If Atari’s Pong (1972) helped usher in the video game revolution with a simple tennis game, more than three decades later Nintendo’s Wii Sports returned video games to the masses with simple, though unique versions of tennis, bowling, baseball, boxing, and golf.
Released in 2006 and bundled with Nintendo Wii home video game consoles sold outside of Japan, Wii Sports best demonstrated how the company redefined the way video games could be played. Relying on a motion-sensitive Wii Remote, Wii Sports distilled each of its sports into essential elements that players participated in by moving the Wii Remote. These re-creations were never complete. Wii Sports baseball, for example, was a game of hitting and pitching, swinging and throwing. The player never needed to field a fly ball or run the bases.
Wii Sports exemplified what game critic and theorist Jesper Juul calls the “casual revolution” or “the moment in which the simplicity of early video games is being rediscovered, while new flexible designs are letting video games fit into the lives of players.” Much like Pong and other early video games, Wii Sports operated in a casual space where a set of tennis or a three-inning game of baseball (as opposed to the normal nine innings) could be played in minutes. The mimetic controls that imitated real-life movements also removed barriers that might have intimidated non-gamers. Instead of needing to memorize a series of buttons to swing a virtual baseball bat or role a digital bowling ball, Wii Sports matched the actions of the player—a swing of the arm in this case—with what happened on screen.
By removing those barriers Nintendo intentionally sought to broaden the base of “gamers.” Even the company’s marketing campaign drove this message home by circumventing the stereotypical young male gamer for a much wider audience. As Nintendo’s marketing for the game claimed, “This is what video games should be: fun for everyone.” And fun for everyone is exactly what Nintendo illustrated in its first Wii commercials, which showed two Japanese businessmen playing games on the Wii with men and women, young and old, and people of varying races and ethnicities. Wii Sports, in particular, was a game to be played not only with one’s friends, but also with one’s mother and father—even one’s grandparents.
Yet Wii Sports was more than a triumph of marketing. It became a gaming phenomenon as news stories proliferated about the game getting diverse groups of people off their couches and breaking a sweat by playing video games together. Senior centers routinely offered Wii Sports bowling leagues for people who’d bowled during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s but found it too physically demanding to hurl an actual ball down a lane today. In 2011, health insurer Aetna even sponsored a Wii Sports Resort (the successor to Wii Sports) Senior Bowling Championship.
Wii Sports ultimately helped Nintendo sell more than 100 million Wii consoles, outselling the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 and pushing the rival companies to introduce their own motion sensing control devices in 2010. With more than 82 million copies sold, Wii Sports is one of the best-selling video games of all time, but its true influence comes from the fact that it made gamers out of millions of people around the world who’d never thought about playing one before.