Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Semantics, Politics, and video games: Nintendo versus the world

In the spirit of mass market analysis, today's rant is going to be about the semantics of persuasion... in this case, I'm going to consider spin-doctoring in the marketplace. The free-market competition is for dominance in video game console sales, and the competitors are the X-Box 360, the Playstation 3, and the Nintendo Wii.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to lump the X-Box and the PS3 into the same category. These are the old-guard game systems, competing on the basis of classic qualifications like franchise acquisition and processor speed. The Wii represents a different paradigm entirely, and at the moment, it seems to be shaping the debate over the next generation of consoles. Where the X-Box and the PS3 are in a race for power, the Wii is struggling to innovate... where the old-guards are selling their new processors, the Wii is selling its concept.

The unconventional Wii controller is at the nexus of this debate, and its success depends on whether it's cast as an innovation or as a novelty. This is a marketing game, and it's become a critical issue on gaming message boards. The old-guards claim that the gaming experience hasn't changed, and that it's based on good games, not on a gimmicky control scheme. Nintendo wants to prove that even in a die-hard realm like the gaming experience, the hegemony can be overthrown.

Thus, the primary semantic issue: novelty versus innovation. Novelties are attention-getting but transient, where innovations are ideas that produce lasting effects in their markets.

Most old-guard loyalists (read: fanboys) claim that a system withough an armor-piercing processor simply isn't "new generation," and their reliance on this term is telling: these gamers' criteria for games is established by the history of gaming, from the 8-bit Ataris to the dual-core 3.2 GHz PS3 powerhouse. These gamers expect an upgrade in graphics, speed, and dynamic simulation with every new system, and this means Nintendo has failed, because it's not building on the tradition of its supposed predecessors.

Nintendo isn't so concerned with the "generation" of this system, and in a sense, Nintendo has taken on the task of subverting this linear paradigm. Its new system was originally called the "Revolution," and this is another revealing semantic choice. "Next Generation" is progressive... "Revolution" is Marxist. Where Sony and Microsoft are competing to dominate an established field, Nintendo is attempting to redefine it entirely. Revolution is a risky business, but for the dedicated developers at Nintendo, it's the only way to overthrow the corporate video game hegemony.

I seem to be creating a political metaphor here, and I'm going to recognize it and dispense with it before it gets out of hand. The twentieth-century political environment was split into Communism (defined by socialism, revolution, and the enforcement of "equality") versus free capitalist democracy (defined by traditional individualism, competition, and the securing of "freedom"), and these two seemed irresolvable at times. Even so, they were united by a grand design, the ultimate struggle for social harmony and human happiness. Sometimes the only way to get perspective is to look at the total field, the ultimate domain that ties you and your opponent to the same end-goal.

What I'm trying to say is that all this stuff... innovation, progress, next-generation, and revolution... are taking place within a certain domain, and despite the fuzzy focus of the new marketing push, this is a total field that can't be bought, redefined, or subverted. This total environment is defined by the consumers themselves, the gamers, and its central term isn't "graphics," "development," "innovation," "market share," or "novelty"... its central term is gameplay, and it's something the three competitors have to keep sight of if they're going to win, or even survive, the next skirmish in video game politics.

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