Everyone loves Nintendogs. You know it; I know it. Sales figures don't lie. The videogame world has gone crazy for puppies. We've come to take that for granted. But before we get caught up in our dog-owner pride, let's turn back the theoretical clock a few months and think the likelihood of this one through.
Say you never played Nintendogs. Heck, you've never even seen it. You've been hearing the rumors though, and they go like this: A new, somewhat quirky title about raising puppies has come out in Japan. There's no real game involved, but you'll need to care for your dogs on a regular basis, cleaning them, feeding them, and giving them love. And don't think that these guys might grow up to be hardcore hounds. No, they're just puppies - amazingly adorable puppies - and they'll stay that way forever. So why stick around if there's no way to win? Because it's fun! Plus, you can stock up on fuzzy, real-life merchandise. Needless to say, this simple, accessible "game" and its offshoots could be appreciated by a wide range of consumers, even ones who don't usually run with the "serious gamer" crowd.
What's that, you say? Cuddly animals? No clear objective? And not a single weapon in sight! Does this sound like a typical American bestseller to you? Of course not, it sounds like one more cutesy Japanese sim, ignored by the big boys of the industry, enjoyed by a few less-judgmental gamers, and then promptly forgotten in the wake of more dramatic titles, only to turn up a few years down the line in the bargain bin at your local gaming retailer.
Except it's not. It's Nintendogs. It sold a quarter of a million copies in the United States in the first week after its release - and that's not even taking into consideration the huge number of fans who imported the Japanese version months earlier. Its success in Europe, not to mention Japan, has been, on a relative scale, just as stupendous. The world's mass puppy love has inspired numerous packaging deals, official events and even unique social phenomena. In short, Nintendogs has defied all the expectations such titles normally face in the videogame industry and its communities: expectations of finance, of culture, of consumer age, of hardcore vs. casual ideologies, and of gender.
A quick review of the average "serious" American gamer - both what he's like and how he wants to be perceived - reveals the innate improbability of Nintendogs' U.S. success. What does such a gamer appreciate? First off, technological innovation: in a technical sense, precision, in an aesthetic sense, realism. He likes racers and action adventure titles, but prefers, above all, first-person shooters. He enjoys a certain amount of competitive, in-game violence. He's drawn to the accouterments of manliness, such as images of attractive women. What he dislikes: surrounding himself with cuteness. Doing so might make him seem weak.
Of course, in some sense, this supposedly average player doesn't exist. That's to say, no one is so uncomplicated as to unwaveringly meet these stereotypes. Nor is this description meant to imply that "serious" gamers can't be completely the opposite. Everyone is different. This is merely, and literally, an averaging of current cultural prescriptions, which for better or for worse come together as an incredibly strong force in the consumer market. Sentiments like the ones outlined above make, break and shape games because they determine sales.
Yet, the unacceptable is happening - en masse. Gamers across the country are playing Nintendogs and loving it despite, or perhaps even because of, its adorable content. It's almost as if an unspoken rule has been lifted. Suddenly it's OK to turn to your fellow gamer, male or female, and pour out story after story about your puppy's good graces. You can like what's cute without the risk of being uncool.
True, some people are still stuck on the old stereotypes: Puppies are for girls; puppies are for sissies; puppies are for non-gamers - the kind of forum trash talk we've all waded through. And there was certainly plenty of reluctance to support the title before it (and its rave reviews) came out in this country. But for the most part, Nintendogs has made converts of straight-faced gamers. They continue to be hardcore, but now, at least, they can smile.