New video games are encouraging players to cook dinner, get in shape, learn French and enjoy the genius of Beethoven. Brett McCallon is cheered by the way gaming has infiltrated the everyday. Now if only he could convince his wife to play "Halo" ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
I love video games, clearly. Unfortunately, my wife doesn't feel the same way. At all. And while the two of us have reached a detente on the most important aspects of this issue (my children will be raised as devout, if moderate, gamers), my efforts to convert her over the past seven years have been totally fruitless.
Recently, though, I noticed that her regular Facebook habit now includes a near-daily round of "Lexulous", the online, unlicensed replica of the popular word-based board game "Scrabble". "You realise, of course, that you're now a video-gamer, right?" I asked smugly. Her dismissive raised eyebrow indicated that she was unconvinced. And to be honest, my dreams of co-op "Halo" sessions with my beloved were no closer to fruition than they were before she nailed her first online triple-word score.
But "Lexulous", and the game's incredible popularity on Facebook, does say something about the way that gaming is infiltrating the experience of seemingly non-gaming-related activities. As gaming becomes more mainstream, and as designers learn to use gaming mechanics to enhance our work, education and relaxation, we can envision a time in which nearly every experience offers the possibility, if not the requirement, for play.
Nintendo has been remarkably prescient in this area, both with the motion-controlled Wii console and with its portable DS system. Much of the company's recent success has come from convincing non-gamers to pick up a system in order to play a non-traditional game. The company's early triumphs on the DS included "Nintendogs", which isn't so much a game as it is a simulation of caring for and playing with a virtual pet; and "Brain Age", which promises to sharpen players' mental acuity through a daily regimen of timed tests (including mathematics, matching puzzles, etc).
More recently, Nintendo has seen incredible success in combining gaming and exercise with "Wii Fit". The game retails for $90, nearly twice the price of a regular game for the Wii console, as it requires both the software and a "balance board". But Nintendo's savvy marketing to non-traditional gamers (read: my parents), together with the promise of a slimmer physique, sold over 4.5m copies last year in America alone.
"Wii Fit" is not the first video game that has promoted fitness, but it does present a streamlined, user-friendly experience, using the balance board's weight-sensing capability to model the shifting centre of balance of the player. Through this core mechanic, "Wii Fit" can simulate both sports mini-games (including an event in which the player leans left and right to deflect virtual soccer balls with his head) and more traditional fitness activities, including yoga exercises.
Exercise is only one of the non-gaming areas into which gaming has intruded in recent years. Games that teach foreign languages, cooking and other skills are also becoming increasingly popular. But in addition to instructive gaming, there are a number of titles that offer new ways to experience routine tasks.
Take, for instance, listening to music. Certainly, the iPod and the digitization of our music libraries have helped many of us dive deeper into the forgotten corners of our album collections. But a clever game called "Audiosurf" (pictured) offers the opportunity to experience music in a very different, very interactive sense. On its surface, the game is a hybrid of the puzzle (think "Tetris") and racing genres: players direct a vehicle as it picks up variously coloured blocks that must be matched in patterns in order to earn points and avoid penalties.
That aspect of the game isn't the interesting part, though. "Audiosurf" is so fascinating, and so infinitely playable, because the game automatically generates a custom racing-track based on the rhythm, melody and other characteristics of any audio file the player chooses. Different colours of blocks appear as the intensity of the song ebbs and flows, necessitating different gameplay approaches to different musical genres, or even slower and faster parts of the same track.
In other words, rather than simply racing through a futuristic world collecting patterned blocks, the game provides an experience that is uniquely attuned to the chosen music. It creates a new mode for listening to music while also engaging with it--by "playing" some of my favourite songs in "Audiosurf", I have noticed rhythmic and melodic nuances that had eluded me during hundreds of previous, passive listening sessions. Try navigating the rhythmic minefield of "Tomorrow Never Knows", for example, and you'll never disparage Ringo's drumming technique again.
Even such mundane activities as household chores can be made less onerous through the addition of gaming mechanics. A free, web-based game called "Chore Wars" lets players apply traditional role-play game rules to their laundry, dishwashing and vacuuming duties. For each completed task, players are granted "experience", "gold", etc, which helps their characters advance through imagined quests. It's a fairly basic system, but as a means of motivating lazy spouses and housemates to pull their weight, it could be quite helpful.
The idea that many aspects of our lives may eventually be influenced by video games may not appeal to some of you. Surely some activities will rightfully remain resistant to the allure of customised game-rules, reward mechanics and similar innovations. But if games can help to convince you or the ones you love to cook dinner, get in shape, learn French, rediscover the greatness of Beethoven, or keep their wits sharp, that can't be all bad, can it?
Picture credit: Audiosurf