Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

I didn’t own an original iPhone. In fact, I’ve never had a data plan before, never purchased a piece of software for a phone, never played any phone games more complicated than the demos that came with the free phone that came with my contract (read any given iteration of Snake). And after swearing up and down that I was not going to stand in line for an iPhone 3G on launch day, and would maybe, eventually get one when the hype died down, I found myself driving 90 miles each way to a distant mall, swapping places in line with my wife every half an hour or so for three hours. When all was said and done, we both had shiny new iPhone 3Gs, which we spent what little was left of the day playing with and exploring.  It’s an extraordinary piece of machinery, really, and if any other company than Apple had pioneered it, it likely would not suffer the backlash it does—nor, however, would it likely be as popular.


Having brought the thing home, I decided to poke around the iTunes App Store, really the thing that gives the iPhone longevity as a mobile platform. In time, I might not need to take my laptop when I go on a trip, though we’re still a touch away from that. I purchased both Super Monkey Ball, a property I’ve had affection for since the GameCube, and Bejeweled 2, a version of the game which arguably started the popularity of modern casual games.


Super Monkey Ball is… well, it’s Super Monkey Ball, with tilt controls, which is admittedly pretty cool. It takes a little getting used to, and it’s clearly supposed to be the graphical showcase for the system, but it’s fun.  Bejeweled is exactly what it’s always been, but somehow my fingers might be fatter than a mouse pointer or stylus, because I’m having problems playing it as well as I remember being able to.


What really stands in the way of the iPhone as a gaming platform is partially what makes it so attractive in many other ways—its sleekness. With no dedicated physical gaming buttons or joysticks, its appeal to gamers as a gaming platform seems limited. But the reality is that as casual gaming becomes more and more popular, that doesn’t really matter to the bottom line.


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
A collection of observations and essays about the ongoing effort to sell video games to older players.

One of the biggest transitions occurring with gamers is the wide diversity of people playing video games today. A recent speech and blog post by David Hayward outlines the huge variety of gamers and personalities now playing. Architects, undergrads, casual gamers, women, and men are all active participants with a huge diversity of games to play. He cites a statistic claiming that 40% of the U.K. now plays video games, beating out soccer and cinema respectively. The people he references as gamers are all employed, sociable, and far from the negative stereotypes video games still sometimes hold. They’re also all in their 20s and 30s. From a cultural point of view, that’s awesome. From an economic point of view, that’s troubling. The issue is not what can we do to get more people playing games, it’s what can we do to get people with money playing games.


I don’t have the statistics of wealth distribution but it’s a safe assumption that the average young person starting their career (and maybe raising a family) does not have a lot of disposable income. It just takes time to get a steady job, pay for a family, pay off the mortgage, have free time, and start to have excess money. So although having a young consumer base creates a great image and culture, their capacity to spend lots of money on the hobby is somewhat limited. Enter the Baby Boomers. Unlike their children, this demographic generally has a decent amount of disposable income, lots of free time, and are up for spending those things on a hobby. This isn’t a very original observation either; if you’ve noticed the glut of film remakes and the general packaging of nostalgia in other consumer mediums, then you can see what I’m talking about. The movie industry long ago noticed that the ones with cash are the ones you make movies for, and have responded in kind. There are 78 million Baby Boomers out there and only 19% play video games. That’s a lot of untapped potential. The question now is…what kind of video games do Baby Boomers want to play?


Chris Miller at CNNMoney asked this same question in 2006 and outlined what games have made progress so far. Brain Age seems to strike a chord, Civilization IV works, and one grandma claimed that GTA was the only game out that really appealed to her. In other words, like Hayward’s examples of young gamers in the other article, it’s all over the map. There isn’t one game that will appeal to an entire demographic, but there may be one thing that’s drawing them to these various games. One of the more curious details in Miller’s piece is that one of the older gamers got into the hobby by participating in her son’s gaming website. It was a way for them to bond. Many other Baby Boomers made the same observation and have used video games to relate with their kids or grandkids. Lou Kesten with the AP wrote an article outlining the terse relationship parents have with this connection, noting that 43% of parents refuse to play games with their kids. The chief complaints are the lack of outdoor sports time or benefit to playing games as a hobby. There is a certain cultural barrier present here but it’s unlikely that this is actually based on the simple argument that games are a waste of time. We live in a society where a basketball player is paid more than an EMT, so people are certainly capable of assigning value to sport and play. The issue with these parents, many of whom are in their fifties and about to have the same financial status as Baby Boomers, is getting them to find value in time spent gaming. Having it be a way to bond with their kids could be the way to create that.


After putting together the basics for this gargoyle of a piece, I decided to take a novel approach to the question: I asked my Dad what kind of video game he wanted to play. He responded with the very helpful, “I don’t know.” So the next time I was in town I broke out the Wii and sampled as many games as I could with him. An avid guitar player, my first guess was Guitar Hero. He was excited about trying the game but after bombing a few levels he complained that it was too different from the real thing. Wii Sports went over well and we had a good game of golf together. Zelda never perked his interest, and I decided to avoid No More Heroes. The goal was to find a game that he would play on his own, not just with me, but nothing seemed to really click. The only time I can ever remember him taking an interest when I was a kid was when he saw me playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. He helped me figure out some of the trickier puzzles and after I beat the game he had me show him the ending. After trying out the Wii he did ask if there was anything like that available and I had to tell him no.


Many developers have already started experimenting with family-based video game concepts. The Lego games do a good job of creating a fun children’s game that gives adults something to engage as well. Many of the puzzles incorporate co-op with the specific goal of having the family work together while playing. But is there a way to get them to play video games like the younger generation does? To see them as a fitting distraction to do alone like you do with T.V. or movies? Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer notes the extreme lack of fathers or parental relationships in games, suggesting a game narrative that deals with these issues head-on. Epic fantasy may be fun for some but perhaps other topics may need to be explored to appeal to this audience. Playing time duration is also different for older gamers, who tend to just play in brief bursts, as exemplified by Sudoku or the Brain Age games. What’s key to all these different examples is that they are based on a different value system than the games we, the younger generation, tend to play. Making a game for a Baby Boomer needs to provide different sensations and values than a game focused on graphics, challenge, or complex systems.


Gamasutra did an excellent piece sampling a series of older gamers and discovered a variety of interesting quirks to entice play: bigger text, shorter play sessions, and proper manuals to explain the games were all major complaints. You also have to explain a lot of alien gaming concepts that most people take for granted. Crossing the generation gap won’t be easy when there are so many new ideas for the audience to ingest, but perhaps just a little encouragement to try is all that’s necessary. As the article notes, just getting them used to video games is really the best approach. After the gaming marathon with my folks I’d given up on ever getting them into playing games the way I play them. But my Dad called me the other day to tell me that he had finally found a video game that he liked. It had to do with guitars and he told me to check it out. It’s essentially a 3-D guitar player that you can zoom in and around that has very detailed finger movements. It looks like something out of Unreal. He uses it to teach himself guitar licks and loves being able to observe the complex finger work. There’s no interaction outside of the camera and I don’t think many people would even call it a video game. But I’ve got to admit, it’s a start.


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-14

Welcome to E3 Week, people!  Since nobody on our illustrious staff is actually going to E3, you’d probably be better off going to one of those other gaming sites if it’s comprehensive E3 news coverage that you’re looking for.  Otherwise, you can count on us to make occasional remarks on the big news stories and keep reviewing games.  You know, kind of like we always do.


McFadden is good and all, but he's no James Starks.

McFadden is good and all, but he’s
no James Starks.


I can’t imagine that most publishers think to themselves, “you know when a good time would be to release a game?  E3 week.  Nobody could possibly get too distracted by the overload of gaming news to forget about Big Release X, could they?”  Of course they could.  As such, there’s very little motivation to put out big releases this week, since the attention is bound to be diverted to other things.


Given the light and decidedly unimpressive list of releases this week, then, there’s only one thing that really sticks out as something I’d particularly like to play: NCAA Football 09.  Can EA put enough improvements into their yearly college football game to warrant yet another purchase?  ‘Tis the eternal question!  It is true, though, that I tend to welcome excuses to try and take my alma mater’s football program (University at Buffalo, and yes, they have a football team.  Kind of.) to a bowl game, since I’m relatively sure such an occurrence will never happen in the real world in my lifetime.  Um, Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!


OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!


Up and around the rest of the release list, Southpeak’s Mister Slime actually has nothing to do with the Dragon Quest series (unfortunately!) but it still looks like a fun little puzzle game, and Her Interactive moves their Nancy Drew series to the Nintendo DS, where it seems like it would be a perfect fit for its female adolescent target audience.  We Love Golf! is, for obvious reasons, a perfect fit for the Wii, and there’s a PlayStation 2 exclusive (I had no idea those still existed!) called B-Boy, which is You Got Served!-style breakdancing action.  Given that my 4-year-old fancies himself a breakdancer of late, I may just end up with that.


The full list of releases, along with a trailer for NCAA Football 09, is after the jump.  Happy E3 week, everyone!  Try


not

to hit information overload!


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008
Poor Gordon has seen better days.

Hey, didja know there’s a Wii version of Hell’s Kitchen coming out this year?  It’ll even have a virtual Gordon Ramsay berating you after every misstep (though the unfortunate ‘T’ rating ensures that Ramsay will be a bit toned down from his TV self; I don’t think you can tell someone to “f(beep) off” and keep a ‘T’ rating…unless, of course, Ubisoft decides to fix this by inserting an audible beep where the “uck” would be, in keeping with the TV show, which would actually make me unnaturally happy.


That said…who else thinks Gordon’s devilish (ha) good looks have kind of gone down the drain in his video game rendering?  He looks a little bit more like a clean-cut Nick Nolte (with oddly wavy hair) than himself in this screen, and while his mouth is contorted in rage, his eyes scream indifference.  Also, his right cheek is in danger of falling off his face.  That’d be a nasty surprise in a plate of risotto.


Still, I have to play this game, if only for the fact that I keep dreaming up features like character customization, implemented for the sole purpose of hearing virualRamsay shout inappropriate things like “what’s wrong? Can the munchkin not reach the pot of boiling f(beep)ng water?!”


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
The appeal of the secondhand / vintage shop is spreading to the arena of video games.

If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.


Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.


Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.


Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.


Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 


This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.


I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.


Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.


Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.


Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.


Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.


Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.


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