Hyper Mode: The Ouya Is For Babies, And That's Good

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I remember reading the backs of Game Boy game boxes in the toy store aisle as a child and having no idea which games would turn out to be my favorites. “If only I could try them out first,” I remember thinking. I had to choose my few games very carefully; I would be stuck with my purchase for years to come.

Despite building my friendless early gaming days by guessing based on the backs of boxes, I grew into an adult with a diverse taste in games. Yet I still wish that I had somehow been able to discover other genres of games earlier on in life without having to commit to a purchase.

The Ouya, a new videogame console that can’t weigh much more than my old Game Boy did, offers the exact service that I once wished my Game Boy would provide. The tiny black cube contains over 200 games and counting, and the $99 price tag includes a controller (albeit a less well-designed one than Microsoft or Sony would provide, but the Ouya will sync to other brands’ controllers).

The Ouya offers a lengthy free demo of every single one of its games. You try before you buy. Some of the games are terrible, just as some of the Game Boy games I had as a child were terrible—but some of them are great (e.g. Knightmare Tower, Beast Boxing Turbo,Towerfall, Super Crate Box). But at least you get to find out what you’re buying before you spend a dime.

This little console that could began its scrappy bid for its place in the public’s consciousness with a wildly successful Kickstarter . In spite of earning $8 million in donations, public reception towards the Ouya remains lukewarm and cautious, in part because of its sloppy user interface and its issues with button lag.

These issues are fixable; the controllers in stores now respond better to button presses than the Kickstarter backers’ first-run controllers, and I still hope the user interface will get the re-tooling it deserves. But one question remains unanswered: Who is the Ouya for?

I had this question, too. I didn’t back the Ouya’s Kickstarter; it felt suspicious. Not only did I worry that the console was a scam, I couldn’t understand who would want it. Besides the consoles I already own, I have a smartphone, I built my own PC, and I never lack games to play.

I watched from the sidelines as the Ouya battled for relevancy against Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. The Ouya didn’t even get to present at the Electronic Entertainment Expo this year; the company’s booth got relegated to a parking lot across the street from the conference and had to fight to say visible to convention-goers. Yet I still saw the Ouya as less like Underdog and more like Scrappy-Doo. I didn’t see the spark.

The answer lay in my memories of that overwhelming toy store aisle. As soon as I finally scrolled through the Ouya’s offerings and began to play free demo after free demo, I said out loud, “I wish I’d had an Ouya as a kid.” That’s who the Ouya is for: babies.

Yes, it’s also for Android lovers and Linux users; yes, it’s for people who like casual games, indie games and emulators; yes, it’s for the gadget hounds who want to try every new piece of hardware at least once if they can. But it’s also for families of game-lovers, especially families that might not be able to afford high-end PCs, consoles, smart phones or tablets. It’s for birthday parties where every child switches off climbing Knightmare Tower. Sort out the kinks with the controller, make the UI more kid-friendly (and, let’s be honest, adult-friendly), and start marketing to families.

Problems would remain, of course; one of the appeals of the Game Boy for my parents was that it would keep me quiet during long car trips or visits to entertainment wastelands (like, say, Grandma’s house). The Ouya requires a television, plus an internet connection to download games, which could be a barrier for some.

Overall, though, I’m surprised the console has earned a reputation as a gadget for gaming’s “hipsters”, especially Linux and Android users. If you don’t know what I mean when I say “videogame hipster,” imagine the kind of person who says “modern videogames have nothing on retro ones,” or “I played Braid before it was cool,” and so on. The “hipster” gamer often overlaps heavily with self-identified “hardcore” gamers, although the latter also includes folks who only play mainstream AAA games.

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I outlined some of these overlapping gamer cliques and self-embraced stereotypes in my column on Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony’s brand pitches at E3 this year. All three of the major console companies are too corporate to fully brand themselves as “indie”, but they do manage to earn the label of “hardcore” (as long as you aren’t speaking to a PC gamer). It’s no wonder that the videogame industry doesn’t know who they’re talking to or marketing to, most of the time, given how frequently gamers fight amongst themselves about who is and is not a “real gamer,” let alone a “hardcore” one. It’s therefore also no surprise that no one can figure out who the Ouya is for.

Technically speaking, the Ouya does not seem a good fit for a hardcore or a nostalgic audience, even though that may be its current reputation. On the contrary, the Ouya seems like a better fit for game players who don’t identify as gamers at all: people who play Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Bejeweled and Tetris. That’s right: casual gamers. Or, as they are more commonly known in videogame culture parlance, “fake gamers,” especially “fake gamer girls.”

I’ve seen several critiques of the Ouya that describe it as “not actually a viable competitor to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 or Wii U,” as in this Wired column, or “light years away from being any kind of viable game console,” as described in this Android Police review. What would make the Ouya “viable”, and does it even need that distinction? The console exists; demand for it existed already (as evidenced by its own Kickstarter campaign). The update to controller lag issues indicates that Ouya’s developers care about customer feedback and making changes, which means organizational issues in the Ouya’s online store may also get fixed. An update to the store’s user interface might make the console seem like a “viable” space for more developers to ship their games. But that doesn’t sound like the real problem with the console long-term; the issue is that “hardcore” gamers don’t see a tiny console with tiny games as a worthwhile purchase.

That’s fine. If you already own every other gaming platform, the Ouya isn’t for you, and it doesn’t need to be. An affordable console that makes independently-developed games accessible to more people—especially children, who could use the free demos to craft their birthday wish lists—makes good economic sense. I don’t think the Ouya is “viable” compared to the Big Three of videogame consoles, but it is viable as a console for people who can’t afford a smartphone (not everyone has one), or people who can’t give their children a computer or a smartphone or even a handheld console (the Nintendo 3DS costs $170, and it sure doesn’t include free demos for every title), or people who enjoy games but don’t feel like mainstream videogame consoles are “for” them. The Ouya isn’t for people who already have every other brand of gaming gadget and want another box on their shelf—it’s for people who both want and need an accessible and visible alternative.

It’s both hilarious and sad to me that playing a Gameboy as a very young child earns me “real gamer” points nowadays, but growing up on iPhone games (or even Ouya games) will earn future children no such thing. Videogames are mainstream now, but the identity of “gamer” still isn’t, since most advocates of “gamer culture” fight to keep the word “gamer” as an exclusionary, elitist moniker … even though the actual word means less and less now, in a market that boasts increasingly accessible kinds of games and gaming platforms. The Ouya challenges this internal struggle, and that’s why people keep asking “who it’s for” and being dissatisfied when the answer doesn’t include the right kind of “gamer”. It’s not just about money, or changing the status quo of which consoles matter, or redefining what “gamer” means, although the Ouya embraces all of those concepts simply by being independently developed and by having a female CEO.

It would surprise me if the Ouya got forgotten. On the contrary, I predict this console will soon be redefined in social parlance as being “for soccer moms and their kids,” or similar. That, to me, will indicate that the Ouya has succeeded.

If the Ouya can’t be the console that forces us to reevaluate how games and consoles are made and sold, then perhaps it can be the console that forces us to reevaluate who deserves to play and discover lots of different kinds of games. Although the Ouya may not be “viable” compared to its corporate siblings, its team does care about making games accessible and affordable, which will soon destroy its reputation among elitists and perhaps earn the console sales from non-gamers-who-still-game.

So, future Ouya advertising team, heed this advice: Embrace indie game developers and make their games more easily found in your store, but flee “gamer culture” and its moving goalposts. Be not afraid of children and casuals. They are the silent majority.

Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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