Video games want out of the basement and teenage boys' bedrooms.
New games for the Wii, Play-Station 2 and Xbox 360 lead the way up the stairs and right onto the flat screen in the family room. After years of serving a niche market of hardcore players cloistered in hidden corners of the home, game producers have launched a massive attack on the mainstream, with family-oriented, interactive quiz shows leading the way.
"Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action" for the Xbox 360, "Buzz! The Mega Quiz" for PS2, and "Smarty Pants" on the Nintendo Wii each, has its own personality, but all figure that answering trivia questions with game-show aesthetics and controls will connect with the mass market.
Shipping with four big-button, wireless controllers that could pass for massage units from Sharper Image, "Scene It?" brings the popular DVD game to the console and turns cinematic knowledge into an amusing group competition.
The controllers that ship with "Buzz" come in a tangle of cords you have to manage while buzzing in to answer questions. But the game lives past this bit of cumbersome technology to provide a well-paced trivia quiz that mixes up a schmaltzy game-show format with more than 5000 questions.
"Smarty Pants" takes a more novel route. It combines a massive 20,000-question library that adapts to age and ability - allowing for a wide range of family participation - with unique mini-games that pop up during the action, challenging players to do things like shake their controllers to add time to a ticking clock.
What's remarkable is that three new quiz-show games should come out on the three major platforms right before the holidays. Coincidence? Hardly. Short of swallowing conspiracy theories that put the heads of the game industry in a Star Chamber of market manipulation, you just have to accept the idea that game companies are as interested in grandmas and girlfriends as they are in recruiting more "Halo" players.
Controllers that have buttons that look as if they were designed for toddlers and lack a joystick of any kind naturally attract those who are curious, but cautious, about playing video games. Likewise, the four-player, pick-up-and-play fun will naturally attract a crowd when you start up a game during your next party. Watching a social gathering revolve around a gaming console is enough to make a "Counter-Strike" player wince with jealousy.
Video games, contrary to the popular imagination, still have a role as a social activity. In a trend kicked off by "Wii Bowling" parties in senior-citizen centers and "Guitar Hero" nights at the local pub, these quiz-show titles promise to inaugurate a time-honored tradition of game nights - from moms and dads playing with kids to hip urbanites flirting over martinis and preening about their knowledge of movie trivia.