When is a game not a game?

Comment: Brain Age and Talkman define a key new trend

An interesting trend has emerged in handheld gaming in the last six months or so - one which has been widely reported, but with little consideration for what it could mean for the industry at large, especially if it is replicated on next-generation consoles. The trend is this; quite simply, that much of the software we're putting onto our handhelds isn't, strictly speaking, videogame software.

It's not news, of course, that the DS is stretching the definition of gaming, but a rather unscientific straw poll of the substantial number of DS owners we know suggested that the effect has been remarkably pervasive. New Super Mario Bros is the only traditional game getting a look in; it's Brain Age and Big Brain Academy that are occupying the cartridge slots of most machines. Animal Crossing: Wild World is still very popular, but even that arguably stretches the definition of gaming into places which would make most designers somewhat uncomfortable.

Are these titles games? On some levels, certainly; there are challenges to overcome, skills to hone in order to progress further, and so on. Beyond that basic structural similarity, though, the DS' software is clearly well into realms not traditionally occupied by game console titles - and even more unlikely products are on the way, including a web browser and a range of travel guides and phrasebooks.

This phenomenon, however, is not confined to the DS - the PSP, too, has sprouted features and software which place it outside the definition of traditional gaming devices. Music and movie playback is one thing, but the console now sports a web browser and even an RSS feed reader; in software terms, the admittedly somewhat underwhelming Talkman offers translation and phrasebook facilities, and is only the tip of the iceberg of "non-gaming games" which will appear in the coming year.

The trend expressed here is a twofold thing. On one hand, many people who see themselves as gamers are seeking different challenges from their leisure time software, and perhaps a sense that they are accomplishing real world things in their interactive entertainment. On the other hand, it's clear that gaming devices now have a penetration which means that people are looking for other ways to use the systems aside from gaming - effectively turning them into personal information terminals, of a sort. Ironically, functions such as the Brain Age software and the phrase books appear to be being integrated into game consoles, rather than game console functionality being assimilated by PDAs or smartphones, a reversal of what many pundits have expected in recent years.

What this means for videogames as a whole is interesting, because if such a trend is being witnessed in handheld systems, it is likely to be emulated on home consoles in the near future. In ways, we can already see this; the PS3 is being repeatedly touted as a computer rather than a console by Sony, and indeed, many of its functions are more like those of a media centre style PC than of a game console. Singstar PS3 is a perfect example; it's a music video download service with a karaoke function, which is barely even a game but yet may be a killer app for many consumers.

For publishers, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand, it probably means a larger console installed base, as people at the fringes of gaming get involved due to non-game software, and it may even mean that people bring their handheld consoles with them more often, opening doors for persistent online gaming or location-based games.

On the other hand, however, even if someone has bought a DS or PSP, it may be hard to persuade them to move from buying Brain Age to buying a more traditional game, and publishers will be forced to think laterally about how to develop and market products for this market. Equally, a whole new range of competition is introduced into the market; until now, who considered that Professor Kawashima, the "cover star" of Brain Age, would be a name to reckon with in videogames? How about Lonely Planet, creators of the well-regarded travel guides? Other education and media companies may recognise the opportunity presented by these platforms and choose to engage it - without going through game publishers.

For hardware firms, however, the new trend is an even more interesting challenge. Balancing the needs of game and non-game applications will be a difficult task, and already several core parts of the design of consoles are proving to be a barrier to this going forward. Non-gamers, for example, are likely to find the need to swap cartridges and disks frustrating when they move between applications, and while gamers often cite a desire for more buttons and more complex control interfaces on their consoles, non-gamers far prefer more simplistic input. Cost, too, is a factor - Nintendo has blazed a trail with low prices on its brain training software, but whether others will be able to follow this lead remains to be seen, especially on home consoles.

Ultimately, what is happening is an entirely unexpected and unlooked-for resurgence in the concept of the games console as a vector for "edutainment" and reference software - and one which could shape much of the future of our industry. Just as disruptive technology is set to prove vital to the coming console generation, so too will this disruptive trend in software be key - and the ability of publishers and platform-holders to embrace this trend could help to decide the winners and losers of the coming years.

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