The successes of the last generation of Nintendo hardware, both handheld and home console, had the effect of bringing to the forefront of peoples’ minds how far gaming has come and just how deep it runs in everyday culture. At one point everyman and his grandmother had a DS and was enjoying the trials and tribulations of Phoenix Wright; or the mind boggling puzzles of the Professor Layton series. Video gaming had well and truly penetrated the ‘niche’ wall and made its way firmly into the mainstream park sitting proudly alongside film, literature and television. It was a transition that had been permeating for nigh on a decade, but somehow we were all taken by surprise on the growing popularity of one of our favourite pastimes.
For many it was the threat of the ‘casual’ gamer. Like they were somehow going to saturate the market and we would all be forced to choose between Bejewelled, Bejewelled, Bejewelled and Farmville. It was for many a clear and present danger, and for a long time there traditional consumers of video games felt the need to clearly differentiate themselves from the pack, particularly on the internet, where a majority of the pseudo-patriotic activity was occurring. Terms like ‘hardcore gamer’, ‘casual gamer’ and ‘NOOB’ became prevalent, with the newer and less dedicated or informed consumers being arbitrarily put into stocks and having vitriol thrown incessantly at them. Meanwhile the traditional video game consumer stocked up on technical terms, lingo and slang in a bid to fight these aliens and save their land from what they considered an invasion.
For these ‘elite’ it was all about the progressive scan, the HDR-rendering and the min-maxing. Suddenly people who went from enjoying video games as their primary hobby became soldiers in an ongoing battle against the mainstream, one that if console manufacturers had, and continue to have their way, they would never win. Naturally the bigger the market, the higher the earnings potential. And of course the higher the earnings the more capital businesses have to put back into development and more often than not the more likely that risky investments will occur, the caveat being this in addition to those investments that are guaranteed to provide a return on investment. In short, and based on a number of over simplified assumptions, the ‘casual’ games were in many cases likely funding development of larger, more costly and more risky projects. A fact that many of the more belligerent of the gaming audience conveniently ignored.
The phenomenon of gaming reaching audiences outside of its core audience isn’t new. In the 1990’s parents were bombarded with marketing aimed at getting them to increase their spending to fund their children’s habits. Mario, Sonic, Lara Croft, Alex Kidd, Donkey Kong and Kirby were all easily identifiable mascots that vied for the money of the children whose demand for video games was seemingly insatiable. These people weren’t actively consuming video games, but they were intimately aware of what was being inserted into cartridge slots right around the world. Video games were an important part of mainstream culture even then – despite many of the people buying them not actively partaking in the hobby.
There were of course those titles that bucked the trend and made the transition from niche trinket to mainstream obsession, with Tetris coming immediately to mind as something I remember everyone not only knowing, but playing. I had a friend in primary school who was about as obsessed with video games as your average pre-teen boy was in the 90’s. Like mine, his parents smiled and nodded every time he would regale them with tales of his latest Super Mario conquest or how Nintendo was vastly superior to SEGA. They knew exactly what he was talking about, humoured him, and went about their days without feeling the need to get hands on with this thing his son was mildly obsessed with. That was until his Dad played Tetris. Suddenly this was something the family could talk about, obsess over, and compete against one another in. Leader boards were stuck up on the fridge and they were constantly leapfrogging one another in pursuit of the highest score. This game had well and truly broken out of gaming’s traditional audience and into the hands of parents – and not just in his house – but in millions of households across the world. This was a mass influx of ‘casuals’ – and it happened in 1989. And it was happening outside of the traditional channels, with games pouring out of seemingly every medium. Film, books and television all had brushes with video games either in marketing them to open ears, or in using them in pursuit of narrative or even satire. In a true show that video games were a permanent and broad reaching fixture in mainstream culture, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s short-lived live sketch show from the early 1990’s, The Late Show, used video games on a number of occasions to punctuate cultural stereotypes of make political statements.
Video games have a long and storied history outside of its core. It didn’t happen with the DS. It didn’t happen with the Nintendo Wii. It has always been there in one way or another. The only difference is how console manufacturers and developers treated this perhaps latent demand. We are entering an era where video game consoles aren’t just for the traditional consumer of video games. The XBOX ONE is targeting the consumer of television. The PS4 seems to be targeting the social player. And Nintendo are continuing their unfettered courting of the non-core. These are all ways that the manufacturers are trying to grow demand for their products. Games are big business and growing the industry is in the best interests of everyone. And resistance is futile.