mostly because she’s right. I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious about booting up the device on the plane, the same as I would if I were to take my shoes off during a flight. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to realize how truly ridiculous gaming hardware is.
For those who have yet to see a Steam Deck upclose, it’s even more monstrous than you can imagine. Every time I show it to someone, they have the exact same reaction. It physically knocks them back a step as they try to process how one could even hold it. Granted, those same people also routinely concede that it’s much lighter than it looks upon actually picking it up.
Its immense size made me feel a little silly the first time I took it out for a spin. I’m used to playing my Switch on the New York City subway. It has a relatively discreet design (depending on your Joy-Con colors) and it doesn’t make a peep. By comparison, the Steam Deck sticks out like a sore thumb. It just looks like a joke, especially when in close proximity to a phone. It doesn’t help that its air vent whirrs like a laptop’s. If you’re using one in public, you’re bound to get some weird looks.
By the time I got on my flight, I was all too conscious of that — especially because I was in a middle seat. In my heart of hearts, I knew that nobody would care (the person next to me spent the flight watching House of Gucci, so who would they be to judge?), but I began thinking about other situations where I’ve felt the slightest tinge of embarrassment about my hobby due to loud hardware designs.
I remember bringing my Alienware laptop to work a few years ago. I plopped it down in a meeting room next to everyone’s MacBooks and suddenly felt like all eyes were on me. Someone joked that it looked like a spaceship and, frankly, they weren’t wrong. I have similar moments anytime a non-gaming friend comes over and stares at my PS5 trying to figure out what it could possibly be.
It feels like almost every gaming device I own is an accidental statement piece.
As someone who’s deeply embedded in the video game world, I don’t think twice about my tech. But as gaming companies take a newfound interest in portability, I’m starting to feel like I could be in for an awkward few years. The industry always struggles to find a balance between practical design, power, and the dreaded “gamer aesthetic” (anything with tacky RGB lights). The Steam Deck fortunately doesn’t fall into the latter category, but some of that tension is palpable. It needs to be big and loud if it’s going to deliver PC-quality performance at the moment. It’ll take a few iterations of devices like this before they shrink down to a more natural form factor that doesn’t attract attention.
That TSA agent isn’t going to deter me from taking my Steam Deck out in public. No matter how self-conscious I feel when I break it out in public, the joy of playing my PC games on the go outweighs the weird looks. I’ll be ecstatic to upgrade to a more discreet Steam Deck 2 eventually, but I’ll just need to stock up on snappy retorts in the meantime if I want to enjoy portable Elden Ring in peace.