My first job was in 1995. A summer spent commuting into London to earn a little money before going to going off Uni.
Back then the humble Game Boy was pretty much the only gaming device you could take out of the house. And that summer I found the perfect location to play it. The fluorescent, overhead lighting of the London Underground (locally known as the Tube) created the ideal conditions for a quick game of Qix or Tetris.
By 1995 the Game Boy was an established success. Millions of units had been sold and portable gaming was now a sustainable market that complemented the home console. However, even though the Game Boy was a hit, I rarely, if ever, saw a fellow commuter playing the handheld. A few years later, I started my first real job and the daily commute has been part of my life, in some form or other, ever since. (Now that’s a sobering thought.)
The thing about commuting is that it’s bloody boring. People will do anything to avoid making eye contact with fellow passengers or to escape the mundanity of an hour spent down a tunnel. It’s this desperation that has somehow made the Metro newspaper a success, despite the best efforts of its publisher to make it a worthless read. Games, especially smart-phone games that offer quick distractions, are now part and parcel of a commuter’s armoury. They sit comfortably alongside books, newspapers and music offering a world you can escape to, in the palm of your hand.
The narrative in recent years is that smart-phone games have eaten into the portable gaming market. Whilst this is obviously true, I can’t say I have seen a decline in the number of dedicated gaming devices being used on my commute. The truth is that in my fifteen years of getting the tube there was never a time when the carriages were full of people playing DSs, PSPs or Game Boys. It just never happened. Maybe kids would play then in the back if the car, but adults, on public transport? Hardly ever.
Even during the heyday of the Nintendo DS, when a wider demographic were getting their thrills from the likes of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Nintendogs (the forebears of many smart phone games), a sighting on public transport was still a rarity.
Obviously people don’t like carrying around multiple devices, but perhaps they are also just shy about using these game consoles in public. I rarely see someone playing a 3DS on the tube, maybe a few times a month, but I do pick up seven or eight new Street Passes every day. Not bad when you are in a tunnel a hundred metres underground. Perhaps games (or at least dedicated gaming consoles) continue to carry a stigma among the professional population?
On the occasions you do see people playing a Vita or 3DS there is an unwritten, unsaid sense of comradeship. It’s very rare for strangers to strike up a conversation on the London Underground, but on the few times someone has, it’s been to ask what game I’m playing on my Vita. Can you imagine asking that to someone playing Flappy Bird on their iPhone?
This is all anecdotal evidence of course, but I have been curiously peering over shoulders for many years to see what games are played. The majority of commuters are playing either Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga or whatever other game is having a fleeting moment of fame (Let’s tip our hats to Draw Something). Over the last 15 years the games have changed but the objective is the same one that made Nokia’s Snake and the Blackberry’s Brick Breaker. Commuters play these titles because they are there and because there is a desire to pass time. It’s the convenience of a distraction that is the draw, and not a hitherto pent up desire to play video games. Commuters haven’t given up their DSs, they are giving up their Marian Keyes and their John Grishams. These authors should be as worried as Nintendo.
But hey, more people are playing games and that’s a good thing, surely? It’s certainly preferable to reading someone else’s discarded copy of the Metro.