Liv Tyler lays prone on her bed in a pair of blue pajamas, propped up on her elbows and gazing intently at the screens of a Nintendo DS Lite. Her hair is casually pulled back, her cheeks slightly flushed. The camera pulls in for a close-up as she emotes and hums to herself while playing Brain Age 2. And like that, I'm in love with Liv Tyler again, watching her in this moment of feigned intimacy. Perhaps not quite as revered as texting but certainly as significant as latte slurping, playing a DS has now entered the public realm of things starlets do in their spare time. This commercial and the broader association of the Nintendo DS with female celebrity signify a turning point in the cultural rise of videogames. Once, videogames were the purview of the young, nerdy and male. Now portable games, like a good book on a rainy day, have become something all of us, even celebrities, turn to for a few moments of solace.
From a practical standpoint, the runaway popularity of the DS in America doesn't make much sense. The majority of Americans drive themselves to work, and those who can afford it reserve entire rooms of their houses for world-class audiovisual systems. Yet in spite of all that surround sound and HD potential, Americans find themselves drawn to the three-inch screens and tinny speakers of the Nintendo DS.
It's clearly a mistake to assume that portable gaming is an ancillary choice, an inferior alternative to the experience of console gaming. Yet until just recently, this was how portable consoles were pitched to the American public - as a secondary experience. While you may not be able to play Super Mario World on the go in the full 16-bit glory your home system offers, Nintendo can provide a roughly similar experience on a tiny monochrome screen. But gamers have realized the experience of playing on a console is fundamentally different than playing on a portable system.
Console gaming has become a full-blown ritual. We sit in our dens with the lights dimmed in front of 42-inch screens awaiting the orchestral fanfare of the system start-up screen. It's a process that has grown more elaborate with each generation. Gaming on a console has evolved into a cinematic experience, one in which players lose their sense of self as they become totally absorbed in the screen. Even the Wii, which emulates the casual act of TV watching through its channels and point-and-click remote interface, dominates the room. Today's console experiences are designed to supersede all the other forms of media that share our TV space.