Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Body Strikes Back!

This post is more of an observation and summary than anything else, but I decided to share it anyway. This is a somewhat brief summary of one discussion session we had at the summer school workshop.

Before the era of video games, play typically meant something physical, an activity that involved using the entire body. Certainly there were some board games but nevertheless, play was more physical. We can roughly say the same about work, although the shift from entirely physical labor to office jobs happened a little bit earlier than video games, and there have been professions such as scribes who worked on a desk. Nevertheless, even though we cannot point it out directly, there is some point in history where the balance tipped towards work where people mostly sit down. For games, we know that this shift started with video games, so I'm mostly going to discuss what happened there.

The arcade cabinet and especially old mechanical flippers were in fact quite physical, at least compared to home computers and consoles. At the very least, players had to stand in front of arcade cabinets. According to research, sitting is slowly killing us, so at least ye olde arcade games were marginally healthier. Eventually though, gaming moved from arcades to homes in form of consoles, and players were planted on their sofas. The ergonomy of older console controllers and computer accessories was pretty hideous. At that point, most likely nobody cared. What was important was what these wonderful new devices could do, not how comfortable they were to use. Besides, you can play from your couch! How more comfortable can you get?

If we fast-forward to the 20th century, gaming has become more widespread and the new generation of kids is practically growing up playing games. Outdoors playing and sports are not out of the picture, but as is evident from the growing obesity problem, they do not get performed as much as they used to. Technology has transformed play. What was once play of the entire body has now become play of the mind. The percentage of work that's done on a desk is on the rise. We have started to care about ergonomy and game controllers have assumed much friendlier and rounder shapes. This transformation of play happened in a relatively short time (compared to the entire history of play).

The interesting this is what happened next. The 21st century came around, and gaming technology keeps getting better and better. A lot of technology is devoted to creating better graphics, what with the HD resolution and all. However, something else is happening as well: Guitar Hero introduces special controllers to the wider audience. The already iconic plastic guitar makes gameplay a lot more physical in one sweep and becomes a hit. Not to forget dancing games, a phenomenon somewhat older than the guitar concept. Before the next console generation, there are also gadgets like EyeToy for the PlayStation 2. This particular gadget uses a camera to make the user's entire body a controller. Too bad the games were not particularly great and the tech was somewhat limited.

Then, bang, next generation. Nintendo announces Wii (initially titled Revolution) that uses a motion controller as its primary controller. The vision is clear: get people more physically involved in gaming. The console becomes an instant hit, selling to new markets, and the one killer app is the simple Wii Sports, a collection of mini games that make use of the new motion controller. This is curious because not so long ago people were drawn from sports to video games, and now a game that has the players perform mock sports motions becomes a hit. Then Nintendo releases Wii Fit with a balance board controller. Wii becomes an exercise assistant.

Now Sony and Microsoft have followed suit with their own solutions. Move is basically a higher tech Wiimote, with better accuracy and whatnot. Microsoft Kinect on the other hand uses infrared camera technology to do what the EyeToy wasn't able to fully deliver: transforming the player's body into a controller. We've gotten back to standing and waving our hands. It doesn't end here though. While home consoles are playing with motion tracking, mobile game developers are commercializing the concept of alternate reality games run on mobile phones. Running around in the real world is the name of the game. Sound familiar?

It's not like couch gaming has come to the end of its reign. Most mainstream games are still played in the traditional way, using a controller with some buttons. Regardless, the option to play more physically is available for players of video games. We have yet to see the killer game that really sells physical controls to core gamers but in the meanwhile, a lot of people can enjoy more physical activity in front of their televisions and computers. Or they can go outside where with mobile technology and pervasive games even adults can play in a socially acceptable fashion.

So, in a sense, gaming technology has taken a detour. The body lost the game for a while, but now it's back with a vengeance.

No comments:

Post a Comment