Sunday, January 14, 2007

Wii Warning: Do Not Simulate!

I love the Wii. You probably know this already. I have been publicly declaring my love for Wii for months... on CNN news and on CNET, for example.

But I want to issue a Wii Warning.

No, not the kind of Wii safety manual warning pictured here. A different kind of warning, to game designers and game critics and game researchers.

I want to suggest that we ought NOT to be talking about the wonders of Wii in terms of "simulation."

Consider the latest issue of Game Developers Magazine. There's a great post-mortem of a Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam skating game for the Wii console. In general, a really excellent read. But I was troubled by part of the article, in which the developer (Toby Schadt) discuss why the Wii is so great and how the game sought to take advantage of the new controller.

From the post-mortem:

The first thing we investigated was how the player changes direction and whether we could use the Wii remote to introduce a new way of turning. Tilting the controller to turn was the obvious solution, as it mimics the way skaters turn their boards. That's why the Wii is so compelling--the way you control your character in a game is a more realistic analog to what you would do in the real world, as opposed to pressing buttons.

This reads, at first glance, like a perfectly valid assessment of the pleasures of Wii interaction. Indeed, I would say it perfectly encapsulates current conventional wisdom among many Wii writers and designers (and subsequently, players, who are influenced by reviews and such). You can even see a funky Hong Kong accessory kit for the Wii that "brings you more realism for playing with Wii."

But: 1) I don't buy it, and 2) I think it could retard the future of game design to talk about Wii interaction like this-- all "mimics" and "realistic analogs".

I certainly get that the Wii controller is way more fun and cool because it's not just pushing abstract combinations of buttons. But you know what? I think it's way more fun and cool because MOVING VIGOROUSLY--shaking, waving, pumping, pointing, and so on--is more fun that pressing buttons. Not because it's a more "realistic analog" of what a game avatar is doing. Just because it's REALLY more fun.

Don't get me wrong. I know that the Wii gameplay is MUCH more intuitive than traditional console games precisely because there is a better analogy between real-world gesture and in-game action. I don't want to minimize that. I know it's cool. And I know, more importantly, that it also helps make the game system transparent to "non-gamer" folks who get scared off by abstract console input.

Let me try to say it another way. Wii is awesome because you are REALLY playing. You are not vicariously playing through an avatar whose movements you immersive yourself in. You are REALLY doing stuff, REALLY sweating, REALLY pumping out endorphins. I know that you're not REALLY "skating" or REALLY "bowling", in the case of the Tony Hawk game and Wii sports respectively. But you are REALLY using your body in totally fun, original, happy-making ways.

The real stuff you are doing also lets you be more expressive as a gamer. (Just watch some YouTube videos --like this, this, or this--for evidence of that.) This is no small thing. The opportunity to joyfully perform physically for an audience -- face to face, as much Wii play is among friends and family-- or online, in the case of Wii demo videos, is a truly awesome thing.

Indeed, the fact that there is a real, live, embodied performance happening when a player engages the Wii games creates the kind of gameplay legibility that enables "non-gamers" to get in the game, and that creates a setting where you can really cheer on other players. (Very enthusiast Guitar Hero players and most DDRers, of course, also fall into this category where real physical performance is produced.)

So when you play Wii games, are you simulating? Or are you REALLY playing and performing? I say the Wii does not simulate. The Wii is real.

For me, this is a subtle but extremely important difference. I don't want game designers to make more and more "immersive" gestural games, where the goal is to more perfectly map your real gesture to the characters' game-world action. Instead, I want game designers to make more and more FUN gestural games, where the goal is to make the players' movement as fun and addictive and legible and expressive as possible.

This is a quality of life issue. Better psychological immersion into a digitally-represented game world does not inherently improve quality of life for the player. More active immersion--if we think of Wii immersion as the ability of a player to become "one with the machine", a kind of cybernetic immersion--does inherently improve quality of life for the player, by increasing physical expressivity, producing high performance joy, improving health, and creating game settings where fa much greater range of friends and family members can come together and have fun.

So when you're loving your Wii, remember: Do Not Simulate! Play and Perform FOR REAL.


Patrick said...

A mentor of mine wrote a post on the history of kinesthetic mimicry you might find interesting.

If you like, I'll nominate this post as an honorary entry for that round table of bloggers, since its right on the nose.

I think its funny that you're painting a lexological distinction (albiet an important one) while emphasing fun as the primary focus of play. A lot of thinking lately has re-emphasized agency as the main focus, where fun and acency are not nessecarily connected. I think that lines up well with some of your work.

On the other hand, endorphins definetly add to the nuerochemical cocktail of "fun".

Wii Sports, and all other Wii games, can be played in a completely sedate position with slight wrist movements. Maximal agency can come from exerting fine control in such a limited movement position, such as putting a fine spin on a bowling ball, though a closer mimicking can also exert similar finesse.

If you follow that all games are inherently social, even single player games (where the player is socially engaging the rule construct, and by extension the development team that drafted and populated the simulation) then its helpful to consider how much gestural communication plays into conventional socializations. Non-verbal communication is roughly 80% of the signal. You can extend that idea metaphorically to any interface, and most poigniently to Wii interface design.

Unknown said...

Good post - it nicely articulates a concern I have about the direction game development is going at the moment. Going off net commentary, "immersion" seems to be the latest buzzword replacement for "emergence". I blame high-resolution gaming - there's a whole cadre of developers and project managers out there who see high resolutions as a competitlvey differentiating point.

Discussion about "immersion" only helps feed that, as the simplistic view is that the better it looks, the more immersive it must be. And, since gamers apparently love immersion, the more immersive it is, the better the game must be. I definitely don't agree with that perspective (Chess anyone?), but it seems to be a popular viewpoint.

Gesture simulation simply blazes down the same path. The problem is that copying gestures isn't inherently fun. If I wanted to play tennis, I'd play tennis. If I wanted to draw, I'd draw. I play Wii tennis and Rayman Raving Rabbids because they're fun, not because they mimic tennis and drawing, respectively.

Intuitiveness of human-machine interfaces is an important facet of game design, but that doesn't necessarily mean mimicing existing games. I mean, how many of us can actually do a good topspin on the tennis court?

I have hope, as I think this guy gets it:

Johannus said...

I agree with the above two comments. I would like to share my thoughts on one aspect of the topic.

I see the importance of Intuitiveness in interface design, but as your research in the field must show. It is not easy, or simple! The interface between human and machine is, simply put. An attempt to reverse design the most complex human interactions. We do not even poses a clear understanding of the inner workings of the human brain let alone the interaction between two peoples brains as they gesturaly, and vocally interface. I digress, the point I am driving at is, the level of communication you are preposing the industry persue has been drempt of since the first program was coded on the first mainframe. We just dont have what it takes. Even a 7th level abstract language would not be as intuitive as the unspoken is between two people.

chakannaggats said...

I think the games will dictate the language. Wii Sports is pretty much a simulator, in which you pretend to play tennis or golf.

A game like Wario Ware is less of a simulator, even though you're doing real-life actions like sweeping or bowing. The game happens so fast that it doesn't feel like simulation -- there's hardly any time to realize that it really does feel like sweeping.

I think this would apply to any game where you get more involved with the rules than with the basic actions. (eg Cooking Mama, a cooking simulator, vs. Zelda, an action and puzzle game)

Anonymous said...

I love the Nintendo Wii sports! Its awesome!

Anonymous said...

Great post - what makes Wii so cool is how well it simulates and draws you into the games making for a richer gaming experience.
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