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The Social Living Room: How Nintendo's Wii Revolutionized Gaming And What It Means For The Future Of Consoles

The Wii introduced a new paradigm in home gaming when it was released in 2006. A new book dissects the console--from its technology to its cultural impact--and offers some tantalizing clues as to what may be in store for the new generation of video game hardware that is about to be released.

We are on the cusp of a new generation of video gaming hardware, with Nintendo delivering its new machine--the Wii U--this Fall. So why did Steven Jones and George Thiruvathukal just release a book, Codename Revolution, devoted to Nintendo’s 5-year-old Wii console? A lot can be learned about how gaming may evolve by looking backward, and the book examines several different facets of the Wii--from tech to design to user interface--and how they all contributed to the the cultural phenomenon that sprouted around the console. Here, Thiruvathukal and Jones tells more about their work and how it can be extended to the coming Wii U.

Fast Company: Tell us about the approach behind the book

Steven Jones: First of all, we wrote it specifically for the "Platform Studies" series, which was already defined in a general way as looking at the connections between material affordances and constraints of a platform and the cultural works that are produced for it. Looking at cultural influence from the point of view of programming code or design of games and that sort of thing. Steve Jobs used to say that the future of computing was that intersection between computing and the liberal arts.

George Thiruvathukal: He even had it during the unveiling of the iPad 1, where he had in the background the words digital and humanities.

Steven: That’s where we started with this. The editors of the series Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost produced a very simple diagram of a stack that helps explain it. You look at lower level kinds of phenomena, all the way from chips and machine language and the machine’s operating system. You work your way up into user interface and controls, which connects that part of the platform to the user. That means, for instance, when we looked at the importance of motion control in the Wii, we looked at how the accelerometer worked, the micro machines that actually measure player movement in relation to game design to exploit that technology, and in relation to user behavior and to the social space of the living room. We always tried to move up and down that stack, looking at any sort of technological feature of the platform, in relation to its effect on the way players use the system, and the way the culture viewed gaming.

Think of this as a creation of a Personal Area Network. All of those peripherals that littered the living room: the controllers, the balance board you stand on, the things on the coffee table--in fact, the coffee table itself. The missing component in the system, that doesn’t ship with it, is the coffee table. And it only works when you move it out of the way, to make room to play the Wii because you have to jump around and wave your arms in order to play properly. So really the system implies that space you are going to play. You can sit on the couch and move around a lot less and play games. But the system inspires you, it is designed to encourage players.

Which aspect of the Wii had the biggest impact on the Wii as a creative platform?

George: The Wii remote definitely. It’s one of the game changing aspects of the Wii. Interestingly, by not being that game changing. These technologies were already starting to appear in phones. But definitely the Wii remote with its accelerometer. It’s kind of central to the way people think of Wii.

Steven: That weird space between the components, in the way the design of the Wii to be minimalist, to be sleek, to run cool and quiet, to be relatively inexpensive. It’s a lot smaller than the competing consoles; it was less expensive originally; and it was meant to look better in the average living room, to not look like a big high-tech device.

George: And it fits with that coffee table mentality.

Steven: So if you think of that accelerometer as measuring the motions of your hand. What it’s really doing is configuring your living room as a possibility space. It was designed to encourage you to move around in a kind of invisible grid, rather than just having a series of buttons on it to allow you to control the game. So I think the most important feature really is its overall design, but especially the way the Wii remote turns it outward to the physical space of gameplay.

Why did you guys choose to examine the Wii in particular?

Steven: We agreed with a number of critics--Jasper Juul in particular, who wrote a book called The Casual Revolution--that this was a watershed system in 2006. Facebook games appeared around the time, social networks taking off in a big way. The iPhone appeared just a year before. We think it participated in a real shift in consumer electronics and took gaming in a direction it hadn’t been in before, in its appeal to the untapped audience that didn’t think of themselves as gamers before that.

George: It really is a defining technology in a lot of ways. What’s happening now with tablets--I see this with children. Seeing them playing on an iPad, they play these games in a social way. When we say social, we mean a return to what many people would argue is the original definition of social, spending time with family and friends.

Steven: it remains to be seen whether consoles can go there really--as a series of platforms they may be dead. The mobile market has really taken on traditional consoles in this arena. We will see what happens.

The Wii U is coming this year. Does the addition of a tablet controller to the Wii motion controls change things?

Steven: All of this is speculation at this point, based on the demos at the conferences and what we’ve seen; the tablet can serve as an augmented reality window on to parts of the imaginary game world spread around you in the living room. In some of the demos and videos that we’ve seen, you can use it as a controller, but you can also turn it to one side and see the buildings racing past in a racing game. Or you can get a birdseye view from a helicopter, while other players are using other Wii controllers.

George: One of the things we see in the Wii U tablet potentially is this idea making the living room even more social. Kids are often competing with their parents to use the television. It allows for this kind of distributed focus. You don’t have the console as being the center anymore. It’s more like a hub concept.

Steven: It participates in what I see as a general shift away from the virtual reality model of gaming as the only way to play games. It’s moving towards more mixed reality or augmented reality models. So you play out in physical space, where the game data and your player activities are combined in a physical space. And the Wii U designers seem to be thinking along those lines. Think of the Nintendo 3DS. Although there a lot of traditional games on it, the experiment and the proof of concept are really the augmented games. You point the thing across the room and enemies fly at you, with the camera capturing your room as the backdrop of the gameplay. Or the table top becomes the surface on which you engage in combat with dragons. I think the WII U is along the same lines, distributed gaming in a physical space.

George: And as we like to say, mixed use is what is potentially transformative, to make it even more social.

Will that mixed reality strategy help the system’s chances, considering the way the industry is moving?

Steven: Netflix and those kind of things that have come late to Wii are more popular on other consoles in this country. So that may vary depending on the market you are in. But rather than just thinking in the old way of convergence, of being able to watch TV and play games on the same device, as George was suggesting, it’s more mixed reality as opposed to virtual reality. You have to make options available so that the kid can be playing on the tablet on the couch, while the parents are playing on the TV. And then they can combine it if they like, with the same devices. Whether that translates into people buying it…

George: We’ve tried to avoid being too speculative about any console’s chance for success. But generally, I think that market success is going to be dictated by more macro, industry trends than Nintendo itself can deal with. Obviously, everyone knows that the 800-pound gorilla in the room is what’s happening with the tablets. It’s not just so much that is Apple is doing, it’s very much that casual is becoming the name of the game. The one thing that Nintendo will always have going for it, and this is what Steven has convinced me of, is that Nintendo should be thought of as a franchise--there is Mario, there is that mystique of the platform culturally. We think that Wii U will probably still manage to do well, but will it be an astounding success? That’s something that a once in a generation result. That’s why we think the Wii was so special.

Steven: Nintendo has liked to say for years now that they were going to be the smaller, nimbler dinosaur in the ecosystem, because power isn’t everything. Sony and Microsoft were characterized as dinosaurs fighting it out in their space, and Nintendo would make their move in a different niche. And it turned out that niche was huge--it was everybody that didn’t play a game or didn’t think of themselves as a hardcore video gamer. And it paid off for them in sales.

Nintendo has said that with the Wii U they are trying to recapture some of that hardcore audience.

Steven: To me, these kind of things sound like rhetoric, like a course correction in the way they are perceived. I think that the Wii U will continue to do what the Wii did, that the social gaming market and the casual market will be there. So what they want to do in addition is make a correction and recover some of the hardcore market that they’ve lost, not that it’s a complete shift back in the other direction.

George: The industry is making a comeback in terms of CPU performance. We don’t know what the Wii U’s final form factor looks like, but one thing we do know is that they can pack a lot more power into it and still do it in a more economical way than maybe their competitors are doing it. Wii still uses much less energy than the XBox or the PlayStation. So if Nintendo uses the same form factor and they use these newer processors, they can pack it in a form factor like a Mac Mini and uses less energy, but still be hardcore. They can deliver much higher performance and appeal to hardcore, but still appeal to the casual.

Do you feel like your cultural or creative deconstruction approach would benefit other entertainment or other industries?

Steven: The whole idea of platform studies is about computing and creativity, but it can apply to other industries.

George: When you read the descriptions by Bogost and Montfort, it really is not limited to gaming. The way they are talking is a framework for looking at platforms and their intersections with culture. Sometimes Steven and I joke that maybe the next book can be about tablets. Because tablets are really interesting to look at as a category, going back as far as Apple Newton. A lot of our interests in other platforms really informed the social and technical arguments in the book.

Steven: I am trained as a textual studies scholar and I like to think of print as analogous to these computing platforms. The introduction of steel plate engraving in the early 19th century allowed for the creation of art books. You can use them to mass produce books with illustrations and representations of art in them in a way you couldn’t economically before, and therefore it can reach a completely different audience that could afford these cheaper books. So we have examples of the connection between material platforms and cultural effect in various areas of culture and various kinds of technologies, not just computing.

George: This book is something we wanted to do for years. Interdisciplinary analysis is becoming now the way that a lot of thinking is going to happen. Many people are realizing that computational and data driven thinking are increasingly informing the study of anything.

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