Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wonderbook: Don't Backlog Your Childhood

Ayn has already touched briefly on the passing of E3, which gave a decidedly underwhelming performance this year. Gaming's biggest show seemed to elicit a resounding "that's it?" from the fans. While some of it was justified, one thing jumped out at me after Ayn linked me to the presentation for it. Sony's new peripheral, the Wonderbook.

Wonderbook is, in appearance, a physical book that will be used in conjunction with the Playstation Eye (remember the Playstation Eye?) and the Move controller. Utilizing the same Augmented Reality technology we've seen cropping up on other systems and even comic books these days, you'll be able to actually interact with stories as you flip each virtual page. Here's the official trailer;

And here's the tech demo from E3:

Go ahead and watch that until at least five minutes in to find out what Wonderbook has in store for us first.

Now, a brief sidebar. Here was my reaction when Ayn first told me about this new innovation.

Oh yeah.
This'll revolutionize the industry.
Aw man.
I just realized that if this were 20 years ago, I would think this was the coolest thing EVER.
Aw man.
I just realized that it can be 20 years ago and I'll still be a person.

And sadly, unlike Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, you can never be 20 years younger and still be the goddamn Batman.

Aw maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan

My first reaction was to write this off as a cheap gimmick for kids and another bid by Sony to make the Move relevant in an era where the Wii dominates console sales and the Kinect lets you do everything the Move can without a controller. Then I realized, quickly as you can see from the IMs above, that my younger self would be in vehement disagreement with the me of today about what would and wouldn't be fun to play with.

"Sure, I don't need the magic book, I'll just keep playing my favorite game; Shoe."

- Young Me

And that got me thinking.

One of the things I've always tried to remain true to is the idea that you never have to outgrow something if you don't want to. A lot of the time we fall out of things because someone puts it in our head that it isn't cool, or not cool anymore, and so we lose touch with the things that we once found a lot of happiness in.

Sometimes it happens because a better version of whatever we enjoyed is available now. I remember around the time I was the age in that photo above, my great-grandmother bought me and my older brother each a package of the old solid plastic cowboy and Indian figures they used to make so that we could fight our imaginary battles, our youth protecting us from the overt racism of the Native American toys.

"Boy, they sure do love making them red."
-Young me again

And man, did we have a lot of fun setting those figures up, pretending they were shooting each other, and knocking them down, over and over again. Then later my mom started buying me G.I. Joes, with their points of articulation and removable accessories, and the giant vehicles they came with. Still later, I put together a collection of Marvel Action Figures, and waged epic battles that could last for hours on end, forming a team of Avengers and taking out the most heinous villains, or, later on, re-enacting the Age of Apocalypse series with my own new twists on the epic X-tale. With each passing year, the complexity and detail of action figures became greater, more varied, ultimately with the goal of being more attractive as a toy than the ones that came before them so kids would keep bugging their parents to buy them.

There could be something to that, too. It very well could be that the larger and more complex the toy, the more fun it is. As I recall, that's the entire premise behind Transformers.

There were other Transformers pictures, but after finding this, why would I use them?

But that doesn't mean the old, simpler toys stop being fun. If I had a box full of those plastic cowboy and Indian figures, I think I'd have a ball setting them up and knocking them down. Part of the whole point of the Backlog itself is that the games we've put on the shelf and let gather dust for years can be taken down and played today and be just as fun as they were two console generations ago.

Nothing you enjoy has to stop being fun. We grow out of our clothes, not our tastes. Show of hands, right now, how many people reading this still enjoy the same music they did 10 years ago? Or 15? Or 20? How many of you can still sing along with those songs without missing a beat, and enjoy doing so? How many of you still play the same board games with friends and family that Milton Bradley has been putting in hall closets everywhere for half a century? When I was a kid, I loved watching Disney movies and reading adventure novels. Now that I'm almost 30, I still really love watching Disney movies and reading adventure novels. I still like swings and slides, I still like pools and amusement parks, I still like watching cartoons. I learned to enjoy different things, and sure, I do those things from my childhood less now, but it's not because I don't enjoy them like I used to. I just have more options now.

Also, it's hard to find time to get out to the range these days.

Speaking of adventure novels, in case you didn't watch the demo, the big reveal of Wonderbook's first game, I'll just tell you now. It's a collaboration with J.K. Rowling called Book of Spells, where you, the player, travel through an adventure set in the world of Harry Potter, learning to cast spells with the Move and watching as your actions advance the story in the book.

Let me say that again; the first game for Wonderbook lets you play through a Harry Potter story and be a wizard.

"Yer a wizard, David. And yer older brother's some kinda goblin."

HOLY CRAP. Can you imagine being able to do that when you were a kid? Because it sounds awesome NOW. This brings me to the train of thought I boarded as soon as I thought about the Wonderbook's potential. Maybe it isn't necessarily something I would get into today, but oh man would I have loved it as a kid, and I'd love for my kids to be able to take a crack at it and watch them gasp and shriek as everything they do unfolds on screen and immerses them in a Harry Potter book, or any story that they love.

I'm at a point in my life where fatherhood looks like a more attractive prospect every day. I've put a lot of thought into what kind of Dad I want to be, and what I want to pass down to my children. I know I want to teach them to read, as early as possible. I want to teach them how to write, and draw, and count. I want them to learn a second language while they're still young and it comes easily. I want to introduce them to the entire spectrum of music genres, and encourage them to take up an instrument, or learn to sing, or both. I want to give them Disney movies to watch and Harry Potter books to read and Calvin & Hobbes to love. I want to go to their games, their recitals, their plays, and their science fairs. I want to take them on road trips and swear that if they don't quiet down back there I will turn this car around.

I want to do everything with my kids, and I want to do everything they discover on their own and think is fun with them. And I want to teach them how to play video games.

When I was growing up, video games were still pretty new to the world. The original Nintendo Entertainment System was brand new, and Super Mario Bros. was pretty much the most amazing game ever made. My parents never really got into video games in any appreciable way. My mother wouldn't even go into an arcade unless there was a pinball machine. So they understood that video games were a whole thing, but weren't able to really share in the experience. That can change now. We've had a whole generation brought up with video games now bringing their own children into the world at a time when games are bigger than ever.

So, parents and parents-to-be, pay attention, this part is important. Your parents probably left you alone to play games as a kid. They probably bought into a lot of what they heard on the news about violent video games and how they warp our minds. They may have bought you the wrong game once or twice because they didn't understand what they were supposed to be shopping for. That's not their fault - they had no way of knowing better. We do.

That's why I take back any sarcasm or snark in my comment about the Wonderbook revolutionizing the industry - the potential is definitely, realistically there. If they really make use of what this technology has to offer, what we have is a way to get our kids involved in and excited about reading, because when they find a story they like, when they're done reading they can go play it. The Wonderbook could even be a tool to teach kids to read if they wanted to make games designed for that purpose. Parents today don't have to plug it in and leave the room, either - they can watch and play right along with their kids like it's telling a bedtime story. The point is this; video games have evolved to a point where they're an indelible part of our culture now, and just like picking out your favorite books from childhood to give to your children to read, letting them experience your favorite games can be just as great a bonding experience. Games have been responsible for a lot of hours a lot of families spent apart. We can make sure with our kids, game time is time spent together.

Even if the Wonderbook doesn't live up to its potential, take this lesson away. If you're reading this blog, chances are you like video games to some extent. When you have kids, they'll probably like them, too. Whatever turns your life takes you down, you don't have to stop liking something you enjoyed just because you don't spend as much time with it as you used to, because life will eventually hand you an even greater joy; being able to pass those things you love down to your children and watch and share as they love them, too.

So until next time, from generation to generation, keep playing.

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