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New Games Promise More Activity and Possible Family Appeal


When the Nintendo Wii hit the marketplace a couple of years ago, many were watching to see how the new console’s unusual controllers and relatively simplistic games would be accepted. We now know the answer: The enthusiastic response resulted in over 50 million Wii’s finding their way into homes worldwide as of March 31, 2009. (Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3 lag far behind with 30.2 and 22.73 million units respectively.)


The Wii’s worldwide embrace is significant because it clearly demonstrates there is a huge segment of the world’s population that would like video games a whole lot more if they didn’t have to commit a week just to learn how to play a game and if they can get off the sofa and move around. (Parents, like me, really like that last part.)


The other interesting aspect is the Wii is far inferior to its competitors from a technology point of view. It’s “CPU” (the chip that does the hard lifting to create the virtual gaming worlds) runs at roughly only one-quarter the speed of the other two systems. Yet most Nintendo games are family oriented, offer fun and colorful environments, and encourage play by multiple participants.


While the Wii’s success went beyond what I was expecting, I’m not all that surprised to discover many of us would play these games if they were entertaining, easy to learn and weren’t all about shooting someone’s brains out.


With Nintendo raking in wads of cash (prior to the Wii, it was the company that was struggling to stay in the video game race) it’s also not surprising the other two gaming giants have taken notice. Thankfully, because of Nintendo’s lead, the outcome may mean even more games that will turn the family room into a very fun virtual play place.


At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3) – a convention where the gaming industry pulls out its best toys – Microsoft revealed that they have been watching the trend toward full-body gaming very closely. The result, if it works as well as the demonstration videos depict, is nothing short of science fiction coming true.


Named Project Natal, the company has developed an imaging system that looks similar to a webcam and sits above or below your television screen (similar to the Wii’s sensor bar). Using this device, your current Xbox 360 creates an amazing virtual world that allows you to interact with what you see on the screen by simply moving your body.


The demonstrations truly look too good to be true, and we really won’t know for sure if what we see will work just as well in our own homes. A family sits on a sofa watching a racing game. Their daughter is driving simply by holding her hands on an imaginary steering wheel. She hits the pits and her dad jumps up and uses an air wrench (bit of a pun there – just like an “air guitar”) to tighten the bolts on the newly mounted tires – which he also had to “lift” into place.


Another segment shows a boy practicing some kickboxing moves and the character on the screen reflects his every action. In a soccer game, a player virtually kicks the ball with their foot. (The Microsoft produced demo showing all these tricks, and more, is here.)

For me, the most impressive showing, assuming it’s as unscripted as they claim it is, is from a game designer called Lionhead. The segment features an on-screen character named Milo who appears to be able to interact to not only the movements of the person in the real world, but also to her spoken phrases. This demonstration begins to touch upon how transparent the interactive world may become in the next decade.


Obviously, if you are a parent as cynical as myself, you can’t help but wonder what games will be created that will take advantage of these amazing technologies in a negative way. Certainly it seems content creators of violent and sex-laden games are often recognized as the leaders in the industry – just as R-rated movies seem to attract the best directors and talent.


However, as the gaming world continues to evolve, it has already proven that games playing to a family-oriented audience stand to make a ton of money. The Nintendo Wii is just the latest indicator of this fact. (And yes, I know, there are some nasty games that are available for the Wii, but Nintendo itself has been fairly keen to keep it’s games clean from profanities, sex and explicit violence.)


I also believe these new game systems may actually bring families together in a new way. Unlike when we used to sit in a semi-circle and watch a television show thirty years ago in stunned silence (“Shhhh!! We’re trying to watch!”), interactive games that support multiple players may actually provide a common platform for families to begin playing together again. The Wii’s ease of use allows parents, who may not be as proficient at pushing seven buttons in a certain order, to quickly jump in and join the fun. From the looks of it, Microsoft is trying to take the Xbox in the same direction.


So, although the video game landscape will still be dotted with gun toting double-D breasted women shooting their way through 56 levels of carnage, there is some hope that the big game manufacturers are finally pulling their heads out of all that doom and gloom and may be creating a few titles for the rest of us.


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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