A casual relationship

Kids like to knock things over. And watch them blow up.

As a gaming concept, this is what you call bedrock — it supports everything from serious gaming fare like Portal and The Hulk to Crackdown.

Oh, yeah, and Boom Blox.

Surely, you’ve heard of Boom Blox. A few years ago, Steven Spielberg, the man who just gave us a fourth dose of Indiana Jones, inked a deal with Electronic Arts to produce a triad of video games. The first game in the deal is Boom Blox, a fun, family-oriented affair that recently hit the Nintendo Wii. In it, you use the Wiimote to, among many, many other things, toss baseballs at towers of blocks to set off explosions. Meanwhile, desperately cute domino-shaped animals run about.

Gaming isn’t quite yet a medium in which an individual’s name perched on the box top means anything other than a big ol’ exercise in ego. There are a couple notable exceptions — Sid Meier’s uber-awesome Civilization series being the most obvious. People who pay attention to these things know that Will Wright’s the guy responsible for The Sims (and the forthcoming Spore) but let’s be honest: His name ain’t exactly moving product on the Wal-Mart shelves.

Still, it’s both intriguing and a big deal that the man who directed E.T. and Saving Private Ryan (also the man who owns one-third of one of Hollywood’s largest film studios) recognizes the power of gaming and wants to get involved. It’s the sort of thing that potentially can lead to other great things for gaming — things like “respect” and “credibility,” concepts the industry and gamers still struggle to own.

Mr. Schindler’s List has always been something of a kid at heart. He has young children, and told anyone who’d listen when he inked the deal that he wanted to create something he could share with his kids. (For the record, this is the same motive that drove Johnny Depp to slap on eyeliner and leather boots for the Pirates of the Caribbean series, so there’s a positive precedent here.)

Now, the casual-gaming phenomenon isn’t even a slightly new development at this point — it bubbled for years in the form of things like FreeCell and Bejeweled, and went mondo mainstream with the arrival of Nintendo’s angular console.

What’s changed is the way the game-development market has lurched to respond to the number of grandmas bowling and clutching Wii wheels. If you checked in on weekly game sales recently, you may have noted — with a mixture of shock and horror — that Mario Kart Wii nearly outsold Grand Theft Auto IV last week. As developments go, it’s not that worrisome, because the latest Mario Kart is actually, you know, fun to play, despite feeling an awful lot like the eight or so games in the series that preceded it. The problem is that these days, casual all too often means capital-C crap. The Wii has been drowning in lousy casual software for the last year — frankly, how it’s continuing to thrive on the strength of less than 10 or so truly quality titles is a mystery greater than why American Idol sucks so badly this season.

Events like Spielberg hitching his oversized star to the Good Ship Casual are only going to accelerate the casual-gaming shift — and assuming his game sells well, the appearance of lots of sub-par Boom Blox knockoffs.

But here’s the thing: The kids who send Buckley Beaverton flying with a well-placed Boom Blox explosion today may grow up understanding the medium better than any of us who jerked around with the soul-scarring Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, but it’s a helluva big leap from Boom Blox to Bioshock. Will they make that leap at age 15, or will the casual suffocate the more serious side of gaming like so much kudzu?

I’m holding out hope. At least one of the three games in Spielberg’s deal with EA is supposed to be an action game — here’s hoping it’s next on his agenda. And that it’s not another Medal of Honor game.


graphjam.com: Thanks again to our arts editor, for bringing yet another fab website to our attention: From the people who brought you LOLcats (God bless ’em), comes GraphJam, where you post graphs based on song lyrics and other cultural touchstones, and others can vote on them! But it’s not just graphs. Our favorite? A pill-bottle label inspired by the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off.”


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