The average age of gamers skews into the late 20s and early 30s, a facet of the interactive industry that people who don’t regularly play games seldom know and even less frequently appreciate. No, Mr. Congressman, that violent videogame isn’t being created for minors; more often than not it’s going to mom and dad who frag late into the night when the kids are asleep. This makes sense, when you think about it: the gamers who first took the industry to its Mario-induced heights are now older, and the videogame content is aging with us. But a new generation of gamers has now entered the picture, the direct result of two things: the older gamers’ offspring coming of age and showing interest in gaming, and Nintendo changing the industry altogether by introducing motion controls.
The Nintendo Wii’s domination at the retail counter for several years has brought the average gamers’ age down considerably. Suddenly a new demographic has sprung up to which the publishers can sell, but only if the hardware permits it. That’s where Sony and Microsoft come into play, with their PlayStation Move and Kinect hardware, respectively. Traditionally, the PS3 and Xbox 360 cater to an older crowd, the aforementioned gamer who worries more about their kids staying up late on a weeknight than they worry about themselves. But by adding new motion control technology, do these two consoles suddenly promise to “convert” the young Wii-gaming crowd to a high-definition system? Not necessarily.
When the Wii originally launched, my kids were too young to play videogames, but my wife and I had some occasionally fun times. Now that the Kinect has launched for Xbox 360 (Kinect review here), I hoped that my four year-old would find an indoor outlet to meet his need for activity while taming his dad’s desire to see him dabble in videogames.
So far, the Kinect seems best-suited for a slightly older crowd, particularly where the hardware is concerned. Setting-up and playing with Kinect as an adult presents few issues, but throw a young kid into the mix and things get a bit messy. Because the Kinect reads the player’s body movements in a full 3D space, moving forward or back affects the on-screen avatar as much as flailing one’s arms. Young kids don’t “get” that, as they’re used to moving and weaving and spinning without having it impact a game. With the Wii, if the button wasn’t pressed or the icon didn’t move much on the screen, the game wasn’t affected. But making the entire human body the controller, as innovative as it is, is a bit “high brow” for younger kids to comprehend and presents challenges that the software simply can’t counteract.
For instance, my son often stands at a slight angle rather than directly facing a TV screen. He always has. That nuance alone wreaks havoc on Kinect, as it struggles to recognize his right arm’s position even after putting his left arm behind him completely. The Kinect’s on-screen hand icon simply remains stationary at stomach level, failing entirely to recognize his right arm as he strains to reach the “back” button on the upper-right corner of the screen. Setting-up a game for your kid is somewhat feasible, but the Kinect has trouble transitioning from tall person to short person. And if you try to play a two-person Kinect Adventures game with an adult on one side and young kid on the other, it’s (unfortunate?) comical to see the adult’s avatar standing upright and the kid’s kneeling on the screen. So much for intelligent recognition.
Fortunately, the menus seem to be the least-compatible element of Kinect for a young child, although the flip side is that every game requires navigating a menu in order to play it. Once you get a game setup things improve from an input standpoint, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, as with all game consoles, the Kinect experience is dependent upon the software. Kinect Adventures is more appropriate for kids than, say, Ubisoft’s Fighters Uncaged, but regardless of theme/content it’s the developers’ use of the input mechanisms that makes the game fun or not. Second, it’s important to set expectations as to what, exactly, you want to get from the experience. Due to the navigation and body-recognition issues with young children, Kinect can be frustrating for adults as they watch young kids struggle to easily fire-up the game they want to play. Watching the kids’ in-game experience can also be frustrating — unless you watch the kids’ reactions rather than the on-screen results.
My oldest child couldn’t navigate the menus because the Kinect struggled to recognize him. He had issues completing the game’s most basic objectives because the hardware’s ability to recognize a fully 3D play space worked against his four-year-old “meandering” and positional nuances. Even the on-screen camera, which he noticed every time, presented timing challenges for him before taking his picture. But good lord did he have fun. A four year-old doesn’t realize the menu issues are a nuisance. He doesn’t mind if his avatar never strays from the left-hand side of the innertube in River Rush. He never cares that his pose isn’t ideal in the post-game photo; he just knows that his face is on the TV screen.
The new generation of motion-tracking hardware may not be designed for young kids. It may not even be appropriate or ideal for them, considering the Kinect seems to respond and react better to taller people and adults. But none of that means the kids won’t have fun with it. Yelling voice commands, making the on-screen avatar jump constantly — even when not required by the game — is just good old-fashioned fun. The youngest gamers in the household don’t care if they’re “not playing it right,” they just know they’re having fun. It’s more frustrating for the adults than the kids, to be honest. And perhaps we could all learn something from that in the hyper-competitive world of videogames.
— Jonas Allen