Nintendo Wants Players to Look at Each Other Again

But will they want to?

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

A father and son stand facing one another, hands at their sides, five feet apart. Each holds a small Nintendo controller in his palm. Right now, that controller is a firearm. Later it will be a samurai sword, a ping-pong paddle, or a cow’s udder. The son looks at the large television to his left. “Don’t look at the TV,” a Nintendo employee says. “Look at him,” he says, gesturing to the son’s father. “Look into his eyes.”

The son, about 9 years old, looks up. His father towers over him, but the child’s gaze is steady. Each waits for the game’s single instruction. Dad’s mouth purses. Junior’s arm begins to shudder. The Nintendo employee’s bright red shirt is a looming sunset in the gunslingers’ periphery. Then: “Fire!”

The child flings his arm up and hits the trigger button on the controller’s undercarriage. The father, slow on the draw, brings up his arm but knows he’s too late. The TV shows two stand-in cowboys, real people dressed in Western regalia; the one on the right falls over, his knees buckling. The son was faster on this day. His dad clutches his chest in mock pain. The son laughs. His eyes are wide open.

* * *

Last week, Nintendo revealed their latest video-game console, the Nintendo Switch, which it will ship worldwide on March 3. The concept: a home system you can play anywhere. Plug the tablet-sized device into a TV to play traditional games on the couch. Then take the same device on the road, to play in the car, on a plane, or in the park on the console’s own 6-inch HD display. While tablets like the iPad or Kindle are all screen, the Switch comes with two detachable controllers that bookend the system. Slide them on and it becomes a handheld game machine. Slide them off and each becomes its own controller, allowing play with a friend. Fold out a kickstand from the back of the system to set it on a table, and both players can look at the screen on a desk or an airline tray-table.

But Nintendo hopes players look elsewhere. Not at their 4K televisions, or at the Switch’s display. They want people to play video games by looking directly into the eyes of another human.

During a live-streamed presentation in Tokyo, the company showed off the concept via a title called 1-2-Switch. The software asks the player to ignore the screen and focus on their opponent. Among the collection of challenges is “Quick Draw,” a Western-themed duel. At a media event the following day in Manhattan, I watched as that child shot his dad dead using fast reflexes, a steely glare, and a bit of imagination. But I didn’t understand why this might be appealing until I tried it myself.

I played against a local man I’d just met, named Ryan. Each of us held one of the two controllers—Nintendo is calling them “Joy-Cons,” and they feel like smaller, curvier Wii Remotes, controllers from a previous Nintendo console. Seconds after meeting this stranger we were staring deeply into each other’s eyes. I realized then I almost never play video games that make you look directly at your opponents. Actually, I rarely look directly at people at all for an extended period—let alone strangers. It was thrilling. We hammed it up. We sought dominance through arched eyebrows, found advantage in a widened iris or a furtive glance.

The software takes pains to distract from the screen. When “Quick Draw” begins, a deep-throated John Wayne soundalike calls out in a smooth drawl, “Face each other.” If you peek at the screen you’ll find it covered with a thick banner admonishing you in text: “Look each other in the eye!” And so you do. What it and the other games in 1-2-Switch require—speedy reactions for a duel, consistent timing in sound-based ping-pong, rhythmic squeezing while milking a cow—is almost secondary to the drama playing out under your opponent’s eyelids. Ryan’s eyes were intense, but playfully so. After each round the surrounding skin would crinkle; this was all a put-on, that rare chance to strike innocent fear in another through wide-eyed intimidation. 1-2-Switch is Wii Sports with Eye Contact.

If that sounds unappealing, consider the modest games of playgrounds and school buses. Blacktops are littered with kids testing their interpersonal boundaries under the guise of play. First one to blink loses. Two for flinching. “Honey if you love me.” Not to mention traditional, head-to-head sports like tennis, boxing, and judo. Facing one’s opponent isn’t new to games so much as to video games, which largely have remained moored to the screen.

* * *

But not entirely. Over the last decade, a series of experimental and independent game makers have tried to bridge the digital and physical worlds more seamlessly. Most of these titles are prototypes or art projects, shown as part of public exhibitions or featured at conferences like alt.ctrl.gdc, a sideshow of the annual Game Developer’s Conference. They often use bespoke controllers, like Frank DeMarco’s Planet Licker, in which players touch ice balls with their tongues to move an alien through space. But even that one requires a screen to view the cosmos.

One of the most successful screen-less games is Johann Sebastian Joust, by Die Gute Fabrik, a collective of developers out of Copenhagen and New York. The game uses PlayStation Move controllers—like a Wii Remote with a color-changing ping-pong ball on top—for an exercise in public trust. No screens are needed, just a group of willing participants. While listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, players attempt to jostle opponents’ controllers out of their hands while protecting their own. The speed of the music determines the controllers’ sensitivity, giving the match an ebb and flow of static anticipation and feverish mania. The result is a mix of mime, fencing, slap-fighting, musical chairs, and freeze-tag.

Douglas Wilson, one of Johann Sebastian Joust’s creators, tells me that losing the traditional visuals widened his audience: “Ditching the screen altogether is a nice trick for attracting a broader variety of players. I think that sometimes when non-gamers see graphics on a screen, they think: ‘Oh, video games. They aren’t for me.’”

Wilson’s insight helps explain Nintendo’s mass-market adoption of similar designs. Contra Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has attempted to attract the widest possible audience for years. They first used a touch-panel screen to offer simple one-tap gameplay on their 2004 DS handheld. Two years later, the Wii used motion control to enthrall kids and retirees alike. If Wilson is right, 1-2-Switch represents a refining of that philosophy down to the marrow.

Strange as it may seem for a video-game company, Nintendo has always been suspicious of the television. In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario and one of the most famous game developers in the world, spoke of this surprising animosity. “For many years I have said that traditional game systems are too reliant on the television,” Miyamoto said, adding, “or are even a parasite on the television.”

When Nintendo’s former president Satoru Iwata announced that the company would release software on smartphones for the first time, he reluctantly copped to that device’s popularity. “Smart devices have grown to become the window for so many people to personally connect with society,” Iwata said, calling it a “waste” not to use them for games. And use them they have: “Super Mario Run” has been downloaded more than 90 million times since its release on the App Store last month. But it’s easy to wonder if Nintendo’s heart isn’t really in smartphones. With the Switch, the company hopes to tap into another window. The one into our souls.

* * *

This is not a new development. For decades before Mario, Nintendo forged face-to-face connections between players, without any screens at all. Upon its founding in 1889, Nintendo was a playing-card company. These hanafuda cards were often used in gambling circles. More than the cards themselves, each game played out on the faces around the table. The new system clearly inherits this lineage.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Nintendo designed novelty toys, among them a “Light Telephone” that transported sound waves over beams of light. Once more, the two users had to be facing one another with nothing in between each light source. But it worked surprisingly well, enough that Popular Science wrote about the device in 1971, though it never reached the West.

In 1976, 30 years before the Wii, Nintendo released Custom Gunman. A plastic cowboy stood on a stand, holding his six-shooter out in front of him. Over his heart was a photovoltaic cell, normally used in solar panels. Its inventor, Gunpei Yokoi, used it as a target sensor. Fire the toy gun, and if the cell “sees” the light that shines from it, the sensor reacts and the cowboy’s articulated knees buckle, making him fall.

When Ryan and I pulled our Joy-Con triggers, it was as if that toy cowboy from long ago was finally getting his revenge. Now the bulls-eyes can fire back.

Not all of the games for Nintendo Switch will hinge on eye contact. Many are traditional video games played using joysticks and buttons while staring at a screen. But first impressions are important: That 1-2-Switch was the first game shown during Nintendo’s unveiling is telling of their motives. Instead of just building bigger and grander illusions through which to wander on-screen, they’re reminding us that magic happens in front of our eyes, all the time.

Behind the eyes of my opponent Ryan was an accumulation of memories and heartbreaks, triumphs and regret. It’s not that I could see them through a simple video game, but that I couldn’t deny that he was human and had lived. That is no small thing. Billions of dollars and thousands of hours have been spent trying to electronically fabricate what humans inherently possess. Nintendo is doing what they always do: use existing material in new ways. Yokoi, who invented many of Nintendo’s early toys and is credited with the creation of the Game Boy, called this philosophy “lateral thinking with seasoned technology.” Only this time, the players themselves are the technology.

* * *

Compare face-to-face play with the gaming industry’s latest trend: Virtual Reality. VR experiences require players to do the opposite: to cover their eyes with an opaque visor. Last year, the Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC, Facebook-owned Oculus, and Sony all released VR headsets to wide acclaim, millions of investment dollars—and lukewarm sales so far. All require expensive hardware and complex set-up. Certain games require flanking an entire room with light sensors. To some, the end result is stunning, a new form of immersive entertainment. Others have balked at the price, or felt motion-sick.

With the Switch, Nintendo is offering a very different proposition. The question is, will players be receptive to Nintendo’s more intimate requirements?

In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “all borders … seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: All that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” A television is one kind of frame. So is a smartphone-screen’s bezel. What happens when the frame is a human face?

Before stepping into my demo of 1-2-Switch, I felt some food stuck in my teeth. I went to dislodge the crumb but thought better of it; whatever was lodged between incisors might prove distracting to my opponent. Suddenly the mere sight of me held weight in a game world, precisely because that game’s world was also my own. That impression was empowering, but also disquieting. Why does staring into a stranger’s eyes feel so unnerving? Why do we instinctively look away? Most who play 1-2-Switch will likely gaze upon a friend or loved one. But maybe that’s worse. One role video games play is helping people avoid the awkwardness of face-to-face interaction, or to mediate that interaction through an external challenge. Do players really want to reveal their souls through games—or to see others revealed?

Nintendo is placing a risky bet. They are hoping consumers will be willing to shell out $299.99 (for the system) and $49.95 (for the game) for a chance to encounter their own frailties. Their last venture this bold, the 2006 Wii, moved in the opposite direction, minimizing players’ fragile physical esteem by giving them a shortcut to athletic prowess: Wiggle this wand to swing a sword or serve an ace. The result enjoyed a mass market enthusiasm no video-game system has seen prior or since, selling more than 100 million units worldwide.

But the company’s follow-up, the Wii U, has sold just over 13 million units, making it their lowest-selling home system ever. Nintendo needs a hit. Asking people to ignore their screens and stare at each other might not become that sensation. But Nintendo has surprised people before. Their imminent demise is predicted on a near-annual basis. Still, one can’t help but see Nintendo showing its own belly with the design of the Switch. Staring its own players down in order to uncover something about its long past and true nature. Will they accept the invitation to see it, or will they blink and glance away?