Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SEC­TIONS - Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad IAN BO­GOST

Ian Bo­gost on the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Nin­tendo’s gam­ing rev­o­lu­tion

Be­fore its 2006 re­lease, Nin­tendo’s Wii bore the co­de­name ‘Rev­o­lu­tion’, a fact that’s easy to for­get. As a name, how­ever, it’s a hard sell to­day. Over eight years old now, Wii’s been su­per­seded and largely for­got­ten. Boxed and clos­eted.

The Wii U sys­tem that’s re­placed it has had its share of chal­lenges, but per­haps the most sur­pris­ing, given the sys­tem it in­her­its its name from, is the new de­vice’s fail­ure to re­alise the prom­ise that made the orig­i­nal so pur­port­edly revo­lu­tion­ary. It wasn’t the phys­i­cal games such as Wii Sports, nor even the in­tu­itive, re­mote-style con­troller that filled out the uni­form of Wii’s rev­o­lu­tion. No, Wii was revo­lu­tion­ary in that lots of peo­ple wanted to play it be­cause it was a videogame sys­tem, not in spite of the fact it was. Not just lots of ‘gamers’, ei­ther. Just lots of peo­ple. Kids and par­ents. Re­tirees. Cu­ri­ous out­siders. Wii was for ev­ery­one.

That alone is noth­ing new. Or­di­nary folk have been play­ing games for­ever – board and card and gam­bling games, of course, but com­puter games as well – and Wii hardly marked the ad­vent of ca­sual games played by broad au­di­ences. There was Pac-Man and

Cen­tipede and their coin-op kin­dred; Soli­taire and Minesweeper on every Win­dows 3 desk­top; Tetris, Be­jew­eled and Snake on Palm Pi­lots and mobile phones; and so on.

But the dif­fer­ence between Wii and all those other forms of ca­sual games – the dif­fer­ence that made the de­vice revo­lu­tion­ary – is that Wii of­fered games you played know­ing that they were games, rather than games that snuck in un­der the radar, pos­ing as some­thing else.

This is one of the dirty se­crets of gam­ing. When we cite statis­tics about how many women or peo­ple over 55 play games, we do so with­out their earned affin­ity. Many will still in­sist that they do not play games, only to ac­knowl­edge that, yes, ac­tu­ally, they do play Candy Crush, or Soli­taire, or Words With

Friends. Those in­vested in games as a life­style or liveli­hood tend to cel­e­brate this ad­mis­sion as a vic­tory. “See! You’re one of us too!” But it’s cold com­fort to learn that a play­er­ship rep­re­sent­ing en­tire cat­e­gories of hu­mans have no de­lib­er­ate re­la­tion­ship with the works that sup­pos­edly un­der­lie that affin­ity.

Sure, ‘ev­ery­one’ plays Words With Friends, but if in so do­ing the game van­ishes, if it dis­ap­pears into the am­bigu­ous, repet­i­tive ac­tiv­ity of some­thing to do on your phone while wait­ing in the queue for a latte, then it oc­cu­pies a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory of me­dia ac­tiv­ity than it does for those who self­i­den­tify as ‘gamers’, or who ac­tively seek out gam­ing as an on­go­ing leisure ac­tiv­ity.

Me­dia the­o­rist Mar­shall McLuhan had a name for this dif­fer­ence: fig­ure ver­sus ground. Fig­ure is what we see be­cause it is set in re­lief against ground, which we don’t see and dis­ap­pears into the back­ground. For play­ers, mobile games might be­come fig­ures, be­cause they’re sought out and en­gaged with for the sake of play it­self. They con­trast with the ground of own­er­ship of a de­vice, the nec­es­sary in­vest­ment that makes play pos­si­ble. But for others, mobile games are the ground against which more de­lib­er­ate ac­tiv­i­ties are made palat­able. Stand­ing in line wait­ing for cof­fee, for ex­am­ple.

Wii was revo­lu­tion­ary be­cause it not only in­spired peo­ple of all stripes to play videogames, but be­cause it also fash­ioned game­play into fig­ure rather than ground. Those who played a Wii couldn’t help but ac­knowl­edge that they were play­ing a videogame, and that they were en­joy­ing do­ing so. In part, this is be­cause Wii re­tained one of the old, pre­vi­ously neg­a­tive con­texts of games: the con­sole at­tached to a TV, the model of videogame play that had pre­vi­ously in­spired ap­a­thy or even dis­gust in the minds of those who don’t self-iden­tify as play­ers. In part, it did so be­cause Nin­tendo’s brand is so strong and so long-liv­ing (along with Atari, it’s an epony­mous name for the videogame). And in part it did so by of­fer­ing whole­some, fa­mil­iar, phys­i­cally en­gag­ing play ac­tiv­i­ties that were easy to pick up, un­der­stand, and play with others.

But Nin­tendo’s rev­o­lu­tion failed to make such an at­ti­tude last. Soon enough, our mothers and grand­pas and lit­tle sis­ters and den­tists picked up smart­phones and tablets, and gam­ing re­ceded from fig­ure back into ground. The real ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the Nin­tendo rev­o­lu­tion were Ap­ple, Facebook, Sam­sung and Google, which took the ba­ton af­ter Nin­tendo’s lead. The re­sult: to­day, more peo­ple than ever be­fore play videogames, but fewer of them re­alise it.

Wii was revo­lu­tion­ary in that lots of peo­ple wanted to play it be­cause it was a videogame sys­tem, not in spite of that fact

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