January 11, 2007
Mimicry, the play of simulation, can be
expressed in many roles, but few have such wide appeal as kinaesthetic mimicry
– that which involves the players’ sense of touch and motion. We see it in
small children who play with toys that mimic adult tools – plastic mechanics
tools or cooking utensils, or mock weapons such as wooden swords and toy guns.
The experience of mimicry is enhanced by the use of such props.
The earliest instances of the use of
kinaesthetic elements in videogames occur in arcade games and Atari (not to be
confused with the modern publisher which has bought this name) were at the forefront
in the arcade revolution of the 1970s. Qwak! (Atari, 1974) featured a
satisfyingly sturdy shotgun peripheral that was integral to its cabinet, and extended
the kinaesthetic mimicry of a carnival shooting gallery game (which predate videogames)
to an electronic form. (The earliest light gun game, incidentally, is
considered to be the Seeburg Ray-O-Lite, from 1936). In the same year, Gran
Trak 10 (Atari 1974) used a steering wheel to add kinaesthetic mimicry to a
simple top-down driving game. (This game was also the first to use ROM memory).
However, the graphics of these early videogames were crude, and these early
attempts were largely unsuccessful.
In the next decade, arcade games began to explore kinaesthetic elements further, and games like Out Run (Sega, 1986) had a cabinet featuring not only a steering wheel, but a gear stick as well. Hard Drivin’ (Atari, 1989) went one step further. Its steering wheel included forced feedback (a first for the arcade), and as well as a gear stick the cabinet featured an ignition key, which the player turned to start playing. Coupled with its early shaded polygonal graphics (which were a sensation at the time), Hard Drivin’ was a hit in arcades the world over. Similarly, gun play was catered for with new cabinets such as Operation Wolf (Taito, 1987) and its sequels.
By the 1990s, the arcade audience
demographic had shifted considerably. For some time, the rise of the home
consoles and the PC as a gaming machine had taken the gamer hobbyists out of
the arcades and back into their dingy bedrooms.
Nor were Namco the only company pushing in this direction. Sega Bass Fishing (Sega, 1998) was not an enormous success in arcades, but was widely distributed around bars in the United States, while Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, 1999) was a run away success with its dance platform which allowed the player to literally move their whole body to control the game. All of these new games had one thing in common: they were good exercise as well as being good fun.
However, attempts to spread kinaesthetic
mimicry into the home were less successful. In fact, until recently the only
form to make it into the home was the light gun. The NES Zapper (Famicom Light
The Sega Dreamcast was the first console to
really attempt to push other forms of kinaesthetic mimicry into the home, most
significantly with the home version of Sega Bass Fishing (Sega, 1999),
which captured the play of its arcade predecessor with its satisfyingly realistic fishing controller, and with the novel Samba
De Amigo (Sega, 2000), which required special maraca controllers to play.
But the same problem dogged these attempts: the cost of the game and controller
together was prohibitive.
The first real success story of bringing this kind of play into the home was with Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution brand. Although retailers were reluctant to stock the dance pad peripherals, the arcade game was so popular that the Playstation and Playstation 2 versions of the game (from 1999-2006) experienced unprecedented success through online sales. Part of the reason for the success was that the games targeted an audience traditionally considered out-of-bounds for videogames (namely a female audience, although the games were enjoyed by people of both genders).
Sony’s EyeToy, released in Europe along
with EyeToy Play (Sony, 2003) used visual and motion recognition technologies
to allow the player to control games with their entire body – while
simultaneously showing the player themselves on screen. Although a great
commercial success, the general lack of sensitivity meant that it was not ideal
as a control device, and was mostly only used for simple minigames.
The success of both dance mat controllers and the EyeToy paved the way for the boldest step forward in bringing kinaesthetic mimicry into the home. In 2006, Nintendo unveiled their latest home console, Wii. It’s unique remote controller contained a variety of sensors, including a pointing suite equivalent to a light gun, tilt sensors, and motion sensors. This device offered something that was previously an impossibility: it could be used in multiple different roles to mimic multiple different activities. The Wii removed the barrier that had previously hindered kinaesthetic mimicry from making into the home: the expense of a separate control device. The Wii remote came bundled with the console.
Furthermore, with Nintendo packaging Wii
Sports (Nintendo, 2006) with the console, they had produced a home
electronic package ideal for a wide audience – six different experiences of
kinaesthetic mimicry, most of which were readily understandable by a new player
(even one with low game literacy) since the actions of play were modelled upon
the actions of the sports being simulated. The fact that the games are also
great aerobic exercise only furthers their appeal.
However, the potential to bring experiences of kinaesthetic mimicry into the home still depended upon games that leveraged that potential. Although Wii Sports succeeded admirably, the fifty mini-games in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz (Sega, 2006) show the problems of developing for Wii. Many of the control mechanisms for the mini-games are difficult to teach the player (since they do not copy real world motions), and consequently produce highly unsatisfying game experiences.
Nonetheless, the Wii represents the
forefront of this form of mimicry, and will certainly succeed in bringing a
wider audience of players into the videogames market with its potential for
highly intuitive control, and the ability to mimic any number of different
activities. It is likely, however, that this wider audience will not need to
purchase many games for the Wii, hence the majority of the cashflow in the
games industry will remain focussed on the gamer hobbyist (requiring new games
every month and, in some cases, every week), and hence on the battle of the power
gaming machines between Sony and Microsoft, both haemorrhaging money on their
hardware in an attempt to secure the support of the key demographics.
Meanwhile, Nintendo will be making sterling revenues on their console, selling
it to a broader demographic and making a profit on every unit sold.
Although the chief activities emulated in videogames remain the same – guns, cars and sports – the advent of a generalised control solution for kinaesthetic mimicry finally breaks down the cost barrier of getting this form of play into the home. The chief question remaining is whether the success of the Wii is sufficient to spur Sony into continuing their copycat policy. Either way, the Wii represents a significant step forward in the kinaesthetic mimicry of videogames – and perhaps, an opportunity for unfit gamers to get some much needed exercise.
Nice summation, Chris! You can digg this post here.
Posted by: Corvus | January 11, 2007 at 10:20 AM
I've heard both Sony and MS are looking into motion sensitive controllers for gen 8.
I was a bit dissapointed you didn't touch on the socio-dramatic implictions for kinesthetic mimicry, namely the role of gestural communication in interpersonal interaction.
Posted by: Patrick | January 11, 2007 at 09:26 PM
You always seem to find something to be a little disappointed by in my posts... >:)
In any case, the Round Table is wide open - why not wade in on the subject on your own blog?
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2007 at 11:07 AM
You know what, I think I will.
Posted by: Patrick | January 12, 2007 at 07:58 PM
You know Chris, spending time in Japan and its markedly different (and still thriving!) arcade culture has made me reconsider the Wii. I still think it's brilliant, but looking at the absurd variety of game types/control systems available make the genesis of the Wii seem more like taking proper cues from a wider gaming culture.
Generally, the game centers here have a feel something like a carnival. There are games for all ages (often including adorably pint-sized arcade cabinets for smaller children, with games like a simple tamborine-playing rhythm game for girls), and a number of games that employ knaesthetic mimicry or highly novel control schemes.
To name a few: there at least two boxing games I've seen that both involve players actually punching (either a set of pads or one big punching bag), an arm-wrestling game (again, very carnival-feeling), and a train conductor simulator, replete with a fascimile of real train engine controls.
Outside of that, there are an astonishing array of control schemes that I couldn't imagine being tried in the US. There are several games that have a table-like interface that players lay customizable cards on and manipulate as they play, with the game sensing which cards are brought forward into play and whatnot on the surface; other games that employ a touch-screen interface (sound familiar?).
I'm not trying to steal Nintendo's fire here, by any means, but it's interesting to see that much of their innovation as of late (DS and Wii) seems rooted in a more generally innovative gaming culture.
Just thought you'd like to know!
Posted by: Jack Monahan | January 16, 2007 at 05:23 PM
Thanks for the report, Jack! These tendencies in the arcade have been growing for some time now, as I intimate in the main body of this piece. But it's always the case that the most interesting arcade hardware never makes it out of Japan. Japan seems to be the only place in the world which still has a thriving arcade culture, for some reason - everywhere else (it seems to me - although I have no experience of Australia or South America), arcade games are found more commonly in service stations and cinemas than in dedicated arcades (although in the UK, seaside towns almost always have arcades).
Trust you're enjoying Japan! Whereabouts are you at the moment?
Posted by: Chris | January 17, 2007 at 08:52 AM