Recent research by the NPD Group revealed 79 percent of portable gamers use their devices in the home more than any location. This isn’t surprising news in itself, but the number seems rather high. Why is the home the preferred location for portable game players? These devices are designed for use outside the home. Gaming everywhere is great in theory, but apparently it doesn’t always work that way.

The games themselves may be partly responsible for the lack of interest in gaming in public, especially on the DS. Certain games are meant to be turned up for full enjoyment, and earphones aren’t always an attractive option. Sound is essential to games like Elite Beat Agents and downright enjoyable in The World Ends With You. Likewise, games with richly detailed graphics cannot fully be appreciated in public, where there’s no shortage of distractions. The more sound dependent games are, the less playable they are in public.

Then there’s simple convenience. Handheld consoles are perfect for home use. There’s no arguing over the television or computer; they only require batteries and a game. Not only that, you can take them all over the house to play instead of being locked down to one location.

Some of the reason lies with specific game mechanics. You can yell “Objection!” while playing Phoenix Wright, but it’s inadvisable to do so in public. It’s like yelling “Fire!” – people get a bit edgy at spontaneous yelling. Then there is the blow factor, something that has been problematic from early offerings such as Feel the Magic: XY/XX, where one gamer even reported “getting lightheaded from trying to blow a sailboat.” With the microphone held up so close to your face, are you actually able to enjoy the game? Unlikely.

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In most cases, the airborne elements of games haven’t made the experience easier or more intuitive. Gamers report issues with the microphone not being sensitive enough to pick up their efforts. Silly gimmick game mechanics keep the DS from realizing its true public portable potential. It’s easy to imagine gamers rallying around chanting “Hell no, we won’t blow!” (At least in public. We do have standards of decorum.)

One way to get around this is to include alternate mechanics so these tricks aren’t needed to fully enjoy and finish a game. (For Phoenix Wright, you can just use a button push to get around the objectionable vocalizations, but you still need to blow to dust for fingerprints.) Unnecessary blowing and voice input mechanics help drives DS players back underground: It doesn’t stop the games from being sold, but it’s enough to keep them from being seen and shared in the open.

It was mid-day during a recent Saturday at the mall when I gained some insight into part of the problem. I was headed towards the game store when I came across a sight so awesome I had to stop and watch. People were gaming together in public. They were all playing at a large kiosk Nintendo temporarily installed, mostly to show off the Wii Fit board. People were visibly unconcerned with how they looked, flailing their arms as they balanced awkwardly on the boards. Participants were friendly, taking turns and talking to strangers. It was enough for me to conclude that perhaps this navel gazing over “gamer shame” was a bit over-blown.

Gamer shame is everywhere. Earlier this year, Escapist editor Tom Endo helped put a voice to the phenomenon in “A Day in the Life of the Social Loner,” but it was Brainy Gamer’s Michael Abbott who helped attach a clear label to the issue recently with a multi-part series sparked by playing Animal Crossing: Wild World in public. While many people are quick to hop on the soapbox and say they don’t care what other people think, it’s obvious this issue affects many gamers.

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“It is difficult, even now 30 years out from the invention of the modern videogame, to put aside the disquieting notion that serious gamers should really be getting on with something more important,” commented columnist Matthew Sakey over the summer in IGDA’s monthly “Culture Clash“.

The concept of play being acceptable at all is a tough sell. Dr. Jerald Block commented in a June 2008 Boston Globe interview, “It’s much more acceptable for kids to talk about game use, whereas adults keep it a secret.” The process toward changing public perception about gamers is a slow one. People like Barbara St. Hilaire (Old Grandma Hardcore) give us hope. Game blogs buzz excitedly when key policy makers are unmasked as World of Warcraft players. Yet despite the diversity of the DS demographic and casual market focus, the DS still garners mildly snarky comments about being for “12 year olds“.

Upbeat from the Nintendo kiosk experience, I continued towards the game store to keep the mood going. The store is also a local “hot-spot” for the DS, and as such I knew it was technically possible to find portable gamers in action, checking out the temporary demos and other offerings. The store looked busy from the outside, but inside I found nothing but a buzzkill. PictoChat was as empty as ever. People went in; people went out. Even inside a gaming store, no one looked twice at the woman in the corner with her DS.

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.

Public Speaking with Nintendo

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