One theory as to why there hasn't been a hit TV show about video games yet is that it isn't nearly as fun to watch them as it is to play them. Think about it: When is the last time you had more fun — or even as much fun — watching someone else play?
Next week Sony will release "SingStar Pop" for PlayStation 2, the latest in the company's line of microphone-enabled karaoke games. The song and music-video lineup includes the All-American Rejects' "Move Along," Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time" and My Chemical Romance's "Helena." It also supports the PS2's USB camera, EyeToy, a feature one of my friends tipped me to check out a couple of weeks ago. I discovered that it makes the game fun to watch.
When I first checked out the game, it was in a fancy hotel on the East Side of Manhattan in New York, where a Sony spokeswoman kindly spared me from having to sing and put her own vocal cords on the line for a rendition of the Fray's "Over My Head (Cable Car)." I asked her to turn on the EyeToy mode and then sat down a little behind her, a little to the side, to see how things went. She sang as lyrics and color bars streamed across the TV screen. Looming large on the screen was an electrified outline of the spokeswoman and a little crackly outline of me. Thanks to the EyeToy, the TV was acting like a high-tech fun-house mirror. Next we showed up in some sort of "Predator" vision, then through a kaleidoscope effect. I don't know if the spokesperson was having fun singing, but I was enjoying seeing myself go through a few on-camera contortions.
I think "SingStar Pop" will go in that small fun-to-watch category. That's not to say I will race to play it, but it's to say that if I do, I won't race to shut it off when my girlfriend sits down on the couch and says she wants to watch something. She just might enjoy watching the game. I know that wouldn't work with a "Zelda" or "Gears of War," because it hasn't before. What she liked watching, of all games, was "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," partially because the prince was indeed a dashing rogue, but more so because for much of the game I had the prince climbing to vertiginous heights. She couldn't take her eyes off the screen at those times. That game cleared the spectator test. "Grand Theft Auto" games haven't worked with her but they have with other friends who are eager to suggest new ways to cause mayhem. I've found that series one of the few that I enjoy watching when someone else plays. The quirky roll-up-the-world "Katamari Damacy" game also seems to click with bystanders.
Many PC first-person shooters have spectator mode, a feature that has been used to popularize competitive gaming. I don't enjoy watching an FPS myself though, especially one played by the experts. They zoom through the levels like lab rats on a sugar rush. I don't know the maps and I just get dizzy.
In South Korea, public tournaments of the 1998 PC game "StarCraft" remain so popular that concert-size crowds line up to watch. The game's graphics are dated, but so many people understand how the strategy game is played that a large group of people can enjoy a bout of "StarCraft" without having to have their hands at the controls.
The PC version of the new EA strategy game "Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars" supports not just a spectator mode but a commentator system that enables an in-game telestrator. EA hopes that the opportunity to watch someone else draw circles and lines, à la "John Madden," will entice people who might not feel like playing a match of the game themselves.
Games were made to be played. That's for certain. But there's an argument to be made that "spectator appeal" is a quality that deserves praise — especially for those of us who have to share our TVs.
— Stephen Totilo