Do controllers make games more real?

by Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

In the old days of console gaming, releasing a game-specific controller was always something of a risk: if the game flopped, then the driving wheels and laser-pointer guns would collect dust in a corner while the multi-tasking joystick would likely wear out from excessive button mashing.

These days, however, peripheral controllers are all the rage, thanks in large part to the Nintendo Wii but also the Guitar Hero video game franchise.

This more hands-on approach to gaming has led some to believe that changes in social behaviour are just around the corner. CNet ran an interesting interview yesterday with Dan Emery, owner of New York City Guitar School, who suggests Guitar Hero sales are fueling interest in actual guitars and guitar playing. And early buzz of Nintendo's Wii Fit and accompanying Balance Board - scheduled to be released in Japan on Dec. 1 - has spurred talk of a fitness craze.

A group of U.S. senators led by Joe Lieberman sees a dark side to the trend however, in that making a chopping motion with a Wii remote while playing a violent video game is one step closer to actually attacking someone.

That scenario is mentioned in a call for a review of U.S. video game ratings and standards, a call brought on by the decision to release the video game Manhunt 2 under the Mature rating.

As the letter states: "Manhunt 2 was sanctioned by Nintendo for its Wii system. That system permits children to act out each of the many graphic torture scenes and murders in Manhunt 2 rather than simply manipulating a game pad. This led one clinical psychologist to state that the realistic motions used with the Wii mean that 'you're basically teaching a child the behavioral sequencing of killing.'"

A similar argument was made when Wii announced its plans for the Wii Zapper, a gun-shaped addition to the basic Wii remote.

These arguments appear to be based on the assumption that seeing a visual representation of an act makes something more real than say, two children playing cobs and robbers with their fingers cocked. But Rockstar Games, the maker of Manhunt, and some gamers think people are overreacting. As 14-year-old gamer Damian Crisafulli told the Washington Post concerning the Wii Zapper: "It's plastic that clips to a video game controller."

The question then is this: can we have it both ways? Can video game controllers that mimic actions encourage a generation of axe-wielding fitness buffs without training a host of undesirable skills, or is more likely that none of these impacts are likely to come about?