Making Gamers


imageLast week Shigeru Miyamoto granted an interview with CNN.com’s Talk Asia. It’s typical Miyamoto: he’s affable as ever, and effortlessly manages to reduce gaming’s most intriguing and controversial subjects to a series of humble but self-assured pronouncements that dovetail nicely with his reasons for Nintendo’s recent hardware successes. Midway through the interview, Miyamoto muses on his efforts to expand the gaming market:

There is an abundance of themes that people are interested in, and video games have only touched on few of them … By introducing these available themes into video games, it will help people relate to the games better, and we may even be able to convert them into those who can not live without video games.

His comments are right in line with what we’re used to hearing from Miyamoto and fellow Nintendo figureheads. But that last bit, the part about “those who can not live without video games,” has a particularly interesting ring to it. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

It’s the kind of descriptor usually reserved for that slice of the populace whose very identity depends upon their gamer status. In other words, the supposedly game-obsessed. Yet here is Miyamoto, asserting that widespread conversion to such a state could be the outcome of something as simple as addressing basic human interests.

Even as a gamer, I find the vision of a populace “who can not live without video games” a difficult scenario to imagine, at least initially. In fact, I’m tempted to write it off as a pipe dream, or at very least, optimistic marketing hyperbole. But then I consider how in recent years our personal lives have become dependent upon once-intimidating gadgetry. Mobile phones, email clients, and web pages have long since become the threads by which we bind ourselves to one another as families, friends, and co-workers.

By the same token, we’ve always been dependent upon the means by which we feed our imaginations. Whether we’re caught up in a current television series, the latest movie release, or a book published a century ago, the need for fantasy and reverie remains an inescapable part of human existence. We can’t imagine our lives without entertainment, and as a society we’ve readily embraced new technologies that bring us such experiences.

When you think about it, gaming now finds itself at the intersection of community, entertainment, and technology. The current generation of online-enabled gaming hardware is ideally poised to deliver experiences that are deeply imaginative and socially connected, and few gamers would argue with the supposition that games can offer experiences as essential as those offered by other media. The rest of the populace remains skeptical, though, tending to view games as shallow diversions at best, and at worst, malignant forces.

Ignorance obviously plays a significant role in encouraging unfavorable sentiments toward gaming, but the lack of thematic variety the medium offers shouldn’t be underestimated either. In this respect, Miyamoto’s obviously onto something. In order to enjoy widespread appreciation, gaming desperately needs to expand its boundaries to encompass the vast range of human interests and experiences. But that isn’t nearly enough to accomplish what Miyamoto’s talking about.

Even those enticed by the rich presentations offered by modern games still face a significant barrier to entry. Gamers and game developers all too often ignore the fact that familiar game design conventions are often completely alien to non-gamers.

Not long ago, I spent an evening playing Resident Evil 4 in a room full of middle-aged non-gaming guys. They were entranced by the game’s content and presentation, and in the weeks that followed I was pleasantly surprised by their incessant gaming-related questions. A few ultimately decided to buy consoles of their own, for the first time in their adult lives. Their initial enthusiasm was soon met by frustration, though.

One spent more than $250 on a PlayStation 2 and an assortment of critically acclaimed games, only to decide after a few weeks that modern games’ interfaces were simply too complicated and confusing. He shoved it to the back of a closet shelf to gather dust. Another bought a GameCube but abandoned it to his children after the painful realization that he couldn’t make it past several games’ introductory levels without their help. And I’ve known other non-gamers who had similar experiences, who were thrilled with games’ visual presentations but completely baffled their design conventions and interfaces.

So it’ll take more than depth and variety. Accessibility is also key if we want to convert non-gamers into those who can’t live without games–something else Miyamoto, to his credit, has also repeatedly asserted. Nintendo, with its unique Wii and DS interfaces, seems on track in this regard. In fact, the internet abounds of late with sugary anecdotes of formerly game-hating grandparents bonding with their technology-obsessed progeny over Wii Sports bowling matches. But the question remains: are such experiences really enough to truly create lifelong gamers? I’m not so sure that few energetic rounds of Nintendo’s cheerful sports simulations are going to convince the rest of the world that gaming is much more than an occasionally entertaining diversion.

It’s worth noting that building “casual” games has in recent years emerged as a popular and wildly successful alternative to developing traditional full-length titles. Yet casual games, with some notable exceptions, tend to offer simple, pleasurable distractions ultimately devoid of emotional depth. Don’t get me wrong, I love PopCap’s offerings, and I’ll be the first to admit that such games have successfully wormed their ways into the daily habits of millions of non-gamers. But Bejeweled and its ilk have ultimately done little to advance the status of the gaming medium in the eyes of the nongaming public. Like the Wii’s current offerings, I don’t think they’re fostering widespread adoration or appreciation of gaming in general.

Games need more than accessibility in order to appeal to the mainstream media consumer. They need more than depth, and more than variety. In order to rise to the status of essential mainstream media for the populace at large, games need to deliver all of these things at once. Most consumers can live without simple, accessible distractions, no matter how immediately accessible or lovingly designed. And many can live without vast, sprawling worlds embellished with familiar fantasy and science-fiction trappings. But if games were to offer a wide array of deep, varied, and accessible experiences that connected individuals from all walks of life, maybe then they’d be something the world couldn’t as easily ignore.

Sound like a pipe dream? Sure it does. But movies do it. So does literature. As does music. And just about every other widespread form of media that the world truly can’t live without. Is it too much to ask of games? I don’t think so.

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