The lack of commentary was unusual, especially in a place where giving and getting unsolicited opinions on game selections among customers was common in past visits. Instead, everyone studiously avoided eye contact, even the somewhat frazzled sales people behind the counter. No one else had his or her DS out, but it was understandable - the store is small enough to resemble a walk-in closet. It didn't take long for me to feel guilty for taking up the space, as well as mildly annoyed by occasionally being jostled by a youngster actively playing on the Wii system nearby.

The problem is easy to pinpoint in this light: The Wii is designed to accommodate multiple players, while handhelds primarily offer single-player experiences. Additionally, handheld gamers often have a tough time finding other gamers out in the wild, at least in the West. Aside from places like PAX, large-scale portable gaming in public venues just isn't done in Western markets. Gaming in public is fine, but only one person needs to own a Wii to make a party. Everyone has to own a DS to game together. Additionally, they have to do it within 65 feet of each other, the radius of the DS signal.

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Portables are solo machines by nature, no matter how many different ways we're told to play together. According to the NPD Group, 92 percent of Nintendo DS owners only play games by themselves. Nintendo has clearly convinced gamers of the benefits of its touch interface, with the DS having reached an installation base of over 23 million units in the U.S. alone. It's obvious touching is something gamers really enjoy. They just like to do it in private.

Some of the issues are theoretically simple to resolve - more options for troublesome game mechanics and an extended signal radius for multiplayer gaming. It may be slightly unfair to blame the simple "embarrassment factor" of games for keeping the pastime out of the public eye. But handheld gamers should feel compelled to take a cue from Dungeons & Dragons players and "wave their freak flag" in public a bit more. Looking silly is not the end of the world. Gaming everywhere should be encouraged. We should celebrate multiplayer gaming, not hide it away behind closed doors.

Wouldn't it be great to find ways for more people to join that eight percent of players already holding their DS in the air searching for signs of life?

Research Manager Nova Barlow saves her noisy DS games for home.

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