Friend Codes are vintage Nintendo. They are jaw-droppingly stupid, a needless inconvenience for players looking to play a quick game of Mario Kart with their friends and a stark contrast to the simple, often casual games Nintendo has shackled them to. They’re indicative of a corporation accustomed to completely ignoring broad technological trends and one that has typically exhibited gross incompetence when it does hop on the bandwagon. Friend Codes aren’t even archaic – it was easier to get into the Essex MUD back in 1978, and that was the first networked game of any kind in history.
If you’re one of the many players out there who have never gone out of their way to game online with a Nintendo console, here’s how Friend Codes work: When you play a game with an online component on either a DS or Wii, the system generates a unique, 12-digit number specific to that console/game coupling. In order to maintain a list of friends to play the game with online, you must exchange these 12-digit numbers with each and every one of them. Meet someone in a random match and want to add them to your friend list? You still have to find a way to actually get their code. The Wii goes a step further by having codes for each individual system which users can exchange to send each other messages, trade Miis or gift games to one another.
This mishmash of registration techniques is Nintendo’s answer to Xbox Live and PSN accounts. It’s tiresome, convoluted and, considering Nintendo’s devices are generally marketed toward casual players, the opposite of user-friendly. But Friend Codes are also, like almost every other seemingly inane invention from the house that Miyamoto built, inspired.
Not in the way they were intended to be, of course.
Friend Codes were ostensibly created to suit the neuroses of two very different cultures with very different relationships to online media of any stripe. When Nintendo launched the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection in November 2005, the friend code was intended to both suit the Japanese gaming populace’s need for constant anonymity at the same time as it soothed the paranoia of Western parents. The inconvenience of exchanging codes meant Japanese players wouldn’t be bogged down by incessant friend requests from random players, and Westerners petrified of child predators and foul language would have a stout boundary between those hazards and any innocents playing Metroid Prime Hunters.
That has been the party line since the company announced the service in early 2005. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, begrudgingly admitting friend codes’ flaws, still stands by the Friend Code as an online-gaming prophylactic. “I don’t think friend codes are perfect,” he said in an interview in 2008. “However, if it’s an online world where you can get access to anybody without any restrictions, I as a father do not feel like allowing my daughter be engaged in that kind of world. In terms of the people who have never experienced online videogames before … we really want to assure the security and safety for them to do so.”
The policy assumes, however, that the majority of young people playing Nintendo Wi-Fi-enabled games on the DS and Wii don’t have experience playing online, which is naive to say the least. The Consumer Electronics Association found that, as of 2009, 78 percent of American males between the ages of 12 and 17 have played games online, in addition to 55 percent of females in the same age group. The statistics indicate that parents are more likely to be the ones lacking prior online gaming experience: Only 38 percent of adults aged 33 to 44 have played games online.
Naive intentions or not, Friend Codes have achieved their intended purpose of limiting users’ exposure to strangers. Unfortunately, they’ve done so by keeping the majority of players from using the service in the first place. As of October 2009, Nintendo reported that only 20 percent of Japanese DS users and 35 percent of Wii users play online. Though official statistics haven’t been released by Nintendo of America, usage numbers in the U.S. are anecdotally not much higher.
But despite the barrier this system has erected between Nintendo owners and easy online gaming, Friend Codes have had one major success: They have, by way of inconveniencing players and forcing an added layer of human interaction typically absent from networked play, brought a guaranteed level of emotional engagement to online gaming that would otherwise be missing. Friend Codes may suck, but they make for more human, and potentially more meaningful, online experiences.
This is probably a foreign concept for many reading this right now. Chances are if you’re a frequent visitor to The Escapist, you’re comfortable playing games online with both friends and complete strangers. But Nintendo’s fear-driven business policy is a recognition that not everyone plays videogames the same way as enthusiasts and industry members do. For many of the less hardcore players out there, gaming online isn’t a foreign concept, but it can nonetheless feel cold and forbidding. Friend Codes end up circumventing some of the emotional detachment of online gaming just by forcing players to go out of their way to introduce themselves prior to play.
Whether people sit down in person to dig into their games and find the 12-digit numbers to pass along or meet up on websites devoted to the exchange of friend codes – relatively small communities like MapWii, friendcodes.com, DS-Play and many others – you still have to engage before you play. The labor involved in adding friends to each and every DS game you plan on playing online is a far cry from the ease and accessibility of dedicated console services like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live; even browser-based games like Club Penguin, which caters to an audience of 6- to 14-year-olds, prove more accessible.
But that labor creates a shared experience of searching for worthy competitors and collaborators that isn’t too dissimilar to that of multiplayer arcade gaming. Online play, especially in MMOGs and squad-based FPSs, may attempt to recreate the emotional tenor of arcade matchmaking, but the sheer number of random players you encounter in these environments often flattens the social aspect of play. By forcing players to seek each other out rather than simply throwing them together, however, the experience once again feels personal.
Another noticeable byproduct of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi service requiring friend registration for each individual game is that you often end up with dramatically shorter friend lists than those of any other service. A leaner friend list may mean slightly less variety in companionship and competition, but it also makes the experience of playing online more intimate. Instead of ending up with a friend list that’s reached its maximum capacity after adding every single random person you’ve played Team Fortress 2 with on Xbox Live, your network is made up of people you know you are going to play those specific games with. Instead of being born of a handful of actual friends and a multitude of complete strangers met online, your community actually reflects the way you play your games. You pick and choose whom you will play with more carefully, all because it’s less convenient to add them.
But the truth is that the Friend Code’s merits are almost purely accidental. At no point in the development of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi service did Satoru Iwata walk into a board room and loudly announce that Nintendo would finally bring online play to their systems by annoying the hell out of their player base.
The Friend Code was born of incompetence and an almost pathological corporate need to appear safe. But inside the random jumble of each 12-digit string, there is a lesson to be learned about the way people play games together. Online gaming services can occasionally seem too big, too daunting and too vast to feel real. Making players do extra work to play with or against one another isn’t necessarily the answer, but the Friend Code’s requirement of a would-be handshake prior to play is a good idea. It’s the digital equivalent of heading to your local arcade, finding your favorite game and putting your quarter up on the screen. There is nothing easy or convenient about it, but when hear your teammate laugh or your opponent wail, you know it was worth the effort.
John Constantine is a freelance games journalist whose work has appeared in Play Magazine and on 1UP.com. He is the founder of 61 Frames Per Second and spends 70 percent of his waking life hoping Namco makes Klonoa 3.