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Families Back On Video Game Radar


The Nintendo Wii has become a sort of modern day David and Goliath adventure. Nintendo, with its aging GameCube system, was being overshadowed by glitzier offerings from Sony and Microsoft when they respectively introduced their PlayStation II and Xbox units. A few years passed, and Nintendo made the choice to forgo more pixels and faster computer chips in exchange for a sleek new design and a commitment to a whole new way of controlling a video game. They also had a stable of family-oriented characters to draw upon in creating new titles.


The outcome has written a new page in marketing history, as the struggling company has found itself firmly back in the "game," so to speak. The challenge has also sparked a litany of news stories showcasing Wii-love-fests with images of typically non-gaming demographics, like senior citizens, waving around Wii controllers and lobbing virtual tennis balls.


Certainly those companies who are still stuck peddling to the typical 15 to 35 year-old male gaming audiences were bound to take notice -- and they have.


Microsoft, the relative new contender in the video game space, has basked in the success of a handful of its major titles, like Halo. But first-person shooters aren't attracting the suburban family to gather 'round the console and toast off a few aliens. So the Redmond WA company is recognizing their Xbox 360 could use a little tweaking in the marketing department, and on May 13, 2008, revealed two new attempts to regain parents' appreciation for their high-tech console.


Back in 2006, the company contracted Rare Games (a UK company once owned by Nintendo and creators of classics like Donkey Kong) to create Viva Pinata. It was hoped the game's premise of raising virtual pet piñatas would become a flagship product demonstrating Microsoft's commitment to family games. Critics loved it (I loved it) and players -- even adults -- enjoyed the unique premise. However, the marketing proved to be off-base, and failed to capture non-informed potential purchasers that Viva was more than just a little kids' game.


Now the piñatas are getting a second chance in Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise. On the website wired.com, the game's lead designer Justin Cook relates the game's ability to reach both adults and kids the same way a Pixar movie does.


"I love some of those [Pixar] movies more than my kids do, but we'll all sit and watch them. There should be more games that do that. When I was a kid, games were for kids because kids were buying them -- but now we're grown ups. I sometimes wonder how kids are going to get to the place where we are, in the same way. It'll be nice if there was this gentle ramp of games they could buy and build up to."


The other game released from Rare for the Microsoft Xbox 360 is Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a game that began its history long ago on the Nintendo 64.


Mr. Cook is wise to recognize that many parents either aren't interested in the vast majority of game titles being released lately or -- an even worse prospect for game sellers -- they don't want their kids playing M-rated violent titles. His conclusion is sound: If kids aren't enjoying video games when they are young, how will the industry gain their attention when they are adults? (I also interpret his "gentle ramp of games" philosophy with a touch of cynicism. I can't help but think he's really saying, "We can't have them start with all-out bloody carnage -- we need to work them up slowly.")


At this point you may be thinking, "So what? I don't want my kids playing video games and wasting their time anyway."


Fair enough. We limit game playing in our home by both time and game content. But I'm convinced there is so much more that can be done to make games not only a tolerable family experience, but an enjoyable one that could be far more beneficial than watching television.


We are just seeing the tip of the joystick when it comes to new game technologies. All manufacturers will be following Nintendo's lead with far more sophisticated control devices. I believe the next wave of new game consoles will be far less about graphics and processor speeds and far more about new fun ways to control the characters on the screen.


Case in point: Back to the Nintendo Wii. If you haven't heard about the Wii Fit, you will soon. On May 21, 2008 this "game" will hit store shelves in the US and Canada. Having released a few weeks ago in Europe, it's already being heralded by many as an effective way to motivate people to keep doing the exercises we all hate.


Ideas like these renew my hope that video games will eventually offer far more creative ideas that involve fewer guns and blood effects. Hopefully all three major manufacturers will continue to recognize the enormous market potential for games that are fun, appeal to a wide age group, and have positive consequences as a result of playing them.

Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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