SHIFT: Why today's video games are so bad — and how they can get better

Another Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual trade show for the video game industry, has come and gone. Unlike last year — when the focus was on the launch of two video game consoles — this year was more about individual games, not so much the hardware. As a result there were plenty of titles to see… if you like playing more of the same.

Across all platforms — including the Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, the PC and handheld systems — there seemed to be no shortage of science-fiction first-person shooters where you have to stop some insidious alien threat, semi-open-ended crime dramas (all which now seem a lot like Grand Theft Auto), and of course the same old sports simulations. Everything old is new again, except in video games where it's just getting old. I have some ideas on how the industry could truly innovate — follow the link to explore with me.

Nintendo Brings Back Inventiveness
E3 used to mean seeing something that gamers could get excited about, but this year it lacked anything that was actually different, new or fresh. And about the only company that seems willing to innovate is that one that much of the press, including me, had previously written off — namely Nintendo. Its latest gaming console, the Nintendo Wii, sounded like a novelty only a year ago, but the unique motion-sensing controller has actually encouraged game developers to think differently. This is just a small step in the right direction, but every step counts in the world of video games, where everything is just a copy of last year's hit.

Fortunately the Wii isn't a novelty, and Nintendo is leading the way with some actual innovation. The upcoming Wii Fit, which will ship later this year and comes with a special controller, called the Balance Board, actually is a game that won't just get you off the couch — it'll actually get your heart pumping. It features a number of activities and mini-games that blur fitness with fun, something that seriously needs to be addressed given our rather plump society these days. The problem remains that games like Wii Fit are still games (with fitness features) rather than real workout programs that make fitness fun.

This begs the question: Why couldn't Nintendo include a heart rate monitor or a calorie counter into the mix? With one of those, we could actually know whether dodging soccer balls (one of the mini-games in Wii Fit), is doing us any real good. Game developers could create motion-based games that are challenging, yet still let you burn a few calories. Imagine telling your kids (or possibly parents) they have another half hour in front of the Wii before dinner!

Music Theory: Talent Not Included
The other highly touted "innovation" to come out of E3 this year was the sudden wave of musician games. But again, it's just taking what was a hit and expanding on it. The hit Guitar Hero has now spawned Rock Band, an upcoming Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game that allows multiple players to jam out and live their rock-star dreams in the comfort of a living room. But it won't actually teach anything about music theory, composition or even how to really play. Games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band are good if you decide to got the Milli Vanilli route, but don't expect to use these games to become the next American Idol (also available in game form).

Today's game consoles should — and actually do — have enough power to become real music-teaching tools. There are already plenty of teach-yourself software programs for the PC, but anyone who's spent anytime with them can tell you they're really dull and often out of touch with both kids and adults alike. Turning learning into a competition can go a long way toward building interest.

Of course this could require more specialized controllers, and these programs might cost a bit more as a result. But the Wii is already demonstrating that controllers don't have to fit so comfortably in the palm of your hands or just require the mashing of four buttons. Already, companies like M-Audio have created studio-quality keyboard and software for around $100, so it wouldn't be too hard for game developers to get the price point to a reasonable level while including a real keyboard.

More Than High Scores
Games need not be edutainment, a genre that was always light on the entertainment and never too educational, to actually teach something. History buffs have long appreciated the realistic details in strategy games, and while Age of Empires isn't going to help you study for that ancient history exam, it did get some players interested in the ancient civilizations. So why can't fitness games actually help get you in shape, or why can't a music game be more than just mashing buttons? Unlike movies or television, video games are truly interactive, and this interaction can be used for a whole lot more than just getting a high score.