Size / / /

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience with the Wii. I only played one game, and if I didn't live on the second floor and DID have a TV, I'm sure I would even now be scouring eBay for one of my very own.

I know I'm coming late to this party. I've never been a console gamer. For all that I've rhapsodized about all the old-school Sierra adventure games, when I was a kid I did actually beg my parents for a Nintendo every now and then. I probably wasn't as persistent as I could have been (too busy happily doing Gwydion's chores in King's Quest III), and they ignored me. The only time I ever got to play Mario (and my personal favorite, Mario 2, because even then I wanted my avatar to be as pink as possible) was when I was at a friend's house, and it was often like pulling teeth to get them to play, too. All the Nintendo-owning children had grown bored with Nintendo by the time I realized what I was missing. There was a short period in my undergraduate career when my roommates and I spent hours on NES emulators, playing Mario 3 and Street Fighter, but eventually we got bored, too . . . or, in the case of my senior year roommate, it wasn't so much that we got bored as that she refused to play me anymore. I wouldn't use anyone other than Chun-Li (while a rudimentary Google search suggests that her dress was probably not pink, she was definitely pink in spirit with those little pigtail buns) and I had mad idiot savant Street Fighter skills, somehow, so I always won. The greatest Tekken player in the world fears not the second greatest but the worst, and all that. [1]

It's not like I missed the Wii hype. In fact, when I participated in the Sony Game Design Workshop at MIT last year, our (winning) entry was a Beatles-themed sandbox game for the Wii. I'm already a dedicated MMOG-player, however, and I've yet to get bored with City of Heroes the way I did with even my beloved Mario 3. (In the past two days, in fact, I have discovered the compulsive joy of working the in-game auction house. It's almost as obsessively satisfying as doing an evil sorcerer's housework.) Consoles are a big investment when you've already shelled out an obscene amount of money for a (hot pink[2]) desktop with a supercharged graphics card and two 250 GB hard drives (that's ostensibly for work . . . yeah, I mostly use it to store TV shows, but having two hard drives does allow me to mirror my dissertation). Also, as previously noted, I don't have a TV,[3] and getting one would mean making room in my apartment, which is already crowded like an Egyptian tomb. (Or what an Egyptian tomb would have been like if the Egyptians had believed what people really needed in the afterlife were hundreds of pairs of impractical shoes.) I read all the news articles about the Wii (which made it sound like you pretty much had to sell your children to get one, since so many retailers are sold out of them), so I knew that everyone was super excited about all these NON-GAMERS playing the Wii. That IS interesting to a sociologist gamer-type like me, but you know, I didn't think it had all that much to do with me REALLY, when you got down to it.

After all, I am already a gamer. I play the video games. You don't have to twist MY arm. Probably a little of it was kind of a snooty kneejerk reaction against the sweaty masses and what they're willing to pay hundreds of dollars for on eBay; after all, I don't even play the one MMOG that mainstream America has heard about.[4] But mainly, you know, I have my game, which I like, and my treasured memories of King's Quest, and sometimes I play Oregon Trail on Facebook,[5] although to be honest, I have gotten a little disenchanted since I discovered that I could satisfy my OCD just as well playing the CoH auction house. I used to play Tetris on my phone, but since I hardly ever take the bus anymore, I don't feel the need as much. I'm also a little suspicious whenever people start trumpeting about how much any game or system "appeals to women." I should probably take into consideration my own deep love of The Sims when I turn up my nose at such rhetoric. I may think that the people who employ it are most likely misguided about who "women" are and what "women" like, but the fact remains that when there's a lot of hype about how much women actually DO like something—rather than how much we just know they're GOING to like it (hello, Barbie games)—it's usually the case that the something in question doesn't suck. And it's not like women were the only amazing Wii-using group—there were also the old people, the ones who remain deeply suspicious of their VCRs, especially the ones that play "those round tapes."[6] And the gamers—the game blogs were certainly head over heels for the Wii. The amazing thing wasn't that "non-gamers" liked it; it was that EVERYBODY liked it. To me, it sounded okay. You know. I understood that it was different. I just didn't particularly think it sounded like something that would change my life.

And then I played it.

I went to a friend's birthday party last month; she and her husband got themselves a Wii as their major Christmas gift. They also, being gigantic nerds, have an entire projection system so that the Wii screen is not a mere TV but about fifteen square feet of wall, and I'm sure that helped make the impression more dramatic. I watched some Guitar Hero, a game that causes me deep anxiety and which I have no interest in playing on any system, really.[7] I watched some Wii tennis, which looked okay. I had a couple glasses of wine.

Then there was a call for new Wii tennis participants. What the hell, I thought. It looks better than Guitar Hero. And what kind of video game columnist has never played a Wii?

So I got up. I took the proffered Wii-mote, with suspicion of middling depth. I put the wrist band around my wrist, an appropriate precautionary measure for someone as spastic as I am. I carefully observed my host's demonstration of Wii tennis serving technique. I took a little swing. My guest Mii smacked the ball across the net, somewhat weakly. My host modeled a more powerful serve. I tried again. My little Mii smacked the HELL out of that ball. It was AWESOME, even if—monstrous injustice—I was unable to create a pink-haired guest Mii. (I'm not sure if this is an overall limitation of the system, or just an issue with not being a system owner. People with Wiis: can you make pink hair? I HAVE pink hair, dammit. It is not unreasonable to want a pink-haired Mii.)

I had a little more wine. I tried the cow racing game, which was entertaining, but I was less good at it, and I didn't get to make large, threatening arm movements.

I have never played tennis in my life. I suspect I would be a terrible tennis player, just as I am fairly unskilled at most sports involving anything beyond a bare minimum of coordination. I do like tennis skirts—cycling clothes have the advantage of being available in a color palette that has not been prominently featured in ordinary clothing lines since around 1987, which I like, but they are short on kicky little skirts. Which is not to say that Miis have much in the way of wardrobe options, though as my friend Crystal points out, they can still represent their owners almost frighteningly well. (Crystal argues that other people always do a better job making a Mii that looks like you, because they can stare at you while they're doing it.) At any rate, even though I've never played tennis, I was having a GREAT time with this game. I don't have enough pursuits that allow for jumping up and down and swearing with various emotional affect. And believe me, I was jumping up and down. That's how I ended up with a giant purple bruise on my ankle, right where it connected with a chair when I got overexcited with the jumping and the swearing and the serving, and kicked backwards, with enthusiasm. I don't know how many feet away the chair was stationed from my position in the middle of the living room floor. Several, I'm sure.

It was very painful. I didn't care. I just wanted to play more Wii tennis.

The way I felt about Wii tennis, if we leave aside the Mii for a moment—or perhaps just equate it with tennis skirts and dayglo cycling gear—was actually very much the way I felt the first time in my adult life that I really got back on a bicycle and went a measurable distance on it: exhilarated, and somewhat mystified that I hadn't been doing this for ages, because it was so much fun.

The popular press makes a big deal about the Wii bringing game consoles to the non-gamer. It mentions the issue of physical activity, and treats the Wii in this sense as an heir to Dance Dance Revolution in the culture war against obesity, but it seems to be a secondary point in most pieces. What I think we should notice is that the Wii is bringing physical activity back to people who have often been programmed to assume that it is Not Their Thing: that they are No Good at it in any of its guises.

I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype of gamers as lazy slugs. Certainly in my most intense MUDding days, I was a lazy slug, but I was also a junior high student, although it took years for me to again pursue physical activity consistently. I don't think this phenomenon can be disentangled from socialization, often negative, as a Young Geek. Other Young Geeks did not evince much interest in exercise, and perhaps more importantly, we constantly received the message from outside quarters that we were no good at it anyway. It was years before I realized that I didn't hate physical activity in and of itself; I just hated fascism, a.k.a. junior high gym class. I still don't enjoy team sports, which may or may not be something we can blame on gym class; I don't like roommates, either. But I definitely believe that early experiences drive many self-identified Geeks, whether gamers or of some other stripe, away from anything that bears the identifying marks of "sports." Thanks to the Wii, we're taking them back.

Obviously exercise is good for you. The politics and rhetoric of the "Obesity Epidemic" are complicated, and I'm the first to agree that our culture is PROFOUNDLY f'ed up about weight. More generally, however, it is certainly true that aerobic exercise won't hurt a healthy person, and will in fact help them stay healthy—but the sheer pleasure of physical games gets lost in all this talk, which probably contributes to scaring people away, or keeping them away. Many geeks have spent years learning that physical games are not for them, that they're No Good, that they are always going to be last on the team. My Wii tennis serve was FEARSOME. My consistency needs work, but within twenty minutes my fellow players were making admiring remarks about my power. I suppose it could have been the wine. But I think it's the Wii, showing the indoor kids[8] that we can play ball games, too, and that we can actually have fun doing it.

[1] Because god only knows what random combo of buttons that terrible player will press.

[2] I also adorned it with giant Hello Kitty stickers. They were marketed for scrapbooking.

[3] Please don't take this as indication of some snooty ideological commitment. I "sold" my TV to my sister because I didn't want to move it out of Boston—I have yet to see the promised $30—and then found that I watched all my DVDs on my laptop anyway. Since I never had cable, I'd just as soon download the shows I really want to see from their network websites or Amazon anyway.

[4] Thank you, South Park. And, uh, good job trying to be relevant, Simpsons.

[5] I mentioned this last week in the course I'm taking on rhetoric and the Internet, and the professor exclaimed that he'd been wondering how the hell so many 18-year-old undergraduates could possibly know about Oregon Trail.

[6] I seriously once overheard this conversation at a Wal-Mart in Missouri.

[7] I am officially No Good at Guitar Hero, or pretty much any game that depends on having any sense of rhythm whatsoever. And I HATE being No Good.

[8] Thanks to Wet Hot American Summer.




E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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