MD_ACC_Activator2.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he lunges for the peripheral controller's jugular.]

I loathe peripherals. So when my girlfriend reserved a video game for the first time a month ago, what should have been a benchmark in our relationship was handicapped by a mandatory white-slab, which now rests on our living room floor. That’s right, we, along with my grandmother, my mother, and millions of other non-gamers, are Wii Fit owners.

Nintendo’s recent addition to the Wii Sports canon may be a blast (and even healthful), but it leaves me perplexed: didn’t we buy the Wii for its innovative Wiimote, a device that promised unfettered control—no more wheels or maracas or dance pads or guns or guitars? But between the boxed-in Mario kart wheel and Link’s crossbow, the classic controllers and Wavebirds, and the guitars and drums I cannot find room for Wii Fit; my shoebox apartment hardly has enough room for me. What’s a city gamer to do? After all, peripherals, along with consoles (read: giant peripherals?) require two things: money and space.

Allow me to extrapolate my peripheral melancholy, because right now I must sound like a loon harping on my terrible luck—“I own too many video games!” That’s not the case, rather I’m dismayed that so many recent game and console launches have required more and more real estate. And I am one of many that don’t have the space to share.

The Cost of Control

But first, money; it’s now obvious that video games are more financially divisive than ever. We have, for the first time, three wonderful and successful systems that offer unique experiences and capabilities. Also, each has their exclusive games. Sure, some of us may have an allegiance to a particular console, but most would love to (and few are privileged to) own all three home consoles.

This has divided shape a gamer community divided—one similar to the Sonic/Mario wars of the early 1990’s; and while the Hedgehog may have hung up his shoes, his replacements’, Sony and Microsoft, communities have their Master Chiefs and Solid Snakes to cheer for and grovel over.

Competition may be healthy, but dividing consumers is bad business. Consumers from other markets have refused to be divided as we most recently saw with Blu-Ray and HDDVD. Why then should gamers be expected to either own multiple systems or miss out on exclusive products, while music, movie, and literature fans have standardized formats?

It’s an important question that many have tried to answer, and, honestly, I can’t hope to solve the problem today. But part of this issue, the rise of multiple console homes, has created the problem I originally discussed: peripheral stockpiles.

Space: The Crowded Frontier

While it may be broad to generalize consoles as peripherals—though Microsoft had no shame promoting the Wii as a 360 peripheral a la the 36Wii—it is important to consider each console requires their own unique controllers. If you’re fortunate enough to own all three core-consoles, you may own Rock Band for the PS3, Guitar Hero 2 for the 360, and WiiFit for the Wii. As my grandfather would say, “That’s a lot of shit.”

Space, then, may be as important a divider for future games as the money to buy peripherals is today. While we may be decades away from the 20’x20’ VR treadmills stationed at research labs, its not unreasonable to imagine similar, truncated devices stuffing our dens. Yet, home ownership’s declined and urban living has increased; as we are forced into smaller houses or apartments, peripheral ownership has and will become more difficult.

It’s the rhythm game advent that’s left my one bedroom apartment shock and awed as if a hand grenade detonated a Fender factory. With little closet space, guitars are slid under my couches and behind my headboard; drums are tightly stowed away in the ottoman. And while I can’t complain—I’m lucky to have the gear—my super can and does.

When I take time to excavate my Rock Band equipment for a Saturday night jam session, only a few hours may pass before stomping comes from above and shouting from below; then, knocks at the door and requests to ‘Sell my toys on E-bay,’ result in a game party cut short.

Space is not just physical real estate, but also the proximity to those around us. And the newest peripherals are noisy. While I may sound like a grumpy old man with this peripheral rant, it is the actual grumpy old man two floors up that’s made a Guitar Hero III party day dream material.

Making Space Out of Nothing

With no space to store peripherals and paper-thin walls, sometimes I crave the retro ‘controller and couch’ gameplay. And I’m not the only one. Many fellow New Yorkers have sold their gear online to appease touchy neighbors and venomous landlords. While others, dedicated Guitar Heroes, have searched out basement or first floor lofts to ensure rehearsal space; some players have even organized Guitar Hero nights at local bars to house their full force, head-banger sessions.

While this may be acceptable for rock games, what about the Wii Fit, which excels in a small, hushed venue, but still requires big movements, floor stomping, and general broo-ha-ha (listen, I play yoga for keeps)?

Then there are the controllers. If a player wants to own a Wii for multiplayer they must own four Wii-motes, four nun chucks, and four classic controllers. Then there are the optional crossbows, wheels, gun holsters, Nerf sports gear, and guitars. If they own more systems, they may have the same controllers and peripherals, as the consoles lack interchangeable control methods.

And as Microsoft moves into motion controls, we may see normal controls, motion controls, and additional devices (see: Balance Board) for each console. The plastic pile will continue to grow, but there’s only so much space under beds, in closets, and atop bookshelves.

What Can Studios Do

Our problem’s clear: the combined success of three consoles along with the sudden popularity of peripheral games has made barriers between consoles stronger than ever before. Now we don’t only have game collections limited to particular machines, but controllers. While previous console generations had the occasional light-gun or maracas for niche gamers, the current generation promotes and heavily relies on guitars, drums, and, now, balance boards.

Worst of all, the Wii, what should have been a no-peripheral messiah, has become number the one offender with its odd variety of plastic controls, and, with the Balance Board's success, a bevy of unknown add-ons to come.

If games continue to move towards niche peripheral markets, studios must fight to standardize controls. USB 2.0 and Bluetooth are great staring points, and it wouldn’t be difficult for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to firmware update universal wireless control. Is this unreasonable to expect, definitely, but it might be wise for developers and peripheral designers to develop their own universal controls. If prevented, these studios should stand up to the console makers on the consumers’ behalf. Why shouldn’t Rock Band 2’s instruments have PS3/360 compatibility?

Consoles attracted me with their plug and play nature, but as peripherals, add-ons, and software installs become commonplace, the console/PC gap has dwindled. Now, I think we must embrace the universal benefits that come with PC gaming. Let’s start to demand more standardized controls.

What Can We Do

We need to do more than discuss standardization. Hardcore gamers must become more lenient with their fellow gamers. Recently, expectations have been made amongst hardcore players to play every game for every console. Ever. That not only applies to current gen, but to past gen. For example, look at the NeoGAF reaction to N’Gai Croal’s ‘dirty little secret’—he’s only been a gamer since 1999! Zut alors!

If a hardcore gamer must own every new and old peripheral and console, then the hardcore would be limited to the wealthiest--those with the cash and space for an enormous video game catalogue.

We should expect designers to develop quality alternate controls for those that can't afford the major peripherals, or ask for smaller, cheaper peripherals. We shouldn't be expected to sacrifice entire paychecks for major releases. And we shouldn't expect other gamers to do so either.

While the Wii Fit will no doubt be a welcome addition to my apartment, it will come at the cost of a guitar and a coffee table, which will find new homes via Craigslist. It also will come along with a painful cut into my savings. But this is expected amongst gamers; we’re always hungry for the greatest and latest, and scoff at those players who wait months or years behind the trends.

Then again, I imagine they scoff at us sacrificing furniture and paying $90 to do yoga in our living rooms.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]