When I was a kid, I played constantly. I spent my elementary school years in the ’90s without a television connection (my parents disabled the antenna and only restored it for the Olympics) nor a Super Nintendo, so my go-to place to play was the toy box. Inside there were dinosaurs, transformers, and my most prized possessions: Star Wars action figures. All of these would be summoned into the strange playground of my bedroom floor for adventures and contests that only ended when there was some chore to be done. Playing in this way, generating stories and characters in one’s head and imputing those spirits into the idols and fetishes of one’s toy-box, can only be maintained as a solitary experience. Certainly one could potentially invite someone else into your weird world, but allowing another mind into your stories is always a ticking time-bomb. Soon the other kid would get ideas of his own. You couldn’t keep up the illusion that the two of you really were part of the same fantasy world, and the illusion would quickly break down as you devolved into throwing things at each other. Corporate play was always became more tactile than imaginative. Toys ceased to be characters, and instead became objects, stories ceased to be stories and instead became movement and competition. Who could build the tallest lego sculpture? Who could knock down more stormtroopers with a single plastic missile. Only with a concerted effort of cooperative will and a solemn compact not to break character could two children inhabit the same fantasy world. These sorts of endeavors usually only lasted as long as tempers and attention-spans would admit–and these, in children, are notoriously short.
When I hit middle school, I realized I really liked video games. A lot. It probably took more manipulative persuasion than I’d care to admit before my Dad finally caved and got me a Nintendo 64 around the 7th grade, but after the transition was made, my play became less tactile. I was never very athletic, so video games became a naturally attractive playground I could control and manage, an escape to. Games like Zelda became my new solitary playground. Others (my sisters) could watch, but not join in.
But video games provided an unprecedented arena for corporate play. For the first time, two people could inhabit the same virtual world at once and compete or cooperate to achieve common goals. These games were ready made competitions with built-in rules and conditions that needed no agreement or enforcement, they simply were there. The social experience of video-gaming always tacked alongside the solo one. I played interminable hours of NHL ’94, NBA Jam, and Mario Tennis with my cousins throughout middle school and high school. In college, a hefty percentage of bonding with my floor-mates took place around LAN Halo competitions (and no, my set was not some coven of trenchcoat-wearing long-haired geeks–though we did play those guys, and we totally beat them. I digress.) Local multiplayer gaming let you dive into a toy-box with friends, exploring and making discoveries together rather than alone.
After school, in the more solitary few years of 9 to 5 bachelordom, I purchased a cheap Xbox 360 (the first non-Nintendo console I’d owned) and caught up on some of the solo games I hadn’t the time for in college: Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, Half-Life 2 the brain-twisting Portal and its wickedly delightful sequel. These reverted to the solitary play of my youth. Stories I could only experience alone.
But then, something awful happened that I could never quite shake. Earlier in the year, I purchased the newest Halo game and set out to my friend’s house to play it with a couple of friends. The setup alone took over sixty minutes. First, a 2 GB update had to be downloaded to my friend’s system to even allow us to play the game on his system. Then we had trouble with “guest profiles” that graciously allow other people in the room into the game without paying the monthly due needed for online play. All we wanted to do was duke it out between the three of us, and we ultimately did, but the multiple technical difficulties we encountered on Microsoft’s console told us something loud and clear: we weren’t supposed to be in the same room together. The whole thing would have gone a lot more quickly if we’d followed the script and started “interacting” online from the comfort of our own separate living-rooms via WiFi internet and connected microphones.
I realized that, while I’d been away at college, the new generation of video game consoles (the “mature” ones: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3) had largely dropped the idea that people would sit around in a room together and play a game together. Gone were the days of hopping into a game of Mario Tennis with cousins. I’d always enjoyed playing games solo, but I’d taken it more or less for granted that the other side of the coin: that of local, face-t0-face, living-room gaming, would always be an indelible part of video gaming. Microsoft and Sony, the new kings of the console industry, have proved me quite wrong. Their latest systems have poured money into online socializing, the “digital ecosystem” that continues with the assumption that their main player would be a solitary twenty something bachelor in a garden-level apartment playing alone. That was me, for a season, but now that I am married, and with children probably in the not too far future, I realized that living room play needed to work as face-to-face activity, not a solitary one. So I received Nintendo’s newest console, the Wii U for Christmas last year and last week, sold my Xbox to purchase the latest Mario game: Super Mario 3D World. It’s turned out to be an excellent decision and a brilliant recovery of the social gaming of my childhood.
Super Mario 3D World is a toy box that can finally be enjoyed with friends. The entire game is imagination run wild, you and your friends bounce on platforms made of jelly, wade through edifices made of cake and frosting, hop through casino-inspired roulette games and into African savannas one minute and through the stars the next. There are puzzles, dexterity challenges, and light competition. Cleverness oozes from every pixel. The game perfectly blends the solitary and social poles of video games into one product. Mario games have always been aware of their own identity as games first, experiences second. They rarely flesh out their mythology, instead new and unabashedly weird characters just show up and perform their function in the puzzle-box world. The world’s mythology is never explicitly laid out and plot has always been skeletal at most. Characters don’t converse (dialogue of any kind is limited to a few memorable catch phrases). Mario is a meme, a series of icons and touchstones attached together as so many parts in the huge Rube Goldberg machine that is the Mushroom Kingdom.
The genius and endurance of Mario even into the age of immersive graphics is due to Nintendo’s deep perception into how people experience play. People can play around with shared symbols, but not shared stories nor even shared worlds. Even when we watch films together, we experience them more-or-less alone in our heads, sitting next to each other (this is why people are shushed when they talk out loud in the theater). In the same way as it is difficult to admit anyone else into one’s own fantasy world as a child, it is difficult to experience a story alongside anyone else. Graphical realism can only really immerse one person at a time, and this is really why “social” gaming has come to mean people sitting alone in their apartments “interacting” online. It should really be renamed “solo-to-solo” play.
While Microsoft and Sony battle for the solo gamer, Nintendo has perfected the social side of (that is, local and face-to-face) and the choice has certainly come at the cost of their stock. As graphical fidelity and total immersion has become the standard by which games are judged in the 21st Century, local gaming is perhaps turning into a cottage industry. Gaming is turning into an experience more like blockbuster movies than a child’s toy box. There is much more opportunity to play alone than together, as the two new boxes on the market, the Xbox One and the PS4 can generate visions so real and vivid that they can take over the heavy lifting of imagining. Nintendo decided long ago, at the release of its super-social Wii console, that it would not be the company to immerse, but to encourage play. It’s not that Nintendo never provided immersive experiences for the solitary gamer, (the Miyazaki-like world of The Legend of Zelda is the most obvious example) but it always produced technology that is meant to support play both alone and corporately, and games that can even blend those two arenas into a seamless whole. At the launch of the next generation of gaming consoles, Nintendo is the only company to allow real, face-to-face sociality to affect their design decisions:
“The reason why I came to the conclusions I did was, it wasn’t from watching the television monitor. It was watching the expressions on people’s faces as they played, or when they used those controls. I thought of the original Famicom, when I saw one person say, “Hey, give me the controller so I can play.” When I told my staff all about this, I basically expressed how I was putting people’s reactions to the gameplay over the functionality of the game. This is kind of a special case, but it goes to show how we take experiences with our own families at home, or in places other than work, and bring those experiences back to our work. We think that the one thing that people can relate to the most is family, or interactions with their own families. That’s very important.”-Nintendo game developer Yoshiaki Koizumi.