I don’t usually do stuff like this. Our focus here at FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com is primarily on reviews, and I save most of my writing for other sites or even books that I’m working on. But we built this News & Notes section so if things came up that we needed to comment on that we could, so please allow me to make some observations, and if you like them, please leave a comment or help spread the link, because I think we’re losing the voice of the family perspective we do have when it comes to video games.
UPDATE: This was originally written immediately following the Microsoft press conference, but has since been updated with information about Sony's press conference as well as some individual demos from Microsoft.
June 4, 2012 - After I left the Microsoft press conference earlier today at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but think even more strongly about the intense change and identity crisis the “video game industry” is undergoing, and how family games are clearly no longer the priority they once were.
On one hand, organizations like the Entertainment Software Association (www.theesa.org) love to tout statistics on the ubiquity of gamers. Females make up almost 50% of gamers, they say. The average age of gamers is approaching 40, they tell us. Yet at the industry’s showcase event, E3, it’s clear that those facts and figures are stretched, thanks to a broad definition of the term gamer. E3 is not truly a showcase for the industry’s best and most popular games. It’s a place where companies take their chance that their game can be the next blockbuster for the audience of core gamers, a term used to describe the most serious and vocal group of gamers, who crave M-rated titles and are more likely to be teen and 20-year-old males than they are 40-year-old housewives.
Three years ago, inspired in large part by Microsoft’s emerging “Project Natal” technology (which would eventually become Kinect), we started FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com because we saw that, finally, companies seemed to be taking the role of moms and families seriously when it came to games. In 2010, with the debut of Kinect and PlayStation Move added on to Nintendo’s enormously popular Wii, it was clear that families were an important target for publishers. They all dedicated large chunks of time during their press conferences at E3 showcasing games that could be played by the entire family.
But things have changed, and I think I know why.
Before I get to that, let me tell you about what I just saw at the Microsoft Press Conference. I saw Lara Croft from Tomb Raider shoot flaming arrows into someone’s face. I saw soldiers stab people in the neck, leaving blood splattering on the walls. I saw “Los Angeles” turned into an orange-tinted fireball of explosions and killing in the latest Call of Duty game.
And I saw the promise of video games geared toward families slipping away. The Kinect technology, touted for the past three years as revolutionary for its camera and use of body-tracking software to make “you the controller,” is now primarily being utilized for its microphone. Sure, voice commands are cool, but this can’t be the promise of Kinect gameplay that families had in mind when they were given a heavy-dose of family-friendly messaging in years past.
To be fair, I also saw one Kinect game that was clearly designed to be family-friendly. Called Wreckateer, it’s sort of a 3D version of Angry Birds, which has you use your body to catapult objects into a nearby castle. The game’s narrator even calls the player a “young lass,” showing it's clearly designed with kids in mind. It’s a neat game, and one that I am interested in learning more about, but it’s also the only game that I heard other folks at the press conference clearly and loudly mocking.
I was later, separately from the press conference, shown a couple more promising family-friendly Kinect games from Microsoft, titles based on Sesame Street and Nat Geo that blur the lines between watching TV and interacting with it, and look to be great for parents to play alongside young kids. But none of these were even mentioned in Microsoft's press conference, despite the fact that this was arguably the company's most visible and important platform of the year to tell the public about what's next for Xbox.
In fact, later in the day, Sony president Jack Tretton even referred to these pre-E3 press events as equivalent to the "Super Bowl" for the video game industry, explaining that what companies say and show at them leave them open to great scrutiny and analysis. So even though Sony showed games like Wonderbook for PlayStation Move which look to have broad appeal for a wide range of ages, the cheers that erupted from the crowd of PlayStation fans attending the press conference (courtesy of Sony) when they saw the gruesome final image in its grand finale game were beyond disturbing. Upon seeing a bad guy's head realistically blown to bloody smithereens, the crowd all but chanted for an encore. When Tretton then made a horrible pun about "mind-blowing" entertiainment available on PlayStation, it was obvious they knew exactly what type of game to highlight at the most important moment of their most important event of the year. And it wasn't family-friendly.
What must be happening here is that companies like Microsoft and Sony are realizing that families are waking up to the fact that spending hundreds of dollars on game consoles and dozens of dollars on new games feels like a rip-off when literally thousands of compelling, fun and rich game experiences are available for much cheaper on the family’s iPad, tablet computer or smartphone. So they’re looking to replicate those same experiences. I’d be shocked if Xbox's Wreckateer costs more than $5, or if Sony's Wonderbook costs more than $10 per title.
But what about deep, rich, co-op experiences for families? Outside of the Lego series, where are the games I can recommend to others to allow them to form a connection over incredible entertainment experiences, without constant barrages of gunshots, explosions and carnage? These are becoming few and far between as companies are making the move to creating console-based app experiences for families. The positive here is obviously that these are more affordable for families, but we seem to be losing out on more involved games at the expense of quick bursts of entertainment.
I get at least one e-mail a week from a friend or reader asking personal advice on what console to get for their family circumstance, and it’s getting harder and harder for me not to factor the glorification of violence as well as the exorbitant comparative cost of games into the equation when telling them about the merits of Kinect, PlayStation Move, 3DS and Wii-U.
Until now, I always knew that companies had family’s interests in mind, because I’d seen firsthand the amount of time and resources dedicated to making family games a priority, so I’d be happy to recommend these high-priced consoles. After seeing the violence at E3 2012, I’m starting to worry whether or not family-friendly games are becoming dinosaurs. It's left to Nintendo’s Wii-U to carry the torch and continue to cater to the family demographic as the trusted console of choice, while titles for Xbox and PlayStation must be greater researched and scrutinized by families.
This all makes me even more resolved in my mission and dedication to find and promote the best family-friendly offerings the video game industry has to offer, so be sure to watch this space for our E3 FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com Favorites as well as our holiday recommendations later this year.
I want families to know that there are resources like us that can provide family-centric recommendations on games, such as our colleagues at GamerPops or GamePeople.co.uk. And there’s always Common Sense Media for a high-level overview of entertainment offerings, including games.
And despite the coverage and excitement you may be hearing about the bloody and gory games of E3 this week, please know that there are games which your family can enjoy together, and which you don’t have to feel guilty about letting your kids play. We just have to work a little harder to find them and make sure they're worth our hard-earned money.
Johner Riehl is the founder and editorial director for FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com. He’s also a freelance writer and author focusing on issues involving family and technology, including the Modern Parent’s Guide series and contributing articles to outlets such as Wired Moms, Zui.com and TechSavvyMag.com.