Interview on Codename Revolution and Wii U

Our interview about the Wii and Wii U just appeared on Fast Company’s co.create website. It was good timing. This week’s Nintendo news out of E3 has been underwhelming for some journalists. Overall, the Wii U is just a less emotionally compelling design than the Wii was back in 2006, harder to grasp in an instant. But we found that Mr. Iwata’s pre-conference video and the press conferences confirmed much of what we said in Codename Revolution about the direction the new system represents as a successor to the Wii. In the book, we cited Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1) and suggested the Wii was designed to address the problem of isolation through a very Nintendo kind of retro-innovation, by using motion control to turn the living room into a mixed-reality gamespace. Our icon for this design goal was the coffee table that signifies this old-school social gaming in shared physical space. This week’s Iwata video cited Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together on the isolating tendencies of today’s technology, showing an slide with an image of a family sitting in a circle in the living room, all engrossed in their separate devices and screens, while Mr. Iwata said the goal of Wii U would be to counteract that tendency, to bring people together in local social interactions–to make the living room a better place, a physical space, for social interaction.

“Together better” is the lame slogan, but the goal is actually concretely tactical: to undermine the TV’s tendency to monopolize its space, instead distributing gaming and viewing and control among a constellation of devices, including especially the new tablet-like touchscreen control pad. Someone can use it as a personal handheld console while someone else uses the main console and TV (or just watches TV), it can serve as a touchscreen remote for the TV, and videos on the handheld can be “flicked” to the TV to share with everyone in the room. (There’s even a theatrical curtain animation that allows you to cue up a video, send it to the big screen, then open the curtain to reveal it.) New game designs are planned that make use of the tablet controller for “asymmetrical” play–one player as the ghost chasing everyone else in the room (they’re using Wiimotes), or a karaoke game that allows you to face the room when you sing, reading lyrics off the tablet, while others match dance moves on the big screen behind you and sign along at the right moments. There’s a new emphasis for Nintendo on online interactions in the “Miiverse,” though it’s still no Xbox Live. (One story out today revealed a plan for live screening of chat posts by Nintendo employees to keep the Miiverse family friendly. The result, reportedly, might be a 30-minute lag.) But, aside from recapturing some core gamers (demos were heavy on AAA titles and there’s even an Xbox-style gamepad with all the buttons), the real heart of the system would seem to be an extension of the design goal of the Wii, the deliberate use of the system as a constellation of devices for reconfiguring the living room as a mixed-reality possibility space, a space for digital and physical social gaming.

Codename Revolution podcast (and a new project)

The MIT Press’s monthly podcast series featured our book Codename Revolution for February. Chris Gondek of Heron & Crane Productions interviewed my co-author, George Thiruvathukal, and me over the phone.  Chris was in an Oregon Public Broadcasting studio, I was in my English department office, and George was in the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities across campus, so there was something of a conference call feeling to the experience. (Once I was interviewed by Scott Simon for NPR; he was in D.C. and I was in a Chicago Public Radio studio, but there was at least a technician in the room with me.)  Despite that, the interview was fun, and Chris did a really good job of producing it to reflect the conversation we had in real time.

When I saw the link on the MIT Press podcast page I noticed we were preceded in January by B. Coleman. I took it as a sign, since I’m reading and enjoying her book, Hello Avatar, now as I research my own next book in progress:  The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. Coleman’s concept of  an “‘X-reality’ that traverses the virtual and the real” (3) is consonant with Katherine Hayles’s idea that mixed reality is the current, fourth stage in the history of cybernetics, and with William Gibson’s exploration in his most recent trilogy of the idea that cyberspace is everting, turning inside out and colonizing the physical world. I can’t help but notice that the recent rise of the digital humanities–at least its emergence into public consciousness and a new presence in the academy–has roughly coincided with this eversion of cyberspace, a shift in our collective understanding of the network: from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to a ubiquitous grid of data that we move through every day. It’s not really a coincidence, I think. Digital humanities, in its newly prominent forms, is both a response to and a contributing cause of the wider eversion, and that’s the connection my book will explore.