November 22, 2006

Video game "wars"

To interrupt the Catalan blogging, let's have a look at the recent video game console "wars" -- Dennis Mangan's take here, and two thoughts by Udolpho here and here. Since the Wii by Nintendo just came out, the competition has officially begun to see which corporation can narcotize the greatest number of minds of alleged adult homo sapiens. The new Nintendo system for sure will lose on this count because it's marketed to everyone, not just those who with their gaming buddies will test the limits of human endurance under sleep deprivation. Also, the Wii is just $250 including a sports game, while the desirable versions of the Xbox 360 and PS3 are $400 and $600, respectively -- at $600 for just the console, the PS3 had better convincingly simulate making passionate love to Adriana Lima. Otherwise, count me out.

I didn't realize it until I started thinking about buying the Wii (jury is still out), but I haven't played a new video game system for about 10 years -- eons in gaming time -- and the recent consoles haven't persuaded me to change that. Growing up I owned the original Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy, N64, and I've downloaded the emulator for the Gameboy Advance. Having played many games for all of these but the N64 and GBA, I notice several features about the more recent games that have made playing video games less appealing:

1) The core of the problem is that playing video games has gone from having a reliable source of occasional enjoyment to becoming enthralled to an alternate-universe-generating machine. Again, I'd gladly throw away large chunks of my leisure time to virtual reality if it involved entangling my body with those of a group of Brazilian supermodels, but I and many others are not stricken with the same irresistible itch to join the World of Warcraft. This devotion to the video game is quite a change from the situation in, say, 1989 where you sat down and played Tetris or worked on your Zelda game for an hour, saved it, and went on to something else, not feeling as if switching off the machine were like forcing yourself out of bed after a blissful dream.

2) Somewhat related to the above shift in dedication, there is a parallel shift in what the video games are testing their players on: the popular early games were more tests of ability -- visuo-spatial rotation, timing / coordination, etc. -- while the newer games are more tests of sheer endurance. When you bought a new Nintendo or Super Nintendo game, it was likely for the average player that you were not ever going to beat it (without cheating). The point was to do the best you could, try to improve, and see how far that would take you. If you didn't beat it, one of your more skilled friends would, and that was something to be proud of at eight years old! Now, though, when you pop in a newer game, it's more or less settled that you'll beat it -- the only open question is whether it will take 20 or 60 or 120 hours to complete. Where's the suspense?

In earlier games, you were aware of the high likelihood of dying soon -- one hit and it's back to start! -- and the poorly timed jump that cost you an hour's worth of playing was a constant source of frustration. Now that video games have largely become vehicles for semi-permanent adult escapism -- like coffin-beds for vampires -- this element has been diluted, since no escapist wants to fail or suffer bad luck in virtual reality too. Perhaps the clearest example of this contrast can be seen in one of the two games originally bundled with the Nintendo: in Duck Hunt, if you didn't manage to shoot down the targets, your turncoat hunting dog would point at you and snicker contemptuously (see here for a demonstration). PS3 worshippers would rise in rebellion if one of their fantasies were repeatedly interrupted by a character exclaiming, "Your ineptness amuses me!"

Not that I've played many of the newer games, but from what I've read in gaming forums, even hardcore video game players lament this drop in difficulty. Now when you beat a game, no one congratulates you with "Wow, you must be pretty good at that!" -- instead they mock you with "Wow, you sure had lots of time to kill!" Again, this ease obviates the need for improvement, and thus one key ingredient of flow never appears: operating at an ability level that's difficult enough to push you, neither boringly easy nor maddeningly impossible.

3) From the above two points, we'd expect one genre in particular to evaporate during the new gaming era: puzzle-based games. As a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I count these among my favorites. Though I haven't played all listed in the Wikipedia link, I can say that Tetris, the Adventures of Lolo (or Eggerland) games, and the Lost Vikings games are some of the best ever developed. What they lack in bedazzling graphics they more than make up for in enjoyable challenges of reasoning. Tetris everyone knows; this is a raw visuo-spatial rotation test with reaction-time coming into play when the speed increases. Columns for the Sega Genesis is similar. The Adventures of Lolo and Lost Vikings series are more like a Ravens Matrices problem -- they don't require any knowledge of vocabulary or even adult literacy, nor of mathematics. They test the mental juggling involved in managing multiple sub-goals that all work toward the main goal in a logical way. OK, so the games aren't as dry as taking a practice IQ test -- there's trial & error and some exploration necessary before you figure out what to do sometimes. Another game that's tailored for engineers is Krusty's Super Funhouse, in which you must, using various tools, channel a meandering group of mice through a series of obstacles toward a target location, whereupon they're gruesomely dispatched by a lovable Simpsons character.

Needless to say, close to 0% of the games listed in the Wikipedia link were developed for the newer consoles. The only ones that are recent were developed for Nintendo's handheld GBA and DS, which are marketed toward young children and casual gamers, not escapist adults.

Any of the above three reasons would be sufficient to steer clear of the new video game systems, with the exception of Wii, which signals Nintendo's public washing of its hands of the derelict male that craves his next fix of Grand Theft Auto, and its courting of, well, pretty much everyone else. One the one hand, maybe it's for the greater good that such males remain sedated and shackled to metal boxes, their muscles atrophying, so they can't harm anyone else -- but then I don't really know what the nerd : potential criminal ratio is among Grand Theft Auto players, so it could be that harmless loners who would do well to take up exercise -- or at least go out, get drunk, and dance -- are the game's primary reservoir of hosts.

To reiterate, I still don't know whether I'll wind up buying the Wii, but if, after the initial buzz dies down, it does seem that it has rescued video games from the Dark Ages in which they've been slumbering for the past ten years, then count me in. Until then, I'm content to stick with the classics on my emulators.

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