Mainstream: It’s the gamer’s comfort word. Since the advent of the PlayStation, we’ve been told in countless breathless media reports that gaming is now mainstream. That now it’s OK.

But in reality, the only thing mainstream about gaming is its perception in the media.

Gaming targets young, well-off males – exactly the type of people who dictate in the media what is and isn’t hip. Games, we have been told, need no longer rank alongside building model planes and attending Star Trek conventions in the playground of “cool.”

Just like in the playground, that acceptance brought solace. And yet, gaming is still a niche, still with shockingly few games that target anyone outside the 13 to 25 age bracket.

Gaming is now at a curious crossroads, one where many other forms of media, from science fiction to rock music, have stood. Like them, once considered crude, pulp entertainment for the brainless masses, gaming can take to the mainstream – but only when it makes itself relevant to the lives of ordinary working Joes.

The Real Revolution
Enter Nintendo.

While Nintendo’s new console may or may not end up being called the Revolution, on the streets of Japan, the real revolution is already here, and it’s taken many people by surprise.

After all, when the DS was first announced, the sniggers of journalistic derision were audible. Compared to the sleek PSP, it had a screen that many cell phones would be ashamed of, and all the power of a hot Baghdad afternoon.

These journalists – all predominantly well-off young males, of course – forgot one thing: Their graphics-are-everything view of games is not one that is shared by everyone. Every week of sales figures for Japan is proving Nintendo right.

The real revolution began with Nintendogs, which, as already reported, was a game many had thought could not – should not – succeed.

Instead, Nintendo bypassed the fanboys and carved out an entirely new market, composed of both the curious novice and the bored hardcore, men and women in almost equal proportion. It’s a market Nintendo continues to mine.

Animal Crossing: Wild World may look like a kid’s game, but Japanese commercials have pitched it toward stressed-out women, who can enjoy the “slow life.” The result was Japan’s biggest-selling game of 2005.

But more than any other, the game that has found a new audience is Nou wo Kitaeru Otona no DS Training, which will come to the West as Brain Age. Combined, the original game and its recent sequel have sold over 3 million copies in Japan. To put that into context, that’s more than twice what any Xbox game other than the Halo series has sold worldwide.

Otona no DS Training is made for adults. Professor Ryuta Kawashima, upon whose design the game is based, is a genuine and well-known Alzheimer’s expert. The game tests your “brain age,” with the lowest possible score – i.e., the best – being 20. There are no flashy graphics, nothing more than basic sounds, and absolutely no signs of Mario. The newest version has you do such un-game tasks as writing haiku and counting change.

The result is something familiar yet entirely new. It may not be a classic by most gamers’ definitions, but it is a game with almost universal appeal, one anyone can pick up and play instantly. It is a game that is drawing the attention of the world.

At the beginning of March, the DS made headlines across the world, thanks to an Associated Press story on its success with older gamers.

“People who never even liked computer games are now getting hooked,” the article quotes Nintendo’s Ken Toyoda as saying. “We’re not surprised.”

Well, of course they aren’t. For years, Nintendo has been telling anybody who’d listen that this was the new market for games. And right now, Nintendo is the only one exploiting it – with games like Eigo Zuke, a drill for improving English that at once skillfully exploits both a niche in the English-obsessed Japanese market, and the unique handwriting features of the DS. Or the forthcoming DS Bimoji Training, a drill for improving handwriting, which taps the grumble of many elderly Japanese that cell phone-obsessed youth can’t write properly. A talking cookbook and dictionary might well outsell the more talked about web browser and TV tuner.

There Is Another
The success of these games is forcing publishers to slowly realize that, in their pursuit of fanboy homage, they are letting a world of profit pass them by.

No less so than movies or music, the game industry must take stock of itself and ask why it’s losing customers. Why statistics show that teenagers are playing less games, and the market has declined since its peak in the late 1990s. Why half of the top-selling PC games in the U.S. in 2005 weren’t even released that year. Why the U.K. top-seller list could have come from 1995 or any year since – two soccer games, two movie licenses, GTA.

It may be an exciting time for the market, but the future may not be so bright. Xbox 360 and PS3 games, sold on the promise of high-definition graphics, will bring the colossal risk of having a multi-million dollar flop that could ruin companies. Games threaten further appeal to the lowest common denominator for maximum possible profit.

But there is hope. The success of the DS in attracting new gamers hints the future of gaming may lead in a different direction.

Until this generation, handhelds, with their inferior screen and archaic graphics, had been regarded, at best, as an aside, at worst, as gaming’s black sheep, the relative you try not to bring up at parties.

But now, like the original PlayStation, handhelds have broken through a barrier; the one that Steven Poole, the author of Trigger Happy, once described as “the switch from ‘that looks like a computer game’ to ‘that looks like a film.'”

These sleek handhelds exist in a time when portable electronics like cell phones or iPods are commonplace and cool. With consoles threatening to aim increasingly at a tech-savvy early-adopter market, handhelds might just be the way gaming finds the mainstream – compared to the investment needed in a 360 or a PS3, handhelds are practically impulse buys.

And with smaller budgets, niche games are possible. Seeing the success of DS games such as Trauma Center: Under the Knife or Phoenix Wright warms the heart because it offers a peek into exactly the sort of new market games can tap. There are millions of people stuck in Dilbert cubicles who dream not of being a sword-slinging warrior but a lawyer or a surgeon. These games are the first steps toward letting them live that dream.

It’s time the games industry learns that even when we grow up, we can still want games. We can still have fantasies, and not all of them need be final.

Gearoid Reidy is a journalist working in Japan, and yes, he is a well-off young male. You can find him at www.gearoidreidy.com.

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