Right now, someone, somewhere, is blaming Nintendo's Wii.
You've no doubt read at least some of the vast number of negative stories directly and indirectly involving Wii. One of the most recent being a poor Sacramento lady dying from water intoxication in a 'fluid holding' competition after trying to win a unit for her children. A horrible accident, regardless of your opinion on the extremely dangerous nature of the contest and the sheer desperation concerning the mother of three in her efforts to get a machine.
It signals the continual drip of Wii related tales, some terribly tragic, others far more suspicious that have leaked into mainstream consciousness the past few months. I was extremely surprised to hear that along with knowing about Wii, numerous non gaming members of my friends and family were just as aware of all the stories about Wii remotes flying into TVs, people crippling themselves while playing Wii Sports, straps breaking and other mishaps involving Nintendo's new console. They were so aware of these maladies that some of their excitement was actually tinged with caution, raising trepidation for their televisions and general well being, long before they actually got to play it and had very little in the way of accidents (the remote has been bashed off numerous cabinets, ceilings and coffee tables, but so far not an injury or notable example of destruction has taken place). Tellingly, many of the concerns had come from the internet; the wonderful world wide web where minor things can explode into sham significance with an exasperating cry of "me too!"
That's not to say bad things can't happen, because they do. Often totally by accident and just as often the fault of the user – lord knows how many legal documents Nintendo's legal team had to sign off to make sure all those wonderful disclaimers that crop up in Wii games were 100% clear and 100% annoying present. But accidents are a part of any activity where action is involved, from setting up your TV to playing football in the back yard with a friend. These are the risks we take for living our lives.
Wii may not have been directly blamed for some of these cases (certainly not the ones that involve tragic death), but there are people out there looking to make sure they get something from nothing, no matter how suspect it may be, potentially tarnishing things for those who have genuine and totally plausible problems or concerns, and thus muddying the waters. It's a surefire element that comes up when anything popular begins to emerge in the public eye, Wii being one of the latest in the line of sight for so called ambulance chasers and public attention seekers, making it hard for real sufferers to benefit. And true to course, there's always going to be more people crying wolf than real victims. Which itself is terribly sad in many ways, but if anything, totally predictable.
We (or indeed, Wii) live in a society where 'blame culture' is highly pervasive. We're all aware that -like a good action movie tagline- someone, somewhere has to pay. And the more popular, the better; anything to get dirt off our own hands and compensation back into them. Again, I'm not saying everyone is a money grabbing, attention seeking hound. Far from it. But overreaction and cries of moral abuse are rife when it comes to something popular. I bet I'm not the only one who rolled his eyes at the stories of some people calling out J.K Rowling's Harry Potter as promoting paganism and witchcraft. Or how about iPod earphones encouraging theft? Manga and anime destroying our peaceful civilisation? Anyone for a splash of Grand Theft Auto branded coffee? It's fresh and oh so hot. Mmmm.
These are but a mere drop in an ocean of instances where the moral majority (or in some cases, a very vocal minority) have sought something to blame after prior incidents were brought to light. And Wii is next in the firing line. In fact, not only has Wii already taken and dodged several bullets, but will probably have to continue to do so for a while yet, if it continues its snowball of popularity. Mainly because of the thing that makes Wii so damn great in the first place; the controller.
The Wii remote makes movement and action far more intuitive and thus brings gaming to a place where you're placed closer within its realities. You can hit a ball by swinging it like a bat. Deflect projectiles by holding it like a shield. Cave in someone's skull by wielding it like a club, press it against someone's head like a pistol, stab someone in the gut by using it like a sword… those are the sort of things some people will be waiting for to claim videogames are corrupting minds (yes, again). The effects of gaming on a young, developing consciousness may be inconclusive, but there's certainly some cause of apprehension given this new level of interaction afforded, and it's something that will increase through titles that allow such a level of virtual violence to be perpetrated -perhaps it's just as well Wii isn’t as powerful as Xbox 360 or PlayStation3 in this case, as to limit the graphical realism. Most of those types of games will be, as always, aimed at older audiences and rated by certification boards as such. But the galling and erroneous perception some parents have that ALL videogames are for kids pushes us down a rather perilous road where in the future, someone is going to look at a deep and involving and likely violent game that uses motion control as a sidewards influence to the latest mishap, because it's allowing us a level of engagement we've not had since the long gone days of clunky virtual reality headsets. But as I said earlier, these genuine hardships will become a minority voice drowned out by the screams of wannabes, watering down any real constructive progress. These types of stories are common within our culture for all kinds of reasons, but remain so because of one vital factor:
We promote them.
We read about them, pay them attention, spread them around and generally make them well known. Hell, I've done as much in this column alone. A story can be extremely minor in itself, but if it involves something popular then its publishing viability rises substantially and so becomes self important because we're more likely to read it no matter how suspicious it may actually be. It could be said as a misuse of Press power, but the Media -of which I've been a part of for a long time, so I'm far from being totally innocent- has a natural tendency to flock towards whatever is deemed popular and worth selling to you, the public. No matter how spurious or mean spirited that may be. During my study years as a journalist, there were a large number of classes on ethics (yes, we do get taught them!), with one of the predominant things expressed is that when you chase a story, it has to be something IN the public interest, rather than OF the public interest. There's a thin, but very important semantic difference. IN all of our interests is news of changes in our world water supply, while OF interest is Brad and Angelina having a baby. Yet you don’t have to be a psychic to work out which one will gain more column inches through the perception of what will be more popular with the masses. This is our world, and the Media panders to what is popular; this doesn’t mean it's right or particularly fair, but that's human nature and certainly something that became standard long before dwindling readerships in newspapers and magazines, and fears that our audience doesn't read.
Part of the problem is that videogames, on a whole, are yet to be fully accepted by those in power, nor by those who think they're nothing beyond a child's diversion. There will always be a vocal minority against pretty much anything (apart from breathing, maybe), that much is inescapable especially on the internet. But videogames are going through the exact same thing rock and roll, science fiction, comic books, horror movies, romance novels, hip-hop and so many other valid means of art and expression went through. It's a young medium. Funnily enough, as I type this, my local news programme is having a debate about "yoof culture", suggesting teenagers are out of control and that it's a large problem in society, when I can remember them having features about the very same thing only 15 years ago when I was still considered a 'youth' (which amusingly suggests that all these post-35 year old producers and newscasters were either never rebellious during their growing years or never actually teenagers). It's all circular. Swings and predictable roundabouts. That doesn’t mean to say some of the issues raised aren’t valid, but they'll often be the same issues someone raised barely a decade ago and before that, with a new twist to make them more relevant. Very little is new under the sun. Including Wii Sports - no matter how great it is.
Gamers are a minority, despite the audience growth over the past few years. But personally, I don’t think there's too much to worry about. Sure, it may be irritating and there may be a deep feeling of injustice (especially if you're one of the slighted) but there's an undercurrent of common sense that eventually wins out. And new mediums may be enforced and regulated, but they're rarely ever chased out of existence. It's true that the bigger Wii becomes -and I'm under the impression it's going to be very big indeed, and rightly so- the larger a target it is for the cynical, but it and Nintendo's DS have made important inroads to making audiences more accepting of videogames. Not to paint the machines as some sort of solitary saviours or anything, given gaming culture's history of fine machines that built the framework Wii is standing on, but the clear and very necessary expansion of a new market should open more doors that will hopefully offer less resistance from those who may have previously demonized gaming and used its popularity for financial or compensatory gain. Or maybe for Media attention and fame. Or -heaven forbid- some sort of political platform. Hm. Nah, maybe that's a bit too far fetched.
The bigger the audience, the bigger the risks, but also the bigger the breadth of understanding that comes with it all. For every five people looking to take advantage of Wii and gaming's status, there's ten more being converted. And so there's probably going to be an eventual slowing of it being placed within the crosshairs of the most recent self appointed Moral Champion of the World looking to take down the newest satanic evil of society's ills. Or those looking to jump on a bandwagon via some craftily Photoshopped images.
It's also worth noting that -genuinely serious incidents and concerns aside- Wii has actually helped gaming gain a more positive image. The initial trend of making more physical titles via the likes of Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, SingStar, EyeToy and others, has truly come into force with Nintendo's machine forcing us off the couch and moving more than just our thumbs. Already there have been numerous people showing the successful results of using Wii Sports as part of an exercise regime. For all the cries of the medium "trapping" children in the house, gluing them to a screen, there's been a large change in that by the progressive need to physically participate in certain games to get the best from them. It was an old standby used by cynics to suggest gaming makes us fat and lazy, but now that excuse is something that will become less relevant as we duck and weave, swing and return, and strut our way around the living room thanks to our Wii remotes (just mind the TV, eh).
You won't see many of those sort of stories gracing the front pages of newspapers and headlining TV reports, though, regardless of their much sought, easily digestible "fair and balanced" taglines. Which is why it's important that we, as gamers, spread such examples of benefit and celebration. Maybe it's time we started looking for more inspiring tales about our medium instead of gleefully sharing negative ones. Because how can the mainstream truly accept our beloved pastime without needless aggression and bickering if we can't do the same from grass roots?
Things will take time to change, as with most forms of entertainment that appear new and threatening to certain audiences, trying to break a barrier of popularity and thus potentially negative attention. And there's always going to be people looking to blame everyone and everything but themselves. But at least now -and perhaps more than ever via a Wii remote- there's a bit more power literally in our hands. I personally hope we can all do something positive with it.
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