Wii, PS3, Xbox 360... does the Mac matter for games?

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It’s a tough season for stalwart Mac gamers as Sony and Nintendo launch new game consoles and Microsoft moves into year two of its Xbox 360 campaign. With so many powerful video game consoles on the market, does the Mac even matter for games anymore?

Gaming on the Mac is just as relevant today as it was a year ago or five years ago. I’m sure that some will see that as damning with faint praise, and I should temper my response with realism too: For many people out there, consoles are perfectly sufficient as game platforms and it’s entirely unnecessary for them to use their Macs to play games on as well. But for my gaming dollar, I still think the Mac provides an excellent platform for games—especially for games that I really can’t or don’t want to play on consoles.

Let me back up for a second. Please don’t think this is unmitigated pro-Mac evangelism. We’re big console fans in my house. We have an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and until two weeks ago, when we replaced it with a Nintendo Wii, we had a GameCube as well. So I’m no stranger to the console market. And if I could afford to, I’d buy an Xbox 360 and (presuming I could even find one that didn’t cost an arm and a leg) a PlayStation 3 as well. We take our games pretty seriously in my house, and I have to tell you, it’s only peripherally related to the fact that I’m Macworld ’s “games guy.” The fact is, everyone in my house loves video games. Except maybe for the cat, who doesn’t respond well to anything involving lots of flashing lights and noise.

My kids have their own computers, as does my wife, and when they’re not doing schoolwork, after-school projects or other things that have some redeeming quality (or deadline) associated with them, they can often be found gaming there too. And that brings me to the first area where I think (for now, anyway) computers have consoles beat: social networking.

My wife and kids all spend a fair amount of time on Web sites that actively encourage participants to interact with each other while they’re playing games. They’ve really run the gamut of online sites like Yohoho Puzzle Pirates and the like, but most of the time, they can be found on two sites: Gaia Online and Neopets.

Neopets is a “virtual pet site” that boasts more than 70 million users and more than 160 games, while Gaia Online is more of what we used to call back in the day a “MUD,” or multi-user dungeon. Its creators call it a “virtual space ‘hangout’” that’s rife with other users and non-player characters (or NPCs), some good and some bad. And there’s plenty of games and distractions, including special events. (An alien invasion that culminates around Halloween is always a big hit at the Cohen house.)

Now, I know a lot of you reading this will perk up and say, “But wait, Xbox Live Arcade lets you do that too,” and you’re absolutely right—after all, where did Microsoft get the idea?

But Xbox Live Arcade is predicated on two basic concepts: One is that you want to use your Xbox 360—whether it’s in your living room, bedroom, family room or whatever—as your main conduit to social networking games, and the other is that you’re willing to pay the premium to play on Xbox Live Arcade. Sure, many online games charge a fee, but many offer limited access for free, as well.

Now, for my money, I prefer to play World of Warcraft —almost to the exclusion of all other online games. But a big part of the reason is because Blizzard puts Macs on a level playing field with PCs when it comes to platform support. It’s also a lot of fun to create your own characters and develop them over time. It’s a place where I can often find friends and acquaintances to play with, too.

What’s more, I can’t travel easily with console games. I certainly drop my PSP into a backpack and take it with me on trips, as my friends do with their Nintendo DSs, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty insular experience, even if you hook up to a WiFi access point and play some online games with friends or manage to get going an ad-hoc game somewhere. Playing on a laptop lets gamers continue the online experience we’ve already started—for myself, in World of Warcraft, or for my wife and the kids, on Gaia or Neopets. I also like to haul out the PowerBook on the train or plane and challenge myself to a game of Klondike solitaire or even a few laps with Jammin’ Racer when the mood strikes.

Finally, there’s the illusion of productivity. I often play casual games like Scrabble or Burning Monkey Solitaire in windowed mode, so I can keep iChat open or check my e-mail, surf the Web and do other things in between rounds. It helps keep me alert and interested in what I’m doing, though I’ll admit I've been driven to distraction a few times. (At that point, it’s important to have enough self-control to quit and get back to work.)

With Apple’s switch to Intel processors, Mac performance has gotten better than ever across the product line. That includes games, too (except maybe in the case of Macs that feature integrated graphics chips like the MacBook and Mac mini ).

As I said at the outset, I don’t expect the Mac to be all things to all people. For many folks otherwise satisfied with their Macs, a video game console is a great supplement that will provide them with the only gaming fix that they’ll need. But for many of us it, it’s just not enough. And it’s there that the Mac is a great form of entertainment that won’t be retired just because there are some shiny new boxes on the shelf at Best Buy this holiday season.

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