Gaming peripherals: Do we need all this stuff to have fun?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Once, computer games consisted of a console and a joypad. Now our homes are cluttered with an ever-expanding collection of plastic guitars and dance mats. Archie Bland wonders if we're being taken for a ride

It hasn't always been this way. Once upon a time, my living room was a sanctuary: a safe, peaceful place, a comforting cocoon that stood as a serene retreat at the end of the working day. It was calm. It was decorated in a simple, straightforward style. It was a place I came to relax. It was not a place I came to make use of an imitation Fender Stratocaster, 3D goggles, and an oversized red beanbag with integrated speakers.

But like millions of others, I have fallen victim to the cult of the video game accessory. In the world of the gaming geek, life was simple: whether swinging a tennis racket or firing a gun, all you had to do was press a button. These days, you have to swing a tennis racket or fire a gun.

The result? We're knackered. Our credit cards are close to melting. And our homes look as if they've been decorated by hyperactive four-year-olds given unfettered access to Piet Mondrian's paintbox. It's all an awfully long way from Space Invaders.

"A lot of people's living rooms are full up with a lot of crap," admits Tim Ingham, editor of industry bible MCV. "You can turn your console off, but you've still got plastic drums, a plastic guitar, a dance mat, Wii Fit, a steering wheel. You basically have to throw your sofa away to fit it all in."

Not so long ago, it was quite possible to enjoy the full range of the console experience with nothing more than a nondescript grey box and a couple of sophisticated remote controls. But over the last few years, the peripheral has become the games industry's great cash cow. In the US, sales of gaming accessories went from $1.4bn in 2006 to $2.57bn last year. On this side of the Atlantic, they have soared from £319m in 2006 to £707m last year. We are a nation with a new addiction to plastic tat.

But teenage boys, loyal customers though they are, can't on their own account for that startling change. The new gaming order has a lot more to do with their sisters, their little brothers – and even their mums and dads. And with that broadening of the target audience has come an enormous increase in potential profit. "It's a market everyone's trying to get into," says Nick Gibson, an analyst at Games Investor Consulting. "Most of the larger publishers are scrambling for a piece of it. These peripherals that aren't based around the traditional joypad break down barriers for a whole new kind of user."

This year, DJing and skateboarding will be added to the range of physical activities you never thought you'd do on your own in your front room. Tony Hawk: Ride and DJ Hero are amongst the most eagerly-anticipated games of the year. The appeal, of course, has little to do with either game's internal mechanics. There have been plenty of – well – pedestrian skateboarding games that no-one gave two hoots about, and the main reason no-one has made a DJing game before now is that, out of context, there is nothing at all fun about watching a little digital person put on a new song just because you told him to.

But introduce an actual board, or a set of decks, and all that changes. Suddenly the game's narrow conceit is retooled in a way that makes it possible, if you have a couple of drinks and engage your imagination and half-shut your eyes and close the curtains, to pretend you really are wowing the crowd with your kickflip or your scratching.

It's far from a new concept – back in 1984, the thoroughly underwhelming NES title Duck Hunt flew the flag for light-gun enthusiasts everywhere, and a Japanese title called Guitar Freaks tried to colonise the territory that later music titles made their own in 1989. The difference is, this time it's cool. The sleek design most accessories now bear is a million miles from the clunky light guns of yore; and crucially, the songs you can play and the stars you can pretend to be are instantly credible. "It's about letting people know what kind of interaction they can have right away," says Alex Wiltshire, online editor of Edge magazine. "They know what the game is going to be about. Guitar Hero wouldn't be fun playing on a pad – it would just be abstract."

Guitar Hero is, of course, one of the two unmissable landmarks in this new epoch: the other is the Wii. The remarkable thing is how entirely unheralded both concepts were. Why, the gaming cognoscenti sneered, would anyone want to put their joypad buttons on the end of a silly little plastic guitar? And why would anyone give up the infinitely superior processing power of an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3 in favour of waving their arms about in front of the technically limited Nintendo equivalent?

The thing is, the gaming cognoscenti does not have a particularly strong overlap with the mainstream cognoscenti. It's that lack of intersection that goes a long way towards explaining how the perceived wisdom was so utterly wrong. Thanks to people who didn't particularly like computer games, but did quite like having a laugh with their mates after a night at the pub, Guitar Hero has now sold an eye-popping $2bn worth of units worldwide; and last year, Nintendo sold £481m worth of Wiis, putting them £38m ahead of Microsoft and £147m ahead of Sony.

The commercial benefits to be gleaned from exploiting such a market are, of course, huge. Swathes of coveted floorspace at shops like HMV and Game are now devoted to accessories, and their online competitors are scrambling to catch up. "Gaming is definitely a very big area for us now," says Claire Wood, PR manager at gadget retailer Firebox. "It's becoming such a lucrative industry, and there are more and more niche accessories becoming available."

Niche is right. In its range, Firebox includes a £250 gaming drum kit, some deeply geeky 3D video goggles, and a frankly terrifying vibrating vest, lest anyone should feel insufficiently traumatised by the violence of their favourite shoot-em-up. Another online emporium, MadCatz, will sell you a range of wholly unnecessary plug-ins for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, from the aforementioned imitation Stratocaster to a microphone stand with special control pad attachments.

Nor are these gizmos at the extreme verge of gaming extras: you can get golf clubs, and special vibrating chairs, and windbreaks for that mic. I promise I am not making any of this up. "It reaches a point where it perplexes me," says Tim Ingham. "For the amount you're spending on console extras you could be setting up a home studio and learning to play the guitar for real."

It doesn't take a genius to surmise the commercial logic behind this. Besides opening up the games market to a whole new audience, such accoutrements also have the benefit of being, generally speaking, cheap to produce, and yet bafflingly expensive to the consumer, who doesn't seem to have noticed the scam. "All the consumer gets is a lump of plastic," says Ingham. "You might think, why are you paying 70 quid for this? But the fact is the player doesn't view it that way."

Ingham points to the UK release of Guitar Hero rival Rock Band, which sparked much dark muttering about a consumer revolt when EA sold it for significantly more here than it did in the US. "But it turns out the general UK consumer isn't that desperate for a cheap product. Core gamers are annoyed by the pricing, there's no question. They have always grumbled and they will continue to do so, but they will still be the bread and butter of the industry. The only people any of the games publishers are worried about alienating are the new gamers."

It's depressing news for committed games players, then, who can look forward to being treated like mugs for the foreseeable future, and who have no one to blame but themselves. There are consolations, of course: it should not be forgotten that plenty of these games are brilliant, and that this has as much to do with their success as the accoutrements do. And no-one is obliged to buy any of this stuff, after all. Already, the plug-in peripheral looks like it might be on the verge of being superseded. The launch at industry fair E3 of Microsoft and Sony's highly-sophisticated "Wii Killer" set-top cameras seem to promise a means of playing games without having to contend with any kind of gadget at all. Looking around the detritus strewn across my living room, that certainly sounds like a blessing.

Still, for some of us, even that degree of freedom will be unwelcome. For us, gaming will always, in the end, be primarily about sitting hunched over a glorified keyboard getting blisters from hammering away at the buttons slightly harder than necessary. "The controller can still deliver gaming experiences that are vital and can't be taken over by other things," says Alex Wiltshire. "There's something about a joystick that still works."

What's in Archie's living room

Aviator Joystick

Ah, this is more like it. Saitek's good old-fashioned Aviator Joystick (£39.99) lets you pretend you're a real pilot. Confusion awaits those who use it in a car racing game.

Imitation full-sized Fender Stratocaster

An imitation full-size Fender Stratocaster, available from Mad Catz, is, of course, a ridiculous indulgence at £68.50. But that's the whole point, isn't it? What could be cooler? Apart from a real one that you could actually play, of course.

Slouchpod

Should your television be insufficiently noisy, try the Slouchpod, a beanbag with integrated speakers that makes the sounds of gunfire and guitars alike horribly close. Not a total snip at £119, but you can sit on it when the console's off, too.

iWear

Vuzix's astonishing iWear plugs into your PC or console, and creates the impression of an enormous, 3D screen. They start at £149.95 from Firebox, so maybe consider the red and green plastic alternative.

Mad Catz's mic stand

If you find your musical experience is lacking something, you probably need one of Mad Catz's mic stands, for £19.99: silly as you might feel, it means you can warble to your heart's content at the same time as strumming chords.

Suggested Topics
Sport
formula oneLive lap-by-lap coverage of championship decider
News
Lily Allen performs on stage at Splendour In the Grass 2014 on 27 July, 2014, in Byron Bay, Australia
people
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Sport
Manny Pacquiao lands a blow on Chris Algieri
Pacquiao retains WBO welterweight title – and says he wants Mayweather next
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

    Ashdown Group: Junior SQL DBA - London - £39,000

    £37000 - £39000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: SQL Database Administrato...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £26000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Expanding creative studio requi...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin