Hard game criticism
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 Over eight years old now, Wii’s been superseded and largely forgotten.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