When I was a kid, we had an Intellevision. I’d sit in front of our bulky, wood-paneled television using the controller’s silver disc and numeric keypad to help a crudely-rendered eight-bit frog cross a busy highway or to help a blocky green adventurer swing over a lake filled with something that (if you squinted) vaguely resembled crocodiles.
Saying video games have changed since then would be a vast understatement. The Nintendo 64, released in 1996, already had graphics that put Intellevision to shame. Fifteen years later, video games are so advanced that the characters in Grand Theft Auto can actually play Intellevision style arcade games as a game-inside-the-game.
So compared to video games of old, Xbox Kinect is nothing short of wizardry.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Kinect is an add-on for the Xbox 360 released last November that features a built-in camera and infrared scanner. While the Wii has been able to track players’ movements for years now using the Wii remote, the Kinect is controller-free (or, as Xbox insists on claiming in its ads for the Kinect: “You are the controller.”) It also has voice recognition software that allows you to say simple commands. Recently, I finally got to try the Kinect and it really is quite amazing.
Normally when I talk about new technological advances in this column, it’s to warn about how said device can be used in the impending robot revolution. However, while I’m sure that eventually our robot overlords will use our Kinects to track our every move, for now I can’t help simply thinking how cool it is.
To me, it seems like something from one of the many futuristic movies I watched as a kid. Sure, we may not have flying cars or even Hoverboards yet, but a video game system that can track your moves and have your onscreen character match them definitely seems Jetsons-esque. It’s the first step to creating a real world Star Trek style Holodeck. It’s only a matter of time before our video game systems can immerse us in a lush, 3D virtual landscape.
However, as amazing as the Kinect is, there is a downside. For years, video games have been all about button mashing. Going back to those early Intellivision days, playing video games has always been a bit like a lab rat pressing a lever to get a food pellet – instant gratification for minimal effort. But now that your Xbox can track your moves, you will actually have to work hard to beat games. Currently, the available Kinect games tend to fall into three general categories – dancing, fighting and fitness/athletic games. This is a problem since I can’t dance, I can’t fight and I’m in horrible shape. The more realistic games become, the more apparent my lack of physical skills will become.
Since their inception, video games have mostly been just mindless fun. Sure, there are rare examples like The King of Kong where guys devote their entire lives to beating the high score on Donkey Kong, but for the most part gamers like to fire up their system for a few hours to shut their brain off while gunning down zombies or saving the galaxy from alien invaders. As Kinect becomes the norm, suddenly you can’t be a passive player anymore. If you want to save the world, you’ll have to train for it.
In some weird way, video gaming will become like a second job where you practice your aim and hone a legitimate fighting style in order to compete against foes. Or, if that’s not your thing, it will become your weekly dance class or daily fitness routine. You’ll have to work hard honing real world skills in order to compete. That’s actually a pretty exciting notion, but one that will be quite a dramatic shift for out of shape guys like me.
Of course, while Kinect teaches you real world skills, what will always be the most exciting are the things it can let you do that you could never do in real life. The most exciting example of this on the horizon is Star Wars Kinect, which will let you attack Storm Troopers with a lightsaber and use the force to bring objects to you. It’s basically the moment every nerd has dreamed of since the late 70s.
And while that is harmless fun that, at most, will cause geeks who play it too much to walk around their house trying to Force-pull objects, there are other games that seem a bit more dangerous to the psyche, like Kinectimals. According to the description on Xbox.com, Kinectimals “invites children, their parents and animal lovers of all ages to build lasting friendships with some of the world’s most exotic creatures.” That may sound harmless enough, but basically it is teaching children that Bengal tigers and other deadly creatures will befriend them and follow their every command like a puppy. That’s not going to end well when they grow up and decide to take a trip to India to make some new friends.
Hopefully they will have learned enough survival skills from their fighting and fitness games to escape the inevitable tiger attack. If not, I can always offer them a few pointers I picked up helping an eight-bit frog cross the road.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.