The explosion of casual gaming over the last few years, primed by companies like PopCap and touched off by Nintendo’s incredibly accessible Wii, has put gaming firmly in the mainstream. Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and other AAA games, while not by any stretch of the imagination “casual,” end up selling in the tens of millions of units, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue. Nintendo employees were said to generate more money per employee than Goldman Sachs, and the growth of the industry was barely hampered by recession. Despite all this, there is still a double misapprehension about the gaming world: “non-gamers” think games are for gamers, and “gamers” think games are… well, for them.
The reality is that games have reached the point where games are simply a product, easily divisible into categories the way TV shows and movies, and indeed things like cameras and microwaves are. Games used to be made for gamers, and money was a pleasant by-product. Now the game is a pleasant by-product of the money-making process. And the DSi XL is a perfect exemplar of this new situation.
Later this month, Nintendo will be shipping the device, essentially a super-sized DSi; it will be the fourth iteration of the insanely popular handheld gaming console. The question brought up by Nintendo fans when it was announced was obvious: who asked for this? The DSi was just recently released, with a slightly larger and brighter screen than its predecessor, the DS Lite, and along with its new online store and dual cameras, it seemed to be an improvement people could get behind. But 4.2-inch screens? A chubby stylus that doesn’t conceal itself in the device? An e-book reader? The collective fanboy mind boggled. And for good reason.
There are stories, probably not true, of Native Americans seeing ships on the horizon but not seeing them, because the idea of ships like that existing didn’t fit in to their worldview. Well. I think we can safely say that the braves around Plymouth Rock saw the enormous galleons, but like today’s fanboys, their minds refused to recognize the import of what was happening. In the case of the braves, it meant annihilation; for the fanboys, it means marginalization — which, to the fanboy, is worse than annihilation.
See, gaming has always been somewhat of a closed community. Kids born after 1975, growing up playing Atari and NES, and went on to adulthood with gaming as much a part of their life as movies or TV — but often more so, because everyone watches TV, but gaming was like a club. Nobody cared if you watched CBS or NBC, but whether you were a SNES or Genesis kid was of huge importance. And people who didn’t play games — well!
The insider culture persists to this day, but the actual distinction is disintegrating around them (that is to say, us). Even when casual games and “hardcore” games alike were selling millions of units, gamers could convince themselves that games were still being made for them, but more people were just “getting into it.” But aside from a few notable exceptions like Valve, some indie kids, and niche developers, that’s simply not the case any more. Games are being created to attract as great an audience as possible without completely compromising the content. Like it or not, Modern Warfare 2 is the Titanic of the gaming world.
But I digress. What does the DSi XL have to do with any of this? Think of it this way (in another digression). Once upon a time, Mohamed went to the mountain. That was when gamers at heart, raised on old-school gaming prohibitive to the masses in both price and playability, were the audience. But recently, an invisible line was crossed. And now Nintendo is bringing the mountain to Mohamed. Because Mohamed has poor eyesight and needed a bigger mountain brought to him. See?
Look, the point is this: the DSi XL is a symbol of the final step in the little progression I’ve illustrated here:
Once the non-gamer community is not only compatible with the gaming industry, but actively designed for, then you can be absolutely sure that gaming is no longer a gamer’s game. Even things like the Wii Fit weren’t specifically designed for a subset of people who were unreachable by Nintendo. The DSi XL is exactly that: a product made just for people who not only don’t, but could not play Nintendo games.
What does it mean? Well, one thing it doesn’t mean is there will no longer be good games or anything like that. Movies were never a closed community — they were created as mass entertainment and are to this day, yet no one would say that moviemaking (or moviegoing) is dead, drowned in the mainstream. Furthermore, the medium is equally open to arthouse flicks and weird shorts as it is to blockbusters and B-movies. Movie fans would agree on is that the medium was not made for one or the other — and, significantly, you don’t have to love one to love the other. That hasn’t been the case for games until recently, but soon it’ll have to be. What the DSi XL signifies is that gaming has gotten bigger than gamers. The writing’s been on the wall for some time but now it’s on the billboards as well.
For a time, there will remain the “true gamer” argument: the only true gamers are the ones who can beat Contra on three lives, or can wall-jump to the roof of the castle in Super Mario 64. But sooner or later, it will have to be accepted by the gaming community that true gamers are just a market segment, and an increasingly small one at that. It’s sad, isn’t it — but it’s bittersweet, like an empty nest. We’ve watched our baby grow up from a Pong paddle and monochrome vector screen to the photorealistic, politically inflammable, yet accessible-by-grandma chimaera of present day.
The sooner we “true gamers” accept that the world of gaming now encompasses our non-gamer friends, our family, and a billion other people who never knew the joy of Gradius, the sooner we can move on — and start playing again.