Does the market success of the Wii relative to the PS3 and Xbox 360 bear on major issues in philosophy of mind? Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox assert that it does. In this piece, I argue against their claims – the success of the Wii did not reflect fundamental questions about how we perceive the world, but simply Nintendo's superior market strategy.
I'm taking a break from my giant
philosophy tomes to read Cogburn and Silcox's Philosophy Through
Video Games, which is a solid
attempt at a first move in this direction – not to mention, any
philosophy book which makes reference to Mark Kinney's character Mr.
Tyzik (“I'm crushing your head!”) as part of a philosophical investigation is cast iron genius to my mind (even if they forget that his alternative catchphrase is not “you
disappear” but “nobody's home!”).
However, in their essay “The Game Inside the Mind, the Mind Inside the Game (The Nintendo Wii Gaming Console)” they make some serious mistakes – not philosophical mistakes (I would discuss these on my other blog if they were), but simple games industry mistakes. Although this discussion references the philosophical terms 'phenomenalism' and 'enactivism' you will not need to know what these terms mean to understand the central argument.
Cogburn and Silcox are immediately in error when, on opening, they claim that “nobody saw Nintendo's promised new kinaesthetic interface... as relevant to improving the realism of modern video games.” This is not true. It was immediately clear to me that the Wii had serious advantages (both in certain kinds of 'realism', and in other more important respects), and I confidently predicted considerable market success from the start (although I was not the only industry analyst to do so). My Round Table entry in January 2007 summarises the appeal of these aspects of the Wii, which I term kinaesthetic mimicry. Realism in the context of this form of play means something very different to realism in other kinds of play; in fact, I question whether there can be a single principle of realism at all, even if we constrain our consideration just to videogames.
However, the authors are seriously in error when they claim that what is most commercially relevant about the kinaesthetic aspect of the Wii is greater realism; there is a fundamental mistake behind this assertion, which has already been thoroughly exposed by Edward Castronova, namely the assumption that the realism of depiction is the key factor in the appeal of videogames rather than (say) immersion. (Or, equivalently, to assume that greater realism necessarily implies greater immersion). In Synthetic Worlds, Castronova chastises post hoc the naiveté of virtual reality researchers in making the same mistake:
...the science program focused on sensory-input hardware, while the gamers focussed on mentally and emotionally engaging software. As you can imagine, a person can become “immersed” either way: either the sensory inputs are so good that you actually think the crafted environment you’re in is genuine, or, you become so involved mentally and emotionally in the synthetic world that you stop paying attention to the fact that it is only synthetic. It turns out that the way humans are made, the software-based approach seems to have had much more success.
To put Castronova's point succinctly: World of Warcraft is more popular than Virtual Reality World 3D Color Ninja, the latter title being one that most people haven't even heard of, let alone played.
The authors cite, as one of their key points of evidence, that “Wii gameplay seemed to many gamers to be much more realistic than that of its competitors”. Either this sentence is ill-formed, or their player studies contradict my own. Gamers, that is, the core market for videogames, do not in general find any aspect of the Wii more realistic than the “power consoles” (PS3 and 360) - and indeed, for such players the kinaesthetic part of the interface can be wildly frustrating. It gives them greater mimicry for less agency, and gamer hobbyists – those people who spend a substantial proportion of their free time playing videogames – are in general very much more interested in agency than they are in mimicry. What I believe Cogburn and Silcox should have claimed was that “Wii gameplay seems to many non-gamers to be much more realistic than any of its competitors”. The fact there is a disagreement between different market segments as to the question of realism is a major failing of their argument in favour of enactavism over phenomenalism: the Wii does not offer greater realism to all players, only to some players, and specifically those players who were not previously able to enjoy videogames.
One of the reasons I was so certain the Wii would be a massive success was that my company had already conducted detailed case studies of players and non-players of videogames (and games of other kinds, such as tabletop role-playing games) and had discovered an obvious but overlooked point. What had kept most people away from modern videogames wasn't a lack of realism, or a lack of interest in the games on offer (although there was a lack of interest in most of the games on offer in the case of almost all non-gamers), but a simple anxiety about the skills required. The majority of gamers, who have logged thousands of hours with a joypad, forget just how much skill (how much muscle memory – Cogburn and Silcox make good use of this concept) gamers have acquired on these inherently complicated devices. But a non-gamer sees in a PlayStation controller a device with a dozen controls – rendering them reluctant even to pick it up, much less use it, without some instruction and assistance.
The Wii's genius lies in three key areas. Firstly, in bringing kinaesthetic mimicry home from the arcades. The authors underestimate this aspect – the arcades since the 1990s had already been overrun by specialist hardware precisely because of the appeal of this form of mimicry to a wider audience for games. Secondly, it radically simplified the interface and presented it – not as a confusing device of almost aircraft cockpit complexity – but as something supremely familiar, a remote control. (This actually could be used to support enactivism, perhaps, but goes unmentioned). The fact that it doubles as a “light gun” adds value to both of these first points. Finally, the focus on Wii games is not on what appeals to the gamer hobbyists at all – successful Wii games for the most part are constructed to generate Lazzaro's People Play, i.e. amusement, social contagion etc. In short, the Wii appeals to a mass market audience because it is both accessible and meets their expectations of fun – not because it is “more realistic”.
When Sony executive Phil Harrison claimed in 2006 that the Wii and the PS3 represented fundamentally different markets he was absolutely correct. Sony and Microsoft are fighting out for the gamer hobbyists, the minority of players who spend the majority of money on games i.e. videogame addicts. Nintendo couldn't compete for this market, and they knew it, because competing for this market is about producing the best bells-and-whistles boy-toy, and that's extremely expensive. Sony and Microsoft lose money on every console they sell (as a loss leader; they hope to make up this cost in software license fees). Nintendo never sell hardware at a loss. This also helps ensure their hardware has a cost advantage in the shops.
Sony's mistake wasn't in misjudging how to pitch for greater realism, as Cogburn and Silcox effectively claim – for the gamer hobbyists improved processing power did equate to greater realism, at least of the kind that was relevant to them. The hobbyists are, for the most part, into kinds of gameplay which are physically detached and that involve principally the decision and pleasure centres of the brain; this kind of play is not made more realistic by physically intervening interfaces – it is more often blocked by it. The greater processing power of the Xbox 360 and PS3 afforded more polygons and better draw distances – aesthetic improvements only gamer hobbyists could appreciate, since for anyone in the mass market the Xbox and the Xbox 360 produce more or less the same graphical quality. This is why the Wii's “inferior” graphics potential doesn't hurt it one wit with its primary audience.
What Sony didn't fully appreciate for some reason was how much larger the mass market audience for games is compared to the hobbyist market. Personally, I believe they (and Microsoft, whose thinking was no different) did not necessarily make a strategic mistake in this regard. If Sony and Microsoft had gone in the same direction as Nintendo at the same time, their situation would have been worse, not better, as neither company has a development team (or, for that matter, a development process or marketing strategy) capable of reliably targeting the play needs and desires of mass market gamers. Of the major platform licensors, only Nintendo has these capabilities at this time. If the PS3 had been a souped-up Wii, the Wii would still have outsold it.
Where Sony did make a gigantic mistake was in claiming that the Wii was “bringing people into” their market. At the height of the PS2's success, a large part of what is now the Wii's market was Sony's market. At the height of the Wii's success (roughly now) whatever part of the Wii's market was not previously part of Sony's audience remains out of reach to Sony. The Wii has stolen the mass market from Sony who previously had control of it, and built upon the existing foundations, expanded this audience yet further. This could only be good news for Sony if they can “steal it back”, and this is not impossible, but neither is it currently very likely.
Cogburn and Silcox conclude, following their nicely constructed philosophical argument, that “by devising game controllers that better mapped the relevant sensorimotor skills, the Wii's designers launched us into the next phase of the gradual but (so gamers hope) inevitable transition towards truly realistic and immersive video games”. If this claim were true, then Project Natal and Sony's Motion Control project will improve their relevant console's market performance. But it won't. Or at least, it won't to any significant degree. Remember World of Warcraft... greater immersion is not a function of interface, except in so much as the complexity of the old interface was a barrier to mass market players. A strategic player already hit the height of immersion with Civilisation... a tactical player already hit the height of immersion with, well, I suppose FPS games are continuing to refine what they offer, so there might yet be somewhere to go in this regard, but nevertheless Goldeneye (1997) and Modern Warfare 2 (2009) are not so far apart.
There will be much talk about Natal and Sony's motion control system, and there probably will be some interesting games that come out of it. But the mass market isn't going to buy a 360 or PS3 to get at these devices – they already have a Wii. And gamers aren't going to be enormously interested in these new systems unless they match or exceed the degree of agency they can attain with a standard controller. Nothing I've seen so far would allow us to conclude this. The kind of play that gamer hobbyists generally enjoy is on the one hand highly visceral (exciting, spontaneous) and on the other highly cerebral (strategic, thoughtful), and players who enjoy play of this nature are not suffering from a barrier to enjoyment as the mass market was in the case of the Wii. There isn't a design problem to solve here.
Be honest, gamer hobbyists, what are you more looking forward to: is it Project Natal, or Bioshock 2, Halo: Reach and Mass Effect 2? Is it Sony's Motion Controller, or is it The Last Guardian, Gran Turismo 4 and Heavy Rain? Even if none of those games interest you, I'll bet what excites you is a forthcoming game, not Sony and Microsoft's novelty interfaces. For mass market players, the Wii already offers more or less what they want. For gamer hobbyists, the game interfaces have been good enough for quite a while now. Anything more is just icing on the cake.
Interested in the philosophy I gloss over here? Check out Cogburn and Silcox' book Philosophy Through Video Games, published by Routledge, which includes fascinating discussions of the relationships between the ability to compute and objectivity, artificial intelligence and language, and more besides.