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LONG BLOG

Change We Can Believe In: The New Politics of Gaming essay + Doctor Who review

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ESSAY #6

Political Divides In Gaming

Until this generation, it was rare to find any true ideological conflicts in console game culture. No matter what the fanboys proclaimed through their spit-addled fury, there were few differences between owning a Sega, Nintendo or Sony console apart from preferences for a few key franchises. All three focused their marketing on bringing in the stereotypical teenage boy gamer. All upgraded their technology every four or five years to gain a step up on their rivals, who were usually doing the same thing. Each company made nominal attempts to sell themselves as different in some way to their rivals – Sega were edgier than Nintendo, Sony cooler and more mainstream, Nintendo more traditional in mentality and experimental in design than either – but sitting down in front of any of these three companies' consoles produced essentially similar experiences. The graphics were largely of the same quality. The games were controlled via a similar set of inputs. Cross-platform titles were identical over all three platforms. Any allegiances formed were made on the basis of differences so small that The Judean People's Front would have been baffled by them.

When Nintendo released the Wii, pushing motion controls into the mainstream and rejecting the idea that last-gen visual technology was by definition unusable and undesirable, it threw a spanner into the ideological harmony that had persisted for most of the medium's history. There's no point in pretending that this was done for any reason other than to make money: Nintendo have always been a profitable company, but had seen their share of the gaming marketplace decline severely under threat from Sony's PlayStation empire and the rise of Microsoft, whose values were more attuned to getting the attention of the teenage male market which perceived wisdom said was gaming's only reliable goldmine. The GameCube, an inoffensive purple box with coloured buttons and sticks on the controller, was profoundly uncool compared to Sony and Microsoft's sleek black military slabs. Nintendo realised that in a flat-out arms race between them and their two rivals, their reputation had sunk so low that they were destined to always be fighting for a declining share of the market. Inspired by Blue Ocean Strategy, the business guide written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, they shifted focus to offering their gaming wares to the untapped market of women and families, where if successful they would go unchallenged in reaping the rewards that these new consumers could offer.

I suspect that everyone reading will already be at least partially aware of this, so I'll skip any further history lesson and get to my point. The release of the Wii was the first time that a gaming company had chosen to play by a completely different set of rules and beliefs to its rivals, both in terms of design (Nintendo's compact white console with friendly remote against the black behemoths from Sony and Microsoft, creaking with buttons and technology) and marketing strategies. Gamers found their hobby pulled out of the basement and into the family drawing room, having to share the hobby they had put so much time into with a wave of wide-eyed immigrants who were eager to try out the inclusive new experiences Nintendo were offering them. Gamers felt betrayed. They had given their time, money and dedication to Nintendo in exchange for a vow of exclusive love in return. But they failed to realise that just as they could buy into another console's manufacturer, Nintendo were equally unenthused on being the kept woman in the relationship and began looking elsewhere for satisfaction. Soon, the relationship was blown wide open.



Microsoft and Sony were quick to capitalise on this marital strife and set about wooing disenchanted gamers over to them by promising to give them all the things that Nintendo apparently no longer were. All the old genres they knew and loved, untainted by the ugly stain of these new 'casuals' who were moving in next door. Full-on controllers, far too complicated for anyone who didn't already speak the language. Sequels on tap, while new names were required to play strictly by long-held rules if they wanted to find a place in the disc tray. Nintendo offered all-welcoming, soft-edged inoffensiveness and healthcare liberalism. Sony and Microsoft were closed-bordered conservatives, yielding big guns and with old traditions ruling the roost. Gaming had become political.

Many will have read what I've just written, aligned it to the fact that I do most of my gaming on Nintendo consoles and reached the conclusion that this is an attack on those who set their camp on the XBox or PlayStation sides of the fence. That's not my intention at all. The aggressive reaction of the traditional gaming audience to their hobby being cast open is one which is easy to damn, but also understandable and natural. Far from demonstrating the medium's immaturity, it is actually a sign of growing up, of being exposed to people who think differently to yourself and coming to terms with it. Already there are plenty of traditional players who have begun embracing what family-friendly gaming has to offer. I've enjoyed sharing my hobby with members of my family, not least as I've been able to use those early experiences on Wii Sports as a conduit to games with more traditional elements, such as New Super Mario Bros Wii and Red Steel 2 (even Modern Warfare Reflex in one very surprising instance). Their willingness to try these games proves that the overlap can and does extend in both directions (I've already written a previous blog about how this can work, an essay on motion controls overcoming gamer logic, which is linked to below). When we are children, we live in an enclosed world where everything is straightforward and our view of the world are heavily influenced by our parents. As we get older and go to school, we meet people who disagree with us and show us that the world is a more multifaceted, multi-coloured thing than we could possibly have imagined. For a while, maybe these things made us angry and hate the people who exposed us to these difficult facts. But soon we came to accept them, to understand how those other opinions were formed and what merits or demerits they hold, in turn allowing us to develop into adulthood.

As strong as the wall between so-called 'hardcore' and 'casual' gamers is now, over time it will soften and crumble. There will always be those who prefer to stand more to one side or the other, but the overall impact on the culture will be one where both sides can learn from each other and improve the overall experience for everyone. Whether you think Nintendo are Judas or Jesus for ushering in a new kind of gamer, it is a step out of the comfort zone that every medium has to eventually take if it wants to blossom into adulthood, something that every gamer, be you liberal or conservative, should be ready and proud to be a part of.

PREVIOUS ESSAYS

Do We Really Want Difficult Games?

Can Motion Controls Overcome The Hurdles of Gaming Logic?

Can Traditional Third-Party Games Ever Succeed On The Wii?

I Want Your Love And I Want Your Revenge: No More Heroes Series Analysis

Storytelling or Storyplaying?

_________________________________________________________

NON-GAMING REVIEW #3



DOCTOR WHO
Season 5, Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour

Speaking of change, everything's in flux in the first episode of Doctor Who since the departures of showrunner Russell T. Davies and star David Tennant. 'The Eleventh Hour' sees the debut of a new head writer, a new Doctor and a new companion. Given the immense popularity of the previous regime, the new team have it all to prove and early omens, it must be said, are not encouraging. The pre-titles sequence, featuring an out-of-control TARDIS soaring over the London rooftops as the new Doc dangles from the doorway, is a piece of empty spectacle that only seems to establish that the special effects have become less convincing since the previous series (strange, as the effects team are one of the few aspects of the show to carry over). The new titles sequence and theme are equally untidy and feel more like an expensive amateur production than the BBC's headline show out to increase its international presence.

Even the writing of the beloved Steven Moffatt, who took over the show on the back of becoming a favourite amongst Who fans, feels clumsy early on, with a lengthy and unfunny sequence of the Doctor trying to find the right food to quench his post-regenerative cravings after landing in the garden of young Scottish girl Amelia Pond. Once they get down to the business of investigating the whispering crack in Amelia's bedroom wall, the writing takes an upturn for the better and brings in Moffatt's usual affinity for finding fear in the little details so full of meaning in a child's world.

Despite a problem with too many things happening at once and characters talking rather too quickly to keep up, the episode steadily grows in confidence, culminating in a finale that wraps up its plot threads impressively tightly in addition to giving the now customary warning of Bigger Threats to Come and a moment to get the long-time fans squealing with delight.



If the show takes a while to find its feet, the performances of new leads Matt Smith as the Doctor and Karen Gillan as companion-to-be Amy Pond dispel any lingering shadows of their predecessors from the moment they take their first steps on-screen. Smith mixes the mania and bravado of youth with the confidence and authority of age, glued together by a streak of unearthliness that Tennant's Doctor sometimes lacked. He rules the screen whether at full Timelord momentum or simply sitting over a dining table eating fish fingers and custard with a star-struck little girl. Karen Gillan makes a more low-key entrance, but not only is hilarious and gorgeous (challenging Freema Agyeman's Martha and Nicola Bryant's Peri for most lovely Who companion) but touchingly subtle in her hints at Amy's long-standing insecurity at losing everyone she's trusted in between her amazement at the Doctor's tardy but mercurial return.

For all its early flaws and below-par new titles sequence and special effects (perhaps a result of the BBC's severe recent budget cuts), 'The Eleventh Hour' shows plenty of promise that Steven Moffatt's reign in charge of Doctor Who can grow beyond the legacy left by the previous team. Matt Smith not only sweeps any naysayers' doubts about his suitability for the role, but gives as confident and exciting a debut as any previous incumbent, sparking of Karen Gillan's companion Amy with the chemistry of a long-established screen double act. As Smith so appropriately introduces himself, we know we can trust him: he's the Doctor.

The fifth series of Doctor Who premieres in the US on BBC America on April 17th at 8pm/7c

PREVIOUS NON-GAMING REVIEWS

Kick-Ass (Film)

A Curious Thing: Amy MacDonald (Music)
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!