Some of my favorites storybooks to read to my daughter are Arnold Lobel’s delightful Frog and Toad tales. They are simply told but full of humor, whimsical fantasy, and deep understanding of the love shared between friends. Frog and Toad are the David and Jonathan of children’s stories. In one particularly poignant story, Frog and Toad’s friendship is strained when Frog goes off to be alone for a while. Toad worries that his ornery nature has driven Frog away, but he comes to find that Frog simply wanted to be alone to meditate on the beauty of the world. When Toad finally joins him, Lobel ends the story with this phrase: “They were two close friends sitting alone together.”
My first weeks as a Wii U owner have brought this story to mind on multiple occasions. Much of the discussion of Nintendo’s new console has rightly focused on Wii U’s unique controller, the Gamepad, which features a touchscreen display. In its own presentation of Wii U, Nintendo has highlighted the fact that many of us already have multiple screens in our homes, and often use screens simultaneously–tweeting or using Facebook while watching television, for example. Critics have seen in Nintendo’s move an attempt to capitalize on this trend, creating a built-in second screen that can position Wii U favorably against tablets and phones, while attaining parity with the current consoles from Microsoft and Sony.
Wii U’s launch title Nintendo Land has led Wii U’s push into what has been called “asymmetric gaming,” in which one player, using the Gamepad, sees something different from other players, who are playing on the television. The concept doesn’t sell quite as easily as the Wii’s motion controls did in 2006. Indeed, when my pre-purchased Wii U arrived at my parents’ house, which we were visiting during the week of Thanksgiving, I soon realized that describing asymmetric gaming was more complicated than describing Wii bowling. After I had the system up and running, I was explaining Mario Chase to my mother, who had never played video games until the Wii, and at the end of my explanation I could tell it didn’t quite make sense to her. “So what’s different, again?” she asked.
Wii U’s asymmetric gaming is more easily demonstrated through experience–play one session of Mario Chase and its dynamic becomes a lot clearer. My family’s Thanksgiving included several great hours of Nintendo Land attractions–particularly Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. As we all sat around the television laughing, I recalled our first Thanksgiving after the Wii came out; this felt very similar, except that now one of us was looking at a different screen. All of the sudden, I realized how the Gamepad displaced the unity of everyone seeing the same thing. One of the players is isolated–both in the screen they use and in the role they play. Both Mario and the ghost in Luigi’s mansion are separated from the other characters. The player with the Gamepad is both with everyone, but also separate. We were playing Nintendo Land alone together.
A few months ago my wife and I decided to purchase Ticket to Ride for both of our iDevices (iPod for me, iPad for her) so that we could play together. During our first few games, we wondered whether it was that much different, playing a board game in digital form as opposed to sitting at a table with a physical board and tangible plastic pieces. Did we lose something by sitting in our own chairs, looking at our own devices, instead of taking the time to set up a board and sit across from each other at a table? We were still looking at the same board, and because the game is turn-based, I often look up to see how my wife will react to my train placement–especially if I suspect I’m ruining her plans. But Nintendo Land’s attractions allow little room or time for that kind of interaction.
Nintendo’s vision of asymmetric gaming reveals that we are already alone together. We are all together, but we’re also inexorably separated. Our perspectives, our experiences, our private thoughts all make us completely unique and different. When we think of playing games together in the same space, an ideal that Nintendo now seems alone in championing, it has usually meant sharing the same visual space as well. Even in split screen multiplayer our gazes are fixed on the same screen real estate (and who of us didn’t peek at our opponents’ screens in the heady days of Goldeneye multiplayer matches). Has Nintendo now robbed us of even that small consolation of the shared vision of local multiplayer?
Can we be alone together? If Wii U has any potential, this might be its most significant contribution to how we inhabit our spaces while gaming. It encourages us to both recognize our separation, but to work from that division to a place of common experience. In the aftermath of every Mario Chase session, the game quickly replays the entire game from a top-down perspective. During Thanksgiving, my daughter always insisted that we watch these replays in their entirety. Her intuition was spot on, because it was during the replays that the lone Gamepad player could vocalize their gaming experience. Watching our characters speed around the map, the Mario player could explain what they were thinking at any given moment. We were alone in ways, but we were still together.