There has been a lot of buzz lately regarding Nintendo’s Wii Fit. The ‘hardcore gamer’ audience doesn’t like it because it isn’t another Mario or Halo (i.e. not something they think they want to play), and their favorite designer is making this sort of stuff rather than another Zelda. 1UP, on the other hand, suggests that it’s this type of software – Wii Fit, Wii Sports, Brain Age – and the designs of the Wii and DS, that will help expand the market to new audiences. And it’s doing just that.
What the Wii and DS have done, that gaming consoles have not done since the days of the Atari when games were new and exciting, has been to expand the market to include more than just young males or the 18-35 ‘core audience’. And this is pretty significant because it means more people who don’t usually play games are now playing them and seeing the values inherent to them rather than just hearing about the latest GTA or school shooting on the local news. And yes, making games mainstream is indeed the future of the game: it has to be played by more than just a fraction of the population and it has to be recognized as something anybody can do that has products catered to everybody.
Yet while this is the future of the game as a market, it is not the future of the game as a medium. The game as a medium will not get very far with only Mario and Halo and GTA and Wii Fit. While those games are fine, it’s not the future of the game – the game as expressive medium with a capacity to critically explore the nature of the human condition. That future actually lies in the realm of art games and socially conscious games and…Ico.
What Ico (and its successor, Shadow of the Colossus) did was become one of the first games that we can actually call art without having to make up excuses or complex arguments to the point. Like MYST before it, Ico produced a world in which the environment itself was designed and represented as artistic and it also produced emotions in the player incredibly more complex than the simple fear, aggression, and humor that games are already pretty good at. And what’s more, it raised not just a series of unanswered questions about the game world but on the ethics of the actions of the protagonist. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus make you think, and they do so in a brilliant environment that is timeless beyond the limitations of technology. When I look at the future of the game, I see many works like this that explore the nature of our world and of humanity rather than simply providing another escapist pastime. That’s art, and that’s where games have to go if they ever want to become something more than glorified frisbees and Chess boards (not that there isn’t anything wrong with Chess or frisbee).
But Miyamoto is also right. Why? Because in order for games to become recognized as art, they need to be recognized as art by a mainstream audience rather than a ‘gamer elite’. Go up the street and ask anybody if they know what Ico or Shadow of the Colossus is and you’ll get blank stares. The only people who play these games are people who are already gamers, who own a PlayStation 2 and understand how to use its complex control scheme. You can’t share this game with grandma or an art critic because they just won’t know what to do.
Wii Fit does that. It opens up the market to those people who need to know how to play games and understand why games are so great. It does that by giving them something they’ll actually want to play. And once they learn how to play a game they like, they’ll be gamers forever and we’ll no longer have to use that silly term. Because you know what? Everybody will be a gamer, just like everybody is a movie goer.
And as this happens, we should be making second-level model games for this audience, games that will make them think about their world and the human condition just like a great work of literature or film. This isn’t to suggest that Fumito Ueda should stop making Ico 3. Ico 3, while on a level that pushes the concept of what ludic art is, is currently inaccessible by the audience of the likes of Wii Fit, even though it is something they should probably be very interested in. In order to get the audience to that point, we need to work with baby-steps, making smaller, more easily accessible – but just as significant – works of art.