Could the New Black Box be White?
When the New York Times reported that Netflix’s instant streaming video would soon be available on the Wii the feeling of inevitability was palpable, but not for the reasons you’d think. Netflix, the article explained, is already on Wii’s competing consoles the PS3 and XBOX and a reflection of the fact that most consoles today want to be “entertainment centers” rather than solely specialized gaming consoles, evidenced by the number of people who buy a PS3 primarily for its Blu-Ray player. Yet when it comes to being more of an appliance then a specialized toy, the addition of Netflix is in fact just another part of Wii’s existing, largely successful, marketing plan. Traditional stereotypes of gaming culture would be confounded by the Wii and who owns and plays them; everyone from my seven year old next door neighbor to my boyfriend’s grandmother has one or wants one. In many of these households the Wii is already being used primarily for reasons other then playing the kinds of games available on other consoles.
Wii has created a niche for itself among non-gaming audiences not only by providing family friendly multi-player games but through providing games whose function as games is only secondary. I am not alone in reporting that the primary function of my own Wii is as an exercise machine; a functionality Wii has carefully cultivated with yoga games, Wii fit plus, and the recent Just Dance, which was a commercial success during the Christmas season. The Wii Fit audience, unsurprisingly, is often quite different then the Resident Evil audience, and despite being more expensive then the average game the Wii Fit sold out in many stores when it was first released. The more recent Just Dance goes one step further in this direction is barely functional as a “game” (since scores and skill are largely irrelevant). It is rightfully described by some reviewers as a souped up exercise video, yet it is perfectly consistent with Nintendo’s apparent business strategy: making its console indispensable for a larger range of potential audiences.
This strategy is behind many Wii games that game commentators may consider “bad;” not only the exercise games but the electronic board game collections or virtual aquariums that are also released for the console. Wii has long been gaming for non-gamers. Reviews for Just Dance clearly demonstrate this phenomenon. Among gaming commentators the game often can’t even break three out of five stars. However, on amazon.com, being reviewed by its intended audience, it has four and a half stars – a near perfect score. Nintendo may have been the last to strike a deal with Netflix but this move should not lead people to believe that the Wii was late to the convergence game. Instead, this recent marriage of Netflix and Nintendo represents a continuation of a focused and successful strategy on the part of both companies; Netflix wants to be everywhere and Nintendo wants to be used by everyone, a fine but important difference, and both companies have long been doing whatever they can to make this happen.
I am not foolish enough to claim that we are truly entering the era of the black box, Henry Jenkins has already pointed out the dangers of that particular pitfall, but this most recent business agreement only emphasizes how important multiple-functionality has been and will continue to be in the console-wars.