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The Ever-Evolving State of Gaming, part 1 of 327

posted on December 16th, 2008 by tyson

Here it is, December 2008. I am setting here typing this up on a computer I rarely use for anything other than playing music and scouring the internet for unseen porn. If you would have told me ten years ago that Chinese Democracy would actually get released and that I would play console games more often than computer games, I would have laughed at you.

I just glanced over at my shelf and spied my little black DS Lite snuggled into its cute little sock carrying case; who would have thought that a fifth of Japan would come to embrace such a gaming device and that millions of them now occupy the United States as well? The old school Gameboy was popular…for little kids. Now men, women and kids play them. Speaking of women, they play games now! Jesus, my parents even play games now! What in the hell happened?!

Over the past year, this is something I have put a lot of (too much) thought into. Something happened to video games and us as a people that has, in turn, altered the gaming landscape. I have been trying to unravel all of the events that put the ball in motion to get us to where we are today and I think I have narrowed the chronology down to four big occurrences.

Consoles Evolved, Computers Didn’t

Since the dawn of time, games have existed on computers. When I got my first computer, there was one thing I learned immediately after discovering the existence of boobies on BBS’s and the internet: there were some pretty sweet games you could play on it. You had RPGs like Daggerfall or Wasteland that had depth that the Super Nintendo could only dream of. You had flight sims like Tie Fighter. You had SimCity. On top of it all, you could go online and play Doom 2 or if you went on BBS’s you could play Falcon’s Eye or Trade Wars. Computers played some freakin’ sweet games.

If computers were so great, what happened to them? Why is the number of original computer games shrinking? When did computers begin playing second fiddle to game consoles? The best answer I could come up with is that while computers stayed fundamentally the same, consoles grew into a much different creature.

Yes, over the years computers have gotten faster and their graphical capabilities have grown exponentially but the same can also be said for game consoles. We can all agree that at the heart of modern game consoles is a traditional computer. So what happened? In my humble opinion, until very recently, computers and game consoles have been a niche object reserved for the nerdiest of our species. Sure everyone has had a computer for a while now, but only the hardcore gamers drop thousands of dollars on them. There is no good reason for a regular person to have a $5000 boutique gaming rig when a $200 EEEPC gets on the net just as quickly.

It used to be that game consoles were very expensive and didn’t perform as well as most gaming machines. Now, consoles are cheaper and boast just as good of speeds and graphics as most decent gaming rigs. Why drop two grand on a Dell when you can drop $500 on the most expensive Playstation 3? Speaking of the Playstation, it helped to do one more key thing that has driven computer gaming into obsolescence. When Sony released the Playstation 2, do you remember the biggest marketing gimmick it used? It played DVDs. For the first time in the history of gaming, not only did you get a console that played games, you got a device that placed itself in a spot under the television long reserved for the VCR.

Now, when the kids weren’t playing Grand Theft Auto 3, mom and dad could watch a movie. The Playstation 2 was equipped to handle all of the most high end video and audio connections of the time and made itself useful for something other than gaming. To this day, find me a store bought computer that has an HDMI connector built in; there are not many. The modern video game console made itself useful in a variety of ways while hooked up to the television; until very recently, the computer insisted on being kept in the corner of the room, hooked up to its own monitor, and did not want to play with other devices.

Home theater PCs are becoming more common but it is too late, all of the latest generation of game consoles get on the internet and play a variety of media. Most computer games require a mouse and keyboard to play effectively and I just don’t think there are that many people out there willing to keep a wireless mouse and keyboard next to the TV remote on the coffee table. Game consoles got cheaper, more useful, and less threatening to most people. The quality of computer games didn’t drive gamers away, the computers themselves did. Now, game companies just aren’t willing to sink the money into a PC only title when more lucrative markets exist. Unfortunately, that means the quality of PC games is probably going to go down.

Train Man!

What the hell is Train Man and why does he matter to the state of gaming and how our culture responds to games? A few years ago, a book, and then a manga, and finally a movie came out in Japan called Densha Otoko or Train Man. Train Man is the supposedly true story about this total geek who meets a girl through exciting train-based circumstances and grows into a hip and “normal” person to be more attractive to her.

At the end of the story, the audience learns that she liked him just as he was and saw qualities in him that he didn’t think he had. Touching, I know. What Train Man did was succeed in making normal Japanese people realize maybe, just maybe, geeks were kind of cool people. For the first time since the 1970s, you had girls going into geek fortresses like Akihabara looking for hot nerds to hang out with. This ushered in an event that hadn’t occurred since the Renaissance: geeks were getting laid.

This trend had also been slowly sweeping the United States, due to a couple of movies and games like The Sims that brought both sexes together in somewhat of a gaming common ground. Eventually the two tidal waves of nerd love ran into each other and somehow, over the course of the last two or three years, it has become almost trendy to play video games. If it isn’t trendy, it is at least more acceptable. Now it is not uncommon to come home and play a couple of games with your girlfriend. The last time gaming brought people together was when Ms. Pac-Man came out and couples would go to an arcade or bowling alley and feed quarters into seven foot tall yellow arcade cabinets. It has been a while.

Game Designers Realized Not All Gamers Have Penises

It took a long ass time, but now game studios understand that some of their potential audience may have things called “breasts.” And no, I am not talking about saggy man boobs that come from five years of sucking down Cokes and playing Katamari Damacy… though that’s how I got mine. As it turns out, there are actually women who enjoy video games and their numbers are growing every day. As a result, studios are making games that aren’t all blood and guts and huge racks and skimpy thongs.

Women like stuff such as story, plot, and whatnot. This is forcing video game designers to think about their target demographic and to make things more appealing to both sexes, not just guys. What held true in the last section holds true here as well; until a few years ago, the last time game designers thought of women was when they released Ms. Pac-Man.

Be it good or bad, we now have pink DS’s and games with content that may appeal to a general audience and not just 16 year old guys. Now that video games aren’t as threatening to women as they once were, guys can actually admit to playing them without crushing our hopes of ever getting married and having families. All of this ties into my last point…

Game Studios Came To Grips With The Fact That Not All Gamers Were Shut-Ins and Casual Gaming Was Born!

We at videolamer can love or hate the Wii but one thing is certain, two-Gamecubes-duct-taped-together-with-a-motion-sensing-controller-tied-in revolutionized the state of gaming as we know it. Nintendo made a brazen move to appeal to audiences that may not be that into games like God of War and Halo. They realized that some people just want a simple game that they can pick up and put down in a matter of minutes. Shortly after, they took a play out of Sony’s playbook and made Wii Fit, a program that makes the Wii something other than a mere game console.

I am not exactly sure how the guys at the Big N pulled it off, but they found a game system that my parents actually get a kick out of playing. I think it partly has to do with the controller redesign. Older people have it in their minds that game controllers are complicated, and since the Wii controller doesn’t look like an Xbox or Playstation gamepad, it is somehow less daunting. The fact that Wii Sports incorporates familiar movements when playing a game like golf or tennis also makes it easier for non-gamers to figure out.

Another aspect of the casual gaming revolution we are seeing is the emergence of social gaming. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero have changed the rules about how consoles are perceived. Have you ever heard of a group of well-adjusted adults having a “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” party? No. The reason being is Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a game geared to people who have a lot of free time and a knack for complex strategy games. Anyone can pick up Singstar or Buzz! and have a good time. They may look like idiots but both games are something that can make whole groups of people look like idiots together.

The strides made in social gaming would not have happened as quickly had it not been for Xbox Live. When Xbox Live came out and after an initial bout of getting the bugs worked out, it made online gaming as easy as turning on your system and deciding what game to play. If you had a friend in California and you were somewhere else but both of you wanted to play Madden and talk to each other while doing so, now you could. Xbox Live was the first massively successful attempt at getting once solitary gamers to play together.

Yes, PC gamers have been able to do that for a while but there were not a lot of non-FPS games that utilized the feature and logging in and finding a random person to play with was not as easy as it is today with Xbox Live. The Playstation Network is getting there and with the release of Home, may start to make up some of the ground ceded to Microsoft. One way or the other, easy online gaming led to more social gaming and more social gaming got us to where we are today with the emerging genre of casual games.

Finally…

I have made it to the end of my long-winded diatribe. If you have made it this far, pat yourself on the back. It isn’t often that I talk at this length about gaming, but as I said, this is something I have been thinking about for a while and wanted to share to get your thoughts and feedback. It has taken me months to get my thoughts organized and now that I have typed this all out, one word is sticking with me… togetherness.

I think “togetherness” sums up the current state of gaming. You no longer have “gamers,” you just have people that play more games than others. Whether we play by ourselves or with other people, on a train while commuting to work or in a dark gaming den, on our iPhones and DS’s or our Alienware computers, everyone is now playing video games. Together.

8 Comments

  1. christian said on December 16, 2008:

    Only thing I will bring up is that cheap PCs are usually pretty damn beefy these days, save for the graphics card. If the PC market could get past that stupid hurdle most anyone could play new PC games on decent visual settings.

  2. pat said on December 17, 2008:

    only the abstract is available online, but this new yorker article followed tyson’s lead in talking about the impact Train Man has had on japanese culture.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/22/081222fa_fact_goodyear

  3. pat said on December 17, 2008:

    my previous comment somehow posted twice, so im editing with this instead.

    i do think that gaming in the present has less of a nerd stigma than it has had in years, but im not convinced a large number of grandmothers and kid sisters are picking up these consoles on their own. my impression is more that people like us (who were mostly gaming already) introduce gaming to the people around us and they are more receptive to it when its a wii remote than when its a playstation controller with 10 buttons, two sticks (which are also buttons) and a d-pad.

  4. Phil said on December 17, 2008:

    lol, yeah… I remember the TradeWars game from the BBS days! That awesome game is actually now being remade as a browser based game, and lots of old school players are back there… Check it at http://www.tradewarsrising.com

  5. Tyson said on December 18, 2008:

    Thanks for the Trade Wars heads up! Now if I could find a good online version of Falcon’s Eye….

  6. Stefan said on December 19, 2008:

    Nice! Now I just need to find Barren Realms Elite :)

  7. bruce said on January 4, 2009:

    Huh. As soon as I read the part about women getting into video games, I thought about the fact that my wife has been spending an hour or so a day here lately with Cake Mania on the DS. Then I scrolled down and lo and behold, there was the picture.

    Nintendo wasn’t -just- gunning for grandmas and Girl Scouts by making games that can be enjoyed in shorter bursts. I used to be the hardest of the hardcore, playing all night if need be. But as I’ve aged I’ve sought out other pursuits besides games and have noticed myself gravitating towards games that allow small measured bursts of distraction that fit into a more diverse array of activities instead of requiring huge time investments to keep up with. I believe I remember reading that Nintendo was aware that the aging demographic of traditional videogame players was aware of this fact too.

  8. bruce said on January 4, 2009:

    Man, I butchered that last sentence almost beyond recognition.

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