The Wii U’s anti-social message

Nintendo’s 2006 Wii controller reveal remains one of my all-time favourite moments in gaming, effortlessly introducing a radical controller design and demonstrating its potential by showing not games, but people playing them. The video is brilliant; the Wii’s potential as a fun-for-all-the-family toy was clear to gamers and non-gamers alike. They didn’t need to show any games to get the point across because fishing, drilling teeth, sword-fighting, drumming and so on are all easily-recognised actions and gestures. I’m fascinated with this, because with the Wii U the message seems to be the opposite. Wii was about getting everyone playing together; Wii U appears to be about playing even when everyone else in the house is doing something else.

Where the Wii’s launch video is exciting and inviting, the Wii U’s launch video is a baffling and airless piece of work where the main selling point is that you can slink off to your own corner to play with it when others want to use the TV. Gone are the giggling young women, the couples, the grandparents and grandchildren playing together; instead, almost every Wii U gamer seems to be using the system by themselves.

Almost every scene in the video shows people playing alone, drawing alone, keeping fit alone. The console supports only one tablet controller, plus up to four Wii remotes, so even with multiplayer games there’s an inequality built into the system. Whereas a four-player game of Wii Sports Tennis put everyone on a level playing field, multiplayer gaming on the Wii U will always be asymmetrical, will always split the players between the one who has the ‘proper’ controller and those who have the Wii’s hand-me-downs. Even casual observers are excluded when a game prompts player one to look at something happening on the controller screen; anyone in the room watching is left out, unless they can peer over player one’s shoulder.

You can see the Wii U being socially divisive with the very first scene in the video; some dick walks into a living room and declares that it’s “time to watch the baseball”, changing the channel without even giving the gamer time to pause and forcing him to carry on his game on the controller’s small screen. It’s a pretty depressing scene; the gamer doesn’t participate in the baseball-watching, nor does baseball-dick care about the videogame. The Wii U, then: two men sitting in a room together, not talking or sharing in the same entertainment. All the warmth and camaraderie of a walk-in clinic.

The Wii U is not doing well; sales so far have been appalling and there’s a serious dearth of games. The response from Nintendo has been to claim they just haven’t coherently explained the benefits of the new system to the public yet, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that people do understand it. They just don’t want it. Practiced gamers don’t need a half-arsed tablet experience and probably don’t have to worry about sharing a single TV, and families don’t want a toy that doesn’t lend itself well to sharing. I’m not sure what Nintendo can do to solve this problem; if your target market doesn’t want your product, what can you do?