After dinner, kids asleep, I run downstairs to make some game selections. David and Lucy are over to play games with my wife, a rare social event in the Rabbit household. Scanning the closet, I grab Hey That's My Fish!, Carcassonne: The Discovery, plus a few old standbys just in case. When I emerge from the rabbit cave, David and Lucy are on the couch, the white screen of the Wii blooming in front of them. I'm not surprised, or unhappy. Lucy has a delightful habit of actually jumping up and down and laughing when she plays the Wii, a level of pure joy that's rarely seen in grownups. But they're not playing Wii Tennis or Wii Billiards or Mario Party 8.
Instead they're just making Miis, carefully manipulating facial features to create all of their friends and family, themselves, or Chairman Mao. An hour passes as they sit there, giggling, playing Mr. Potato Head. I stand behind them, savoring that rare joy that comes from being a host and knowing your guests are relaxed and enjoying themselves, without your actual involvement.
And then it snaps into place. With crystal clarity I can see the critical flaw, the gaping hole in the videogame industry: toys.
It's not that the industry doesn't try. There are a handful of commercial or quasi-commercial games that embrace their inner slinky.
Ask Bostjan Cadez about his brilliant, award winning (and only) entry into video games, Line Rider, and he will adamantly refuse to call it a game. It's a toy. Draw, watch. Draw, watch. It's a marble run. A virtual sketchpad. A cross between a comic book and pong.
Guitar Hero 3 is being criticized, before it's even launched, for one main flaw -- it's added too much game to the game. What's missing is the acknowledgment of the premise - that Guitar Hero is fundamentally not a game, it's a toy. The early buzz on the competition, Rock Band, is rife with praise for the purity of the rock experience - buy whole albums, riff on the drums with wild abandon.
My daughter's two favorite games on her Nintendo DS are Animal Crossing and Nintendogs. While both have game elements - competitions, the acquisition of wealth - her interactions with them are rarely competitive or goal oriented. Instead, she just plays with her dog, or walks around and exploring inside the boundaries of her clown-creepy beach front town. With these two cartridges in her pretty-in-pink Nintendo-branded backpack, the DS ceases to be a "handheld console" and is instead, a simple toy. But these few successful efforts are the exceptions, and impure ones at that. Guitar Hero and Nintendogs are marketed as games: accumulate money and buy more dogs; win the competition; score that, beat your friends score at Freebird.
I propose that this is a shameful missed opportunity. True toys, designed from the first thought toys that use a video game engine, are far too rare. All this takes is an act of will in parenting. The bits that we insert in our consoles and call up on our PCs are not the product of some kind of unconscious parthenogenesis -- real people make games. Real people who, one hopes, had a youth full of unstructured play, devoid of rules and board game paths and score keeping. One suspects that the minds behind Electroplankton and Flow are at least in touch with their proverbial inner children, but the products of their efforts are far too tentative, far to restrictive to actually work as toys.
For any developers reading this, allow me to gift you with the killer apps.
Microsoft Paint and GarageBand
Let me play with my eyes and ears. Why is this so hard? Let me make simple, and even not-so-simple drawings on my DS. A simple cartridge, simple tools, the chance to send my creations to e-mail addresses and other players. Let David and Lucy sit on the couch and use rubber stamps and text boxes and filters to make goofy desktops. Give them etch-a-sketch knobs. Given them virtual play dough. Let me use my 360 controller to construct ridiculous high resolution bump-mapped sculptures for no other reason than because I can.
Let me do some basic sequencing and jamming using my stylus or my Wiimote. And don't take the cowards way out, masking them, as Apple did with GarageBand, in the clothing of professional tools. I have few doubts that of the umpty-zillion hours people have spent noodling with the wonderful audio sketchpad, less than 1 percent have been "useful" or with any intent of creating anything more lasting than 3 minutes of "look ma!" beat boxing.
And don't make my killer apps into games either. I don't want a Nintendo-esque "draw the chicken faster than your partner" mini-game. Don't make me have to hit someone else's notes just right in order to unlock the flanger.
The suits who pick up the bill know that they need something. The movement towards casual games is driven in part by the recognition that a substantial group, likely the majority, of potential gamers wants a less frenetic, and less competitive experience. But too often, this devolves into puzzles, board games and pinball. Puzzles are great, I love puzzles. But a jigsaw puzzle shares very little in common with a collection of matchbox cars. A crossword puzzle is not a box of colorforms. I love board games. Heck I'm about to go spend four days playing 14 hours of board games at a stretch between runs for gin and olives and the occasional shower. But there's a world of difference between Chess and the mega-set of Legos. And while I love solitaire games like pinball, pinball is a very different experience than a roller coaster construction kit.
Yes, there are many physics games which serve as 10 minute distractions. Games like Line Rider - toys like Line Rider - are a step in the right direction. But even there, I fear that the move of Line Rider to the Wii will inevitably result in it becoming a series of "solve the puzzle" steps in order to unlock the coolest tools, the niftiest variations.
Please, just let me play with my toys. I promise I'll be good.