First published on Chris Bateman's blog, Only A Game on 11th January 2007
Mimicry, the play of simulation, can be expressed in many roles, but few have such wide appeal as kinaesthetic mimicry - that which involves the players’ sense of touch and motion. We see it in small children who play with toys that mimic adult tools - plastic mechanics tools or cooking utensils, or mock weapons such as wooden swords and toy guns. The experience of mimicry is enhanced by the use of such props.
The earliest instances of the use of kinaesthetic elements in videogames occur in arcade games and Atari (not to be confused with the modern publisher which has bought this name) were at the forefront in the arcade revolution of the 1970s. Qwak! (Atari, 1974) featured a satisfyingly sturdy shotgun peripheral that was integral to its cabinet, and extended the kinaesthetic mimicry of a carnival shooting gallery game (which predate videogames) to an electronic form. (The earliest light gun game, incidentally, is considered to be the Seeburg Ray-O-Lite, from 1936). In the same year, Gran Trak 10 (Atari 1974) used a steering wheel to add kinaesthetic mimicry to a simple top-down driving game. (This game was also the first to use ROM memory). However, the graphics of these early videogames were crude, and these early attempts were largely unsuccessful.
In the next decade, arcade games began to explore kinaesthetic elements further, and games like Out Run (Sega, 1986) had a cabinet featuring not only a steering wheel, but a gear stick as well. Hard Drivin’ (Atari, 1989) went one step further. Its steering wheel included forced feedback (a first for the arcade), and as well as a gear stick the cabinet featured an ignition key, which the player turned to start playing. Coupled with its early shaded polygonal graphics (which were a sensation at the time), Hard Drivin’ was a hit in arcades the world over. Similarly, gun play was catered for with new cabinets such as Operation Wolf (Taito, 1987) and its sequels.
By the 1990s, the arcade audience demographic had shifted considerably. For some time, the rise of the home consoles and the PC as a gaming machine had taken the gamer hobbyists out of the arcades and back into their dingy bedrooms. Arcade games were increasingly required to draw upon kinaesthetic mimicry to pull in a broader audience, and the games of the nineties illustrate this neatly. Namco build elaborate control devices into their Prop Cycle (Namco, 1996), Alpine Surfer (Namco, 1996) and Rapid River (Namco, 1997). Prop Cycle was the most successful of the three – its control mechanism was literally a bicycle, and had wide appeal (although players often lacked the stamina to play more than once a day!), while Alpine Surfer used a snowboard (coupled with a hand rail) for control, and Rapid River used a paddle to control its virtual dinghy.
Nor were Namco the only company pushing in this direction. Sega Bass Fishing (Sega, 1998) was not an enormous success in arcades, but was widely distributed around bars in the United States, while Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, 1999) was a run away success with its dance platform which allowed the player to literally move their whole body to control the game. All of these new games had one thing in common: they were good exercise as well as being good fun.
However, attempts to spread kinaesthetic mimicry into the home were less successful. In fact, until recently the only form to make it into the home was the light gun. The NES Zapper (Famicom Light Gun in Japan) was shipped with the system from 1984 (and similarly with the less successful XG-1 bundled with the Atari XEGS system). These first light guns enjoyed success because they were bundled with the consoles, but as light guns began to be packaged separately the problem with getting kinaesthetic mimicry into the home became more apparent: the cost of the peripherals were a barrier. Games were generally quite expensive; adding the cost of the light gun peripheral made them out of the reach of most families.
The Sega Dreamcast was the first console to really attempt to push other forms of kinaesthetic mimicry into the home, most significantly with the home version of Sega Bass Fishing (Sega, 1999), which captured the play of its arcade predecessor with its satisfyingly realistic fishing controller, and with the novel Samba De Amigo (Sega, 2000), which required special maraca controllers to play. But the same problem dogged these attempts: the cost of the game and controller together was prohibitive.
The first real success story of bringing this kind of play into the home was with Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution brand. Although retailers were reluctant to stock the dance pad peripherals, the arcade game was so popular that the Playstation and Playstation 2 versions of the game (from 1999-2006) experienced unprecedented success through online sales. Part of the reason for the success was that the games targeted an audience traditionally considered out-of-bounds for videogames (namely a female audience, although the games were enjoyed by people of both genders).
Sony’s EyeToy, released in Europe along with EyeToy Play (Sony, 2003) used visual and motion recognition technologies to allow the player to control games with their entire body - while simultaneously showing the player themselves on screen. Although a great commercial success, the general lack of sensitivity meant that it was not ideal as a control device, and was mostly only used for simple minigames.
The success of both dance mat controllers and the EyeToy paved the way for the boldest step forward in bringing kinaesthetic mimicry into the home. In 2006, Nintendo unveiled their latest home console, Wii. It’s unique remote controller contained a variety of sensors, including a pointing suite equivalent to a light gun, tilt sensors, and motion sensors. This device offered something that was previously an impossibility: it could be used in multiple different roles to mimic multiple different activities. The Wii removed the barrier that had previously hindered kinaesthetic mimicry from making into the home: the expense of a separate control device. The Wii remote came bundled with the console.
Furthermore, with Nintendo packaging Wii Sports (Nintendo, 2006) with the console, they had produced a home electronic package ideal for a wide audience - six different experiences of kinaesthetic mimicry, most of which were readily understandable by a new player (even one with low game literacy) since the actions of play were modelled upon the actions of the sports being simulated. The fact that the games are also great aerobic exercise only furthers their appeal.
However, the potential to bring experiences of kinaesthetic mimicry into the home still depended upon games that leveraged that potential. Although Wii Sports succeeded admirably, the fifty mini-games in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz (Sega, 2006) show the problems of developing for Wii. Many of the control mechanisms for the mini-games are difficult to teach the player (since they do not copy real world motions), and consequently produce highly unsatisfying game experiences.
Nonetheless, the Wii represents the forefront of this form of mimicry, and will certainly succeed in bringing a wider audience of players into the videogames market with its potential for highly intuitive control, and the ability to mimic any number of different activities. It is likely, however, that this wider audience will not need to purchase many games for the Wii, hence the majority of the cashflow in the games industry will remain focussed on the gamer hobbyist (requiring new games every month and, in some cases, every week), and hence on the battle of the power gaming machines between Sony and Microsoft, both haemorrhaging money on their hardware in an attempt to secure the support of the key demographics. Meanwhile, Nintendo will be making sterling revenues on their console, selling it to a broader demographic and making a profit on every unit sold.
Although the chief activities emulated in videogames remain the same - guns, cars and sports - the advent of a generalised control solution for kinaesthetic mimicry finally breaks down the cost barrier of getting this form of play into the home. The chief question remaining is whether the success of the Wii is sufficient to spur Sony into continuing their copycat policy. Either way, the Wii represents a significant step forward in the kinaesthetic mimicry of videogames - and perhaps, an opportunity for unfit gamers to get some much needed exercise.