Action Shot Stop playing Donkey Koooooong!

My generation was the first to spend teen years with video games. Many an afternoon I walked with my friend to the mall, where we sought out a darkened cacophonous arcade. A stout man in a blue uniform changed our dollars to quarters from a money changer on his belt, and away we went to blow up asteroids, gobble energy pellets, and make ultimately futile attempts to save cities from thermonuclear destruction.

If you grew up with the first wave of video games too, you must see The King of Kong. One of the best documentary films I’ve ever seen, it is both moving and funny. At 17:30, the protagonist's son shrieks, “Don’t play! Don’t play!  Stop playing Donkey Koooooong!” Can’t think of a better illustration of the work/life/game balance problem.

When I worked in Silicon Valley, my co-workers and I enjoyed many a beer-bash Friday blowing each other up in the Marathon arena.  Now that I’m at Microsoft, a few friends have given me a hard time for not having an Xbox. But I agreed with my wife to delay buying in; too much going on in our lives: children, a couple of moves across the country, working for Microsoft, etc.

The Kinect barges into our house

So for years we’ve had no video games in our home, and yet as with cars and toy guns, you can try to withhold these things, but your son will find them somehow anyway. Mostly it happened when family or friends brought out a Wii.  It was great entertainment watching him laugh, jump around, and dance with his little legs. I wanted to play together. When Microsoft introduced the Kinect at the annual company meeting, I finally saw what I hoped would come: Xbox casual family games. But I hadn’t dreamed the outcome would be so innovative and compelling. I ordered one that day.

Flash forward a few months to today, and already the Xbox Kinect has disrupted our lives in ways that are both wonderful and sometimes not so much.  One big challenge that everyone should know about is that you must have at least 7-8 feet, but ideally about 10 feet of empty floor space in front of the Kinect.  In our small TV room, a large entertainment center holds an old-school CRT TV.  So to accommodate the Kinect, we had to downsize, replacing a sectional couch with a few chairs that can be pushed to the side.

We also are talking about ways manage video game sessions in various contexts: weeknights, when company comes, etc. Sometimes the Xbox takes control of the evening and must be reined in.  And yet I’m delighted that delaying introducing video games into my son’s life seems to have had the effect we hoped for.  He actually does a decent job of detaching from it all by himself; after an hour or so, he often walks away to build something with his toys or play with his train set.

The Kinect scores

When I introduced my son to the Kinect, he immediately got it. He has since said a few times, voice choking with emotion, how a video game is all he ever wanted. (I guess he forgets that only a few months ago his baby sister was all he wanted.) It has been a blast watching him immediately grasp the simple interface then jump, swat, and steer with such intensity and delight. His friends now want to come to our house and lament that they have only a Wii.

As for the Kinect games themselves, they are pretty much everything I’d hoped they would be.  Kinect Adventures is the perfect introduction to full-motion gaming.  You use your whole body to hit or kick a ball, jump and duck past obstacles, and even surf through the clouds. The simple interface, forgiving physics, and fun diversions of Joy Ride makes it a perfect experience for making young children feel like they are in the “driver’s seat”, although it must be played standing up.

I think what got my wife to partly forgive the intrusion of the Xbox is Dance Central, which stands out as the coolest game in terms of full-body motion.  The whole idea that swinging a white nun chuck around is like dancing now seems so silly.  Dance Central offers beginner-level moves, but you can quickly ramp up to harder dances. The on-screen dancer’s limbs light up in red to show you where you even subtle mistakes on any part of your body, and thus help you learn the moves. The announcer offers both praise and critiques in fun ways. It feels really good to spend that precious 1 hour or so of free time after the kids go to bed dancing instead of sitting on the sectional watching TV.

I do use the Xbox controller too. Halo? Nah, not right now. I spin up Galaga or Time Pilot. Somehow playing these vintage games after a virtual river raft adventure feels just right to me. (And I get to play for free; no quarters needed!) I can’t imagine replacing the classic joystick and Fire button with a Kinect interface. And yet, I keep dreaming of ideas for how to the Kinect could be used in all kinds of new ways and expanded into new markets.

I don’t know when I’ll have time to explore these ideas further. But for now, I can’t remember ever feeling this proud of a Microsoft consumer product. So pull out a tape measure, check floor space in your TV room, and then go check it out: http://www.xbox.com/kinect!