From Black Box to No Box
We’re used to Nintendo’s E3 press conferences being awkward and odd. It’s part of their charm. But this year was particularly strange because many audience members, especially those watching at home, were utterly baffled: was Nintendo announcing a new console or just another Wii peripheral?
It wasn’t long after the Nokia Theater emptied that journalists stormed Nintendo representatives and confirmed that Wii U is, in fact, a new console. It’s now old news, and we’re left to debate the consoles merits and its chances at success. And that’s fine and all, except I can’t help but wonder about the cryptic and confusing way Wii U was introduced. There’s something significant behind what appeared, at the time, and just during that time, a significant omission of information (see press conference video).
A lot of money and effort is put into polishing these presentations. Nothing is left to chance (consider the bourgeois Hollywood rent-a-families demoing Microsoft’s Kinect), and in the case of a console launch, the presentations are meticulously crafted to win over audiences with equal parts adrenaline and affection. Apple is a master of conjuring this cultish aura, and their church services, such as mecca-like Macworld, are highly anticipated press events. More than any other corporation, Nintendo has been Apple’s dutiful apprentice; look no further than the orchestral melody of beloved Zelda music that began the show, blanketing the audience in fuzzy nostalgia.
So why then, within this high stakes and intensely choreographed console debut, would Nintendo leave so many basic questions unanswered? It’s certainly not by accident, and it’s not a product of ignorance. While in retrospect Nintendo President Satoru Iwata did admit that he “should have shown a single picture of the new console,” he reiterated that Nintendo had not “made any kind of blunder” because the focus needed to be on the controller. “The console itself will be almost invisible.”
Nintendo’s console-less console announcement is representative of a fundamental shift within some sections of videogame culture, a shift from the allure of the mysterious and beautiful computer to the orchestration of social space by the lively machine. It’s not processing power that enchants Nintendo’s targeted consumer, but bodily performance.
Allow me to explain.
In the past, consoles were marketed as highly technical machines. Specifications were pored over by fans, and displayed with pride at press conferences. In the 80s through the early 2000s, as computational power advanced with the stunning rapidity of Moore’s Law, the capabilities of each machine were so important that console development was akin to an arms race measured in bits. Hardware, like the Nintendo 64, branded themselves with their technological prowess. But even within this easily discernible taxonomy, hardware manufacturers still sought to define themselves against the competition. For instance, the battle between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis found Sega touting their supposed “blast processor” technology in successful advertisements marketing the Genesis as faster and more bad ass. Nintendo responded with equally innocuous technological claims, such as the “FX chip,” stuffed somewhere inside the grey Starfox cartridge. A bit later, the PlayStation 2 received a lot of attention when Saddam Hussein stockpiled them in some supposed stunt to control missiles.
Game technologies, from consoles to cartridges, were sublime objects simultaneously mysterious, gorgeous, and perilous. Gamers loved them, Congress and family watchdog groups feared them, and the defense industry courted and funded developers. Nintendo, Sony, Sega, Microsoft, and many others profited off all of this fetishization; simple machines were transformed into boundless reality breaking experiences.
Given this climate, were used to press events orchestrated around the big reveal of both the machine’s design and its internal components. Apple is an obvious parallel here, and they continue to introduce new products this way in an almost entirely predictable fashion. While less standardized, we can expect Microsoft and Sony to follow suit, perhaps even as soon as next year’s E3 when their respective consoles are likely to be introduced.
Even as recently as 2004, with the debut of the Wii at E3, Nintendo adopted Apple’s minimalistic clean branding and sculpted a beautiful looking machine highlighted by the glowing blue disc drive. What it lacked in power, it made up for in sexiness. But the Wii U is entirely different. Certainly the branding remains, but the object itself, the console hardware, has been almost entirely invisible. During the press conference, many of my friends tweeted potential sightings of the Sasquatch-esque box buried in pre-recorded videos of gameplay. And while we can now see pictures of it, they are decidedly tame like a HD DVD drive.
The focus of the press conference, and on the press materials thus far released, has been the controller and the “interactive experiences” (read: tech demos) designed to show its possibilities. Nintendo is trying to shift our attention from processing to playing. We’re not meant to imagine the power of the machine, but the possibilities of invention. It’s not the content of the games and their brilliant graphics or sound that we’re imagining, but the act of play, and its augmentation of social space. We see ourselves, and our friends doing things.
With the Wii, and its Kinect and Move progeny, we’ve seen the videogame market expand, and the possibilities for play expanded beyond contemplation or digitally networked cooperation and competition to the pleasures of physical performance. We’ve seen games become differently sociable, leveraging the living room space in new ways. Wii U follows this trajectory, and in the process continues to weave a new fetish full of its own imaginings, not of the black box, but of the lively machine and its orchestration of social space.