[Is Nintendo's marketing of the 'Touch Generations' series as improving brainpower, reactions, or even reducing wrinkles actually pseudo-scientific 'snake oil'? In a pointed opinion piece, producer & journalist Simon Parkin suggests as much.]
“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Find the fun and… snap: the job’s a game! And every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake. A lark! A spree! It’s very clear to see: that a…spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go dowwwn, medicine go down”
Had Mary Poppins pursued a career in game design, rather than choosing to nanny rich kids in Kensington, she’d probably be working for Nintendo right now. Her assertion that every real life task contains an ingredient of fun that, if identified and emphasized, can turn a chore into a game mightn’t be original, but never before has it been so in vogue with game developers.
Nintendo’s ‘Touch Generations’ family of titles has helped define a new gaming market space: games that mimic those real life activities most people go out of their way to avoid. Mental arithmetic, dog walking, eyesight testing, exercise and aerobics all repackaged and re-branded by Nintendo as gaming’s brave new future.
So effective has the company’s work been in mining entertainment from the mundane that their spoonful of pixel sugar could probably make a game out of pulling pubic hair from a bath plug. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the premise of WarioWare
Games have always mimicked real life activities; the imitation of extraordinary realities is as much the medium’s forte as the offer of escapism. Games allow players to drive a Ferrari around Nuremberg at breakneck speed, to snowboard down Mount Everest in a fearsome blizzard, to pilot an F-16 fighter jet meters above the pacific wash and to take to the war-torn streets of Basra as a grizzled marine.
They offer an interactive window into life experiences that are out of reach to most; experiences that, in real life, require years of hard work, concentrated training, extreme danger or millions of dollars investment.
There are even connections between seemingly abstract videogames and real life pursuits. Tetris
requires players to put everything in its right place, the same compulsion felt by so many an obsessive-compulsive tidy-upper.
Likewise, Every Extend Extra
is little more than score attack suicide bombing. From waiting tables in Diner Dash
to managing sewerage systems in Sim City
, games have always understood that what’s tedious in this reality can become fascinating when framed as a game.
But in all of these examples there has been an implicit understanding that the player is entering into a fantasy. Call of Duty 4
or Gran Turismo
might aim for acute realism but they are never painted as anything more than make believe. You won’t become a better soldier or a faster driver through playing them.
By contrast, Nintendo’s recent thrusts towards a new ‘casual’ audience have seen the abstraction between the real and the virtual deliberately blurred. When purchasing Wii Fit
, did consumers believe they were buying a video game about fitness or a genuine solution to a real weight problem?
When Nintendo took out Brain Training
advertisements in Saga magazine, did the over-65 readership think this was a just slightly more convenient way to complete Sudokus or a legitimate device for staving off Alzheimer’s? The lines between game and tool have been scrubbed out and nobody has bothered to ask if the distinctions even mattered…
The distinctions mattered. Where many of Nintendo’s recent Touch Generations titles are concerned, the selling point is no longer entertainment but rather the vagaries of pseudoscience. Dr Kawashima (Brain Training
) and Dr Kageyama (Maths Training
) are figures that act as endorsements from the scientific community of each product, shifting Nintendo’s output from entertainment to something closer to medicine. But the science behind the sell is at best misleading, at worse, televangelical in its deceit.
For example, Big Brain Academy
and Brain Training
compute their players’ brain ‘age’ not through some sort of marvelous, inscrutable new video game-science. Rather, they calculate how fast the player is at finishing a number of simple tasks. The faster the player completes these tests, the younger their brain age is recorded as being. ‘This activity stimulates the prefrontal cortex’ enthuses the disembodied head of Dr Kawashima, the not-so-subtext being that, if you play his game daily, fatigued synapses will snap back to life and your mind will regain lost youth.
But, of course, the player’s ‘brain age’ reading is improved through nothing more than raw repetition. As you learn the tests and come to understand their formula, so you improve at those specific tasks, so your time to completion lessens, so your ‘Brain Age’ reduces.
It's a simple re-skin of video gaming’s first principles. It’s a ten-year-old kid playing and replaying the first level in Super Mario Bros
until he reaches the conclusion through raw practice and muscle memory. It’s age-old Nintendo dressed up as something shiny and new, sold not on the premise of something that’s fun but on the basis that it’s something to heal and restore.
can be fun, of course, but that’s not why they come. No, they come for the snake oil, the miracle cure, and end up with a shallow video game.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the joint Namco and Nintendo venture, Flash Focus: Vision Training
, a game that implies it will help correct poor eyesight but which mainly consists of a series of reaction tests, those self-same mechanics videogames have employed since the dawn of their existence.
Or Face Training
, a game built upon science so contentious (that is, the idea that daily facial exercises can help reduce the effects of aging) it’s yet to be announced for release anywhere outside of Japan, where ‘facening’ is a current fad.
So too with Wii Fit
, a game which monitors players’ exercises with simple readouts and charts designed to inspire repeat play. Except, the overbearing presentation, the reams of menu screens and tortuous introductions to each workout mean that less than half the time spent on the balance board is time actually spent exercising. Viewed cynically, Wii Fit
is a pair of expensive, Apple-esque scales that very effectively slow down your rate of exercise.
The need to frame all that is good and enjoyable about video games in a manner that is appealing and acceptable to a wider, older mainstream audience is understandable, particularly for a company who has stepped out of the hardware pursuit of graphical realism. It’s easy to argue that the Touch Generations brand is little more than a palatable re-skin of video game basics. But the language that Nintendo has chosen to sell these games is pernicious.
It might be effective marketing to play upon the modern Western human’s insecurities, selling games to people who think they’re too fat, too ugly or too stupid, but it’s a new emphasis that runs almost contrary to their previous focus. Besides, if games are now medicine shouldn’t they be subject to different kind of testing and peer group study than that offered by GameSpot and IGN?
In all of this it’s important to remember that video games are still video games. The compulsion an overweight housewife feels to improve their sit-up score in Wii Fit
is the same compulsion a shmup fanatic tastes when wanting to improve his Ikaruga
The demands Flash Focus: Vision Training
makes of its player are similar to those required by Counter-Strike
: all that’s changed is the metaphor. New metaphors are fine. That’s how we discover new fields of creativity and interest. And sometimes the new metaphors bring with them new purposes.
Perhaps, in the future, games will no longer be principally tools for fun but instead a means to a different end: weight loss, better eyesight, attractiveness or drumming. But if that’s the case, critics and consumers need a whole new set of language and approaches to understand what’s being encountered, because the whole game just changed.