Will the Kinect Make Gamers Even More Narcissistic?

Will the Kinect be the new new thing in 2011?

John, the newest new thing is, as I’m sure you know, Microsoft’s hands-free gaming technology, the Kinect. It’s definitely the most gee-whiz, show-your-neighbors thing I encountered this year in the world of video games. The review model that Microsoft sent me actually sold two Kinects—the one I bought after sending the review model back, and the console my brother and his wife bought for their family after playing with it one evening. (They had previously owned only a Wii.)

Harmonix’s Dance Central, in particular, feels like a system seller. It is the only game listed by name on my niece’s Christmas list. My (other) sister-in-law’s first question, when she was planning her Christmas travel to our place was, Do you have Dance Central? (Yes.) But dancing to Lady Gaga—and Bell Biv DeVoe!—is not all that Kinect has to offer. Kinect Adventures, the game the system is packaged with, is a joy to play. My dad loves the volleyball game in Kinect Sports (and so do I), and my father-in-law likes Kinect bowling even more than Wii bowling. I have no doubt that Kinect is going to be a very, very big deal.

I have more than a little doubt, however, that it is going to be a big deal for the kinds of games that I, and presumably the rest of you, like to play. Seth, you expressed two opinions in your pieces about Kinect in the Times that I disagree with. The first is your faith that “big-budget titles” of the sort that hard-core gamers like to play will be transformed by Kinect “over the next couple of years.” I certainly hope you’re right, but I can’t help but remember how excited everyone (including me) was over the Wii four years ago. Wii Sports was a great game, sure, but it also felt like a proof of concept that was going to be exploited by game designers with larger fictional ambitions. Almost 80 million Wiis have been sold to date, and I’m still waiting for that promise to be realized. (The Mario Galaxy games are delightful, but they’re pretty abstract in their fiction.)

My second area of disagreement is more worrisome, I think. (And not only because, hey, I can’t wait for my previous paragraph to be proved wrong.) Seth wrote that art is about “bridging the gap between media and actual personal experience.” And I suppose that’s true. But it’s also about bridging the gap between actual humans, isn’t it? And Kinect, I fear, will exacerbate a tendency among game designers to appeal to players’ narcissism rather than their empathy. Like John and Tom, I liked Red Dead Redemption because it transformed me into someone I am not. The game repeatedly persuaded me to play it the way John Marston would, not the way that I would.

I worry that Kinect (and, to be fair, PlayStation Move as well) will encourage designers to go in the opposite direction and to make yet more games that appeal to players’ desire to be themselves, or at least an outsize version of themselves. Both Kinect and Move use cameras to occasionally show players how ridiculous they look. And well, nothing breaks the illusion that you’re a Samoan gladiator, or a slim-waisted and dexterous female dancer, than a brief visual reminder, on a 50-inch HDTV no less, that you’re really a schlubby, paunchy guy in your living room, picking at your beard.

While I’m airing my video-game nightmares, I might as well mention a third concern that has been weighing on me this year, which also relates to John’s desire for a new new thing: Am I interested in video games only for their novelty? I asked myself this question most of all while playing Heavy Rain, which is—in so many, many ways—a bad game. I don’t mean that “it’s not really a game, it’s an interactive experience.” It’s pretty clearly a video game by the contemporary definition, and a crummy one at that—the acting in particular is painful. Yet I was transfixed by it, because it offered me an experience that no other video game ever had. When I cut off Ethan Mars’ finger, it felt agonizing, like I was cutting off my own finger. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced, in video games or any other medium.

I’ve often wondered, how could a game that bad be so good? In part it was because, like the Kinect, Heavy Rain contains the promise of other, better games to come to fulfill its proof of concept. That’s how I took the final line of Seth’s review, that the game “put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought.” Now that Seth is upping the ante and writing that Heavy Rain is “storytelling of the highest caliber for adults,” I have to respectfully dissent. Rather, I would say that no other game this year better illustrates Tom’s perceptive observation in Extra Lives: “If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every ten minutes, had me gulping a gallon of aesthetic Pepto, I would stop reading or watching. Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem.”

The kinesthetic appeal of gameplay—the physical interaction between player and designer—is part of why games are able to get away with this. But it’s also, I think, because of the appealing shock of the new. (The obsession among many gamers with “innovation”—and the criticism of Red Dead Redemption as merely “Grand Theft Horse”—suggests that I’m not the only person who feels this way.) When that shock wears off, will I still want to play games?

Sigh. I really meant to get into why Call of Duty: Black Ops made me want to throw my controller against the wall, and why I found Alan Wake’s coffee thermoses so upsetting. And why I agree with Tom that Metro 2033 is one of the finest games of 2010, or any other year. I’ll have to save it for the next round.

But Tom, now that you’ve sold me on one underappreciated game from the last 12 months, why not try selling us on your other favorites: Enslaved (a game I also like every much), Kane and Lynch 2, and Comic Jumper?

Watch: Slate V Sizes Up the Latest Motion Gaming Systems

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