After posting my introduction, I started thinking about ways to draw new people into the gaming community. Evangelizing non-gamers has always been a bit off putting to me, since the action implies that people who already play games are licensed to act as cultural arbitrators. To me, the idea that non-gamers must somehow undergo a "conversion," is condescending and misguided. Why must newcomers conform to the status quo rather than the community reshaping itself to embrace them?
For those of you who can sense a post about the Wii coming on, you are right. No discussion about incorporating new gamer demographics is complete without at least mentioning Nintendo's plucky little wonder. Recently, I finally jumped on the bandwagon myself and (after considerable searching) hunted down a Wii. I'm enjoying it very much thus far and as a welcome surprise, so is my girlfriend, Hanah. As I write this, I can hear the spinning sound of Mario Kart Wii's item blocks, and it is music to my ears.
Hanah has never been a big gaming enthusiast, so why is it now that she can't get enough of Mario Kart? Toss out any theories about the motion control, as she is strictly a Wiimote and Nunchuk kind of gal. Revolutionary gameplay elements can be discounted as well: It's not like the Mario Kart formula has undergone some huge revision this generation. On the contrary, I think that Mario Kart Wii follows more closely in the tradition of Super Mario Kart than its N64 and GameCube predecessors. So why is Hanah just now finding enjoyment in a game that is essentially fifteen years old (can you believe Mario Kart has existed for over fifteen years?)?
I argue that the answer lies in the art of presentation.
Consider the way Wii is marketed: you'd be hard pressed to find a Wii advertisement without a group of people who look to be having the time of their life playing Wii. Instead of a barrage of cutscenes or game screens, the camera devotes a huge amount of time to capturing the players' enjoyment. These happy, smiling people are of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and genders, which suggests to the uninitiated that anyone is welcome to partake in this new system.
Personally, I believe that the visual aesthetic of the Wii is focused being open and inviting. It's small, shiny white box radiates simplicity and warmth. It's menus are composed mainly of pictures, rounded edges, and clearly labeled programs. Instead of flashy transitions, there are subtle screen wipes and soothing music playing in the background. The Wii is inviting, but takes pains not to be overbearing.
Juxtapose this with the advertising and the aesthetics of the Xbox 360 and the PS3. While they boast the best visuals in town, their flashy displays and bold designs seem to exude a more aggressive style than the Wii. Games are advertised in the fashion of Hollywood block busters, complete with orchestral music and rapid fire camera cuts. The player is no where to be seen, and the games are presented as entities that demand attention.
A mix of hardware requirements and design choices make the systems large and imposing. Both their physicality and their software are meant to be testaments to kicking ass, and making sure everyone to know it. Until just recently, even the interface of the Xbox had the connotation of a weapon: navigating through "blades" to check your messages sounds a bit more extreme than simply clicking on the "Mail" button, does it not? I don't think XBL's recent face-lift was a coincidence in light of the Wii's success.
Additionally, I think Microsoft and Sony's liberal use of abbreviations and jargon (XBLA , PSN , XMB , Home, GamerTag, etc.) work to subtly inhibit new gamers' acclimation. Learning a new vocabulary of terms and definitions is daunting for someone who, until now, has sat outside the gaming world.
However, despite their stark presentational and marketing differences, much of the Wii's substantive content is no different than 360, PS3 or previous Nintendo systems games. Mario Kart Wii uses the same basic gameplay mechanics that have been in place since 1992. And yet, it is only since the Wii that Hanah and I have shared in the satisfaction of a well placed banana peel. The Wii was able to get a foot in the door, allowing Mario Kart to introduce itself.
Therein lies the true genius of the Wii: it is a system that can package and market almost games to a wide audience, regardless of whether those games are established classics or fresh concepts, "casual" or "hardcore." I think this is undoubtedly a Good Thing, as it allows people to ease into gaming. It is my hope that today's new gamers will gradually realize that gaming skills can be broadly applied to a number of genres and platforms. Eventually, these newcomers will be able to define their personal gaming tastes and take an active role in seeking out the kinds of games they enjoy playing.
Now if you'll excuse me, Hanah and I are going to go for a drive on Rainbow Road.