Based on the reaction to the November launch of the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii through sales and media attention, it’s clear that gaming as a cultural phenomenon has cemented itself into the collective consciousness. Local news media observed in awe as the faithful lined up outside their local electronics retailer at midnight in order to be the first to get their sweaty mitts on the latest and greatest console gaming had to offer. Though like the theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode I or The Lord of the Rings, the attention garnered by this event was more human zoo-like spectacle than genuine interest.
Since both console launches occurred in the lucrative pre-Christmas period, they are immediately associated with this year’s “must have” gift list for parents, whether their kids are asking for them or not. In this manner, the console is treated as a kind of novelty item — they are “games” or “toys” first and foremost, never an “entertainment console” as the manufacturers so desperately want them to believe. To the average consumer and mainstream media outlet, they are hardly worth considering for serious entertainment value, let alone thoughtful criticism. Like the latest technology fad, they are merely objects; the culture that goes with them is rarely understood and cast aside as a quirky byproduct of the growing obsession with integrating electronic devices into everyday life.
As with any story, once the newsworthy part goes away, the subject fades back into obscurity. The box office results are tallied. Coldplay will be playing to a sold out crowd at the Air Canada Centre. And life continues as usual until the next high school shooting spree, where game culture is dragged out again for prodding (or flogging, depending on how you look at it). Game culture certainly has no problems getting attention, but does it have the respect from society at large? Not yet, but Nintendo is trying to get it there.
When Nintendo revealed the controller for the Wii, the popular opinion in the gaming community was that they were clearly losing touch with reality. Abandon the traditional controller? Preposterous! Wave a TV remote around like a wand to control the action? Ridiculous! No self-respecting gamer would substitute skill with the controller for actual physical execution. Except this is exactly what the reaction was to the Nintendo DS, and with this year’s redesign it has found its way onto the Christmas lists of parents and kids alike.
In a recent family holiday gathering, I was talking with my Aunt and Uncle, who had returned from visiting my cousin and his wife in San Jose. My cousin works for a company that was responsible for designing the wireless functionality of the Wii controller. After the product launch, every member of the product team was given a Wii. Having heard the excitement over the console’s launch and its scarcity in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my Uncle asked to see what the fuss was about. They loaded up the bundled Wii Sports and started to play. And they kicked my cousin’s ass at tennis.
The interesting part of the conversation was how they described the experience. It was like they had actually played a game of tennis, or baseball, or bowling. They spoke of how it requires skill to aim the bowling ball correctly, as a slight turn of the wrist will actually cause a gutter ball. They laughed at how hard my cousin swung the Wii controller after losing the ninth straight tennis match. There was a sense of accomplishment behind their encounter with this console; they weren’t just staring at a screen and trying to memorize button combinations. It was intuitive.
The use of physical movement with the Wii adds an entirely new dimension to playing a video game, in stark contrast with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360’s incremental graphics upgrade and conventional, violence-centric titles. Not to say that the Wii won’t have its share of gun-toting and sword-wielding games, because those games are pretty much guaranteed sellers. The difference is that along with those games, Nintendo is once again filling out its library with ones that have a much wider appeal. It may seem “soft” in comparison with the other two console manufacturers, but they’re casting a wider net as a result.
Indeed, the opinion of mainstream media regarding games in general may be slow to change, but Nintendo is smartly waging the war from outside the typical demographic. With the Wii, they are attracting an audience that would never think to touch a video game console, and building on the strengths of Nintendo’s family-friendly and multi-player experiences. Even this year’s “Touch Generations” ad campaign extolling the virtues of the portable DS to those outside of the 18-34 demographic has their competitors watching closely (and in the case of Sony’s PSP, wondering what happened). As we start to see only slight improvements to a console’s visuals every year at E3 while the gameplay essentially remains the same, Nintendo is looking at the big picture. There is already a well-established audience for video games — they’re young and they aren’t going anywhere. But what about the former hardcore gamer that now wants to share their love of gaming with their offspring? Or the family that wants something to enjoy with their kids that doesn’t encourage anti-social behavior? Or the retired couple that wants something other than bridge to play with their friends? They may never play anything besides Wii Sports, but they’ve still bought a Wii.