Short Attention Span Gaming

The pleasures of UNO and Galaga on Xbox Live Arcade.

Texas Hold ‘Em

My Xbox 360 disclosed something unexpected to me recently: Earlier this week, I played my 1,000th hand of Texas Hold ‘Em. When I bought a muscular, $400 gaming machine, I wouldn’t have predicted that I would use it to play an unseemly amount of $5 video poker. That’s not $5 a hand, mind you. It’s $5 to download the game. And I’m not the only gamer using next-generation hardware for last-generation fun. After a fellow thirtysomething picked up a 360, he sent me this ecstatic note over the console’s text messaging system: “Have you played UNO yet? Not for the faint of heart.”

After more than two months with a “Wii60“—gamer slang for owning both a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox 360—I’ve been surprised to discover that the 360 is the console I turn to when I want a quick gaming fix. The Wii is a “party console”—a go-to system to impress guests, and a guaranteed good time when more than one (physically present) person wants to play. But the allegedly hard-core 360, and not the family-friendly Wii, appeals to the casual gamer in me—the guy who loves to play addictive and familiar mini-games.

Most casual gamers don’t even realize they’re gamers. The demographic includes the secretary who plays computer mahjong during her lunch break, the lawyer who zones out with Minesweeper at the end of her long day, and the grandfather who bought a $20 Pac-Man joystick to plug into his TV. These gamers probably don’t know it, but the high-horsepower Xbox 360 is filled with mesmerizing, low-fi delights. The Xbox Live Arcade, a branch of the console’s superlative online service, includes card games like UNO and Hold ‘Em as well as a host of arcade classics like Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Joust, Dig Dug, and—an idiosyncratic personal favorite—Root Beer Tapper. (Minesweeper and mahjong are not included.)

In junior high, I was insanely jealous of my classmate Scott Mayer’s Defender arcade cabinet. Well, guess what, Scott? Now I’ve got Defender, too, plus the lineup of pretty much the entire Fun Factory (that was the arcade at the local mall) stored in a box in my entertainment center. Trial versions of every game in the Xbox Live Arcade are free, allowing you to sample a level before committing to a $5 purchase (or $10, in the case of some larger games, such as the 1993 PC classic Doom). Annoyingly, Microsoft makes you buy the games with “points” that are purchasable only in multiples of 500, when 400 points equals $5. But that’s a small headache to put up with for a system that will bring Yie Ar Kung Fu, my favorite game of the arcade age, to the 360 sometime this spring.

It may not be clear at first glance, but card games, mahjong, and arcade classics scratch the same gaming itch. They are all, in the lingo of Danish game theorist Jesper Juul, “emergence” games, not so different in their underlying structure from every game humans have played for 5,000 years. The addictive play of Pac-Man, and that of checkers and solitaire, emerges from a simple set of rules that compels players to engage with level after repetitive level. What Juul calls the “progression” game, the newer video-game variant that combines narrative with game-play, has won the hearts of hard-core gamers. But the 20 million downloads from the Xbox Live Arcade indicate that the emergence video game still has life, even on expensive next-generation consoles. (Which isn’t to say that every game on the system is a delight. Gauntlet, for example, is much lamer than I recall.)

The 360 does add a next-generation element that makes the Xbox Live Arcade experience superior to the original games: online play. This is an arcade in the true sense, a commons where gamers meet and challenge each other for supremacy. Each game has a “leaderboard,” modeled after the coveted high-score list atop every arcade classic, and most titles also allow individual players to face off over the Net. The fun of the card games in the Xbox Live Arcade is almost entirely dependent on the ease of finding human opponents. Hold ‘Em fanatics like me can quickly find a table of eight human players, and four-person UNO really is—as its status as the second-most popular game in the arcade indicates—a shockingly easy way to lose an afternoon.

The Xbox Live Arcade is not the only place for gamers to go retro.The Wii’s Virtual Console boasts its own cornucopia of downloadable classics. But the Wii’s selection of old Nintendo and Sega games (such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country) appeal to the hard-core gamer in me. I’m eager to download The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, for example, a just-released Nintendo 64 title that I never got to play in its original incarnation. But that release strokes the erogenous zone of someone who wants a long, involved single-player experience, not the short attention span delights of a casual game.

The Virtual Console and the Xbox Live Arcade both exploit nostalgia. Nintendo’s Virtual Console games, however, have more in common with the games that dominate today’s marketplace: They come from the era when consoles abandoned emergence games like Pac-Man and Tetris and groped toward the progression style that today’s gamers know and love. The Xbox Live Arcade games—the retro classics, the conventional card games, and the original titles such as the free game Hexic HD—reach back to an earlier time, one that appeals both to people who find today’s games too complex and time-consuming and to those who just want to steal a few minutes of gaming time in between sessions of Oblivion and Gears of War.

The Nintendo Wii will transform the way we play games at home. But the Xbox 360, through its Xbox Live service, is building something equally compelling: a celestial arcade, where casual and hard-core gamers alike can connect over the Internet and find like-minded souls. For an old-timer like me, the celestial arcade also lets me feel like I still have some of my old gaming mojo. A few weeks ago, as I stumbled my way through an online Gears of War match, one of the other players scoffed, “I don’t think this kid has ever played video games before.” Oh yeah? Check out the Root Beer Tapper leaderboard, where my high score marks me as the 688th best player on the entire system. At last, a place where a fogey like me gets to say, “N00b. You’ve been pwned.”