Bridging the gaming gap

(note: this post is for a short assignment in my Interactive Media Management and Economics course on great ideas in the business of new media)

The Nintendo Wii gaming console passed the three-year mark last November. It didn’t feel like that shopping for one several weeks ago.

Pooling together undesignated Christmas money, I finally had the means to purchase one of the popular machines. But finding one on the shelves, even after three years of constant sales, remained an elusive challenge.

After three-weeks, six stores and plenty of patience, the Wii was found and quickly took up residence in my living room. All of this effort was required for an item that in tech terms was born nearly a generation ago.

Yet even three years in, sales of the Wii have stayed strong. The 67 million units sold are considerably more than any other console still on the market. The top-selling game of 2009 may have been for other systems, but the next four highest sellers were exclusive to the Wii.

This strength comes despite internal hardware considerably less powerful than competitors. Compared to gaming machines from Sony and Microsoft, the Wii has inferior graphics, a poor online component and no HD capability. Game developers are even starting to flee the console, seeing potential elsewhere.

But what the Wii introduced in late 2006 is a simple idea that has permanently changed how we view video games from both a technical and cultural standpoint. It launched the widespread use of a motion-sensitive controller that looks and feels like a TV remote, with technology that detects where the device is pointed and what direction it moves through the air.

Motion-sensitive technology has been around for a while, but it wasn’t until the Wii that the idea of using the technology to control video games entered the marketplace. The very concept of motion had long been at odds with gaming, which was viewed culturally as a passive experience undertaken mostly by socially awkward kids holed up in dark rooms.

No longer. Upon release the Wii immediately sold out of all locations, and it took years before searching for one on retail shelves didn’t resemble hunting a rare species in the wild. The commercial success didn’t come from appealing to the traditional gaming consumer, most of whom dismissed the console for its processing deficiencies compared to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Sales came from redefining and expanding the market to include adults, senior citizens, families and other demographic groups who previously had never touched a game. Even 100-year-olds could get into video game bowling when it so closely resembled the real thing.

The brilliance of the idea to introduce motion sensitive technology to the gaming world was that it instantly made the product relatable to the entire public. The line between games and reality blurred to the point that anyone who enjoyed physical activity outside could embrace a form of media previously associated with solitary indoor use.

Nintendo’s competitors have taken notice, with Sony preparing to introduce a motion-sensitive controller and Microsoft poised to launch a controller-free gaming system that reacts to human movements. We’ve seen the commercial staying power of a system that connects the digital to the organic, appealing to those long alienated by the industry. It’s an idea that could take hold in other forms of media that as of now still require a passive audience. The more media takes on an interactive model that requires physical stimulation, the more it breaks down traditional barriers to widespread acceptance.

    • arush84
    • February 7th, 2010

    Brook, good post. You bring up a really valid point regarding the Wii. Even though it is not the most powerful, graphically advanced gaming system on the consumer market, it steered the entire gaming community down a new road for growth. By focusing on interactivity as a pure component for the gaming console’s use, Nintendo beat the competition. Yes, now other companies are expanding upon Nintendo’s initial idea and that is capitalism at work. It will be interesting to see in several years if Nintendo becomes a trailblazer again by taking interactivity in a whole new direction.

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