E3 tagline: 'Everyone's a gamer'

Casual gaming takes center stage at the annual confabulation, from Wii yoga to PlayStation karaoke.

SANTA MONICA, Calif.--A few years ago, it would have been unheard-of for the executives at a video game conference to speak so optimistically about the soccer mom demographic.

But in the past year or so, that's changed dramatically, due largely to offbeat, atypical games like Nintendo's Wii Sports and Activision's Guitar Hero series. Video game companies are now launching huge initiatives to move past the reliable "gamer demographic" of young males and into the living rooms of everyone from senior citizens to preteen girls.

"We see this as a celebration, and I don't mean just the celebration for Nintendo," Reggie Fils-Aime, head of Nintendo of America, said in his speech at the company's press conference on Wednesday morning. He was referring, of course, to the rabid popularity of the Wii console, which has been flying off the shelves for months largely because of its appeal to players of all ages. "We think this E3 marks a conclusive turning point for the video game world, welcoming more players and more opportunities to our form of entertainment."

"We are facing a wonderful new reality," Fils-Aime added. "Everyone's a gamer." That may sound like a sort of pseudo-hippie manifesto of gamer democratization, but it's also a gold mine for financial growth. More people willing to play video games means, quite simply, more people to buy them.

But everyone knows the Wii's been a runaway success, so Nintendo's press conference didn't even need to focus on the sales numbers. Instead, it highlighted the cultural impact of the Wii and the handheld DS console as the "beacons" of video games' bright future as a form of entertainment in which anyone can partake.

Included in the video-heavy presentation were clips from a South Park episode where the notoriously greedy Cartman is willing to do anything to get his hands on a Wii, a Colbert Report segment in which comedian Stephen Colbert's blowhard-geek persona fawns over the console, and news reports of Wiis transforming the recreational culture at retirement homes.

Electronic Arts focused its entire press conference on casual gaming, as well. Electronic Arts was showing off the karaoke game Boogie and the hotly anticipated MTV game Rock Band, which goes a step beyond Guitar Hero by allowing players to form an entire "band" with guitar, drum, bass and vocals.

The next step for companies like EA is to expand their casual gaming strategies beyond the reliable Nintendo sphere. "At the (E3) show it's highly fixated on the Nintendo platforms, which in the console world have really defined casual and brought people in," said Kathy Vrabeck, president of Electronic Arts' casual gaming division, who stressed that there are still more platforms to explore. "We're thinking about online, and we're thinking about mobile, and certainly connected consoles, and obviously Wii and DS...but it's not just the Nintendo business."

That shouldn't be too hard, considering other console manufacturers' ripe interest in capturing some of Nintendo's casual gaming market share. Sony Computer Entertainment America hyped its upcoming SingStar game, an American Idol-style game with online features that the company describes as "MySpace meets iTunes," and Microsoft set up an entire "Social Fun" suite in Santa Monica's Viceroy Hotel devoted to casual game play.

Decorated with comfortable chairs and shag carpeting, the Social Fun suite was packed with Xbox 360 titles like Guitar Hero II, Dance Dance Revolution Universe, movie trivia game Scene-It and the colorful, fast-paced Viva Pinata: Party Animals.

In fact, Microsoft representatives told this reporter that it had been extremely difficult to convince the press and analysts to stop playing the games and make room for others to try them. They were, apparently, having a little too much Social Fun.

Not only has the "Wiivolution" changed the face of video games and the faces of the people buying them, but Nintendo's Wii Remote and Guitar Hero's guitars--not to mention the Dance Dance Revolution mats now famously used in West Virginia public school gym classes--are arguably the most significant advances in game controllers since the Duck Hunt era.

And the casual gaming accessory blitz shows no signs of stopping. Microsoft showed off new wireless Guitar Hero instruments, and more notably unveiled a new controller for its Xbox 360. Called the "Big Button" remote, the controller resembles a colorful TV clicker and will ship with Scene-It. There's more in store for the Big Button, too, but Microsoft's being tight-lipped about it for now.

As for Nintendo, while the company unveiled "zapper" and steering wheel controllers at E3, the buzzworthy item among attendees was the "Balance Board," a sort of 21st century version of the step aerobics boards that were popular in the '80s. It complements the upcoming Wii Fit title, which brings yoga and posture improvement (among other things) to the console. Unlike the family-friendly Wii Sports, the new Fit game has a distinctly grown-up slant.

It would've been unheard-of even a year ago (seriously, yoga video games?) but now that Wii Sports has proven a hit, anything goes.

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