A few years ago, Nintendo took a radically different approach to what had been done in the console game world. Historically, the trend had been to games that used more powerful video processors to increase the level of realism in games aimed at the smaller portion of the public called “gamers,” a segment mostly comprised of men between the age of 15 and 35. With Sony and Microsoft having taken the high ground in those processor battle, it looked like Nintendo was in serious trouble.
But, with the release of the Wii, and its motion-sentitive controller, the Wii became a system that was aimed at a more physical experience of gaming, engaging the whole body. Nintendo also opted for a more cartoonish treatment when it came to characters in their games. Between those two decisions, Nintendo ended up moving games into a market that hadn’t previously been addressed. All of a sudden, it became cooler for the whole family to play together.
The success of the Wii in expanding the overall gamer audience left its competitors wondering how they too could enter that market. Sony recently unveiled the Playstation Move controller, which is essentially a copy of the approach Nintendo has taken with the Wii.
Microsoft, on the other hand, looked at the model and decided to completely do away with the idea of a physical controller and unveiled Kinect, a system that combines video cameras, infrared cameras, robotics, and infrared sensors to let people use their body as the controller. It’s a pretty radical move in that anyone can now operate those games, removing one barrier to getting involved in that space.
The games that have been included as part of the Kinect launch also allow for multiple players to get involved at the same time, create a space that is more social as a result, in a way reminiscent of board games in earlier times. As a result, videogames will probably get more integrated to a greater extent in families’ lives.
But social and gaming is not purely limited to the living room. In fact, social games are now one of the biggest trend, with Zynga being the leader in delivering offerings that combine games with a dose of socialization and a dash of competitive spirit. In only 3 years, the company has established a number of gaming franchises that are now being played by over 60 million people on a daily basis.
But most interesting in the social gaming phenomenon is the fact that the majority of social gamers do not fill the traditional profile of gamers: a survey earlier this year showed that the average social player is a 43-year-old woman.
Between the trends surrounding social gaming and the new impact that game consoles may have, combined with the increased number of people who are playing games on mobile phones, it seems we now need to redefine the demographic profile of gamers.
I would venture, for example, that the profile of gamer is now completely diluted into the profile of most people. The success of Rockband has already shown that music and the gaming space have now merged successfully to create a new kind of entertainment that has given newfound life to older musical talent. The launch of the Beatles edition of Rockband last year was such a cultural milestone that it even warranted its own New York Times Magazine cover article.
And the big movie hit of summer 2010 was Inception, a movie that used lingo like levels, challenges, and players as part of its narrative. In doing so, the movie may have been the first blockbuster to fully leverage game culture without being based on a game.
I’d venture that this past summer was actually a turning point in the acceptance of games as a legitimate form of entertainment. With it, the whole of our culture is now in the process of shifting to support of games as a legitimate entertainment form, to take their place alongside books, music, and movies.
And 7 days later, I open the Arts and Entertainment section of the New York times and find the following.
Of the major game console makers, Nintendo was the first to start doing away with buttons. While Microsoft and Sony were busy trying to make more realistic high-definition explosions, Nintendo was realizing that all those buttons on game controllers were alienating hundreds of millions of potential players around the world. The answer of course was the Wii, with its intuitive motion-sensitive controller that has drawn families and women into gaming in a way they never had before.
But the big boys, Microsoft and Sony, have not been too proud to learn from their rival, and this fall they introduced systems that go beyond the Wii in bringing natural human movement into games. The less ambitious of the two is Sony’s Move for the PlayStation 3, which is basically a more accurate and precise version of the Wii control wand. Coupled with the PS3’s high-definition graphics (the Wii is not high-def), the Move replicates certain types of physical activity, like golf, Frisbee tossing, bowling and sword fighting, more accurately and enjoyably than has ever been possible in the living room.
But Microsoft’s Kinect does away with electronic controllers altogether. With Kinect you just stand in front of the TV and move your body to make things happen on the screen. You actually dance and throw and kick and punch and running (in place). You are performing the actual yoga pose or exercise. You can even talk to it and it understands (though only for basic menu commands at the moment).
With products like Rock Band 3 and Kinect, the art is becoming a real experience. It is a phenomenon familiar to serious players of online role-playing games, where managing relationships with other people is at least as important as the science-fiction or fantasy action of the game itself. In Eve Online high-level political leaders with names like SirMolle (Swedish), Vuk Lau (Serbian), UAxDeath (Russian) and the Mittani (American) have directly shaped the game playing of tens of thousands of other players around the world, and yet can be laid low by individual acts of deceit, misdirection and plain old incompetence, just like politicians in real life. In a persistent online game, without other people to cooperate and compete with, there is no game at all.
Some may call it plagiarism, I just call it validation. Obviously, I’m not the only one to see the upcoming decade as one that will be dominated by gaming but I’m quite surprised by how quickly this notion is making its way into the mainstream.