Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole examines corporateled creativity in Labo and Lego
Asign of the conservative nature of the videogame industry is that the most exciting announcement in ages was that of Nintendo Labo. Going back to its roots as a manufacturer of playing cards, Nintendo unveiled a set of cardboard-andstring peripheral kits for the Switch that turn the console into a tiny honky-tonk piano, an extendable fishing rod, a remote-controlled car, and even a kind of exoskeleton for controlling an in-game giant robot.
There is more fun new thinking here, evidently, than in scores of brown-and-green thirdperson climbing-and-face-shooting simulators. Shares in Nintendo soared by $1.4 billion on the announcement. Some commentators looked askance at the prices of the kits (£60 to £70), and wondered exactly how long a cardboard peripheral would last in the hands of an enthusiastic child or drunken adult. (Nintendo says it will offer replacement cardboard bits.) But there’s no gainsaying the fact that this is a bright new idea. The videogame console (as well as the smartphone) was already in a way a universal toy, but the physicality of the ToyCons is very appealing. Flat screens by themselves are so over: the cutting edge now seems to be to go totally virtual (PSVR), or actually tangible.
A deeper criticism of Labo, though, would be that it represents a wider social trend: the corporate appropriation and perversion of the ideals of creativity. The Nintendo ad goes big on the word ‘Make’, but this isn’t really making; it’s just assembly. You fold the cardboard one way according to the instructions and get one predesigned thing. In the same way I did not really ‘make’ my Ikea bookshelves. The very name ‘Labo’ implies a space for creative exploration, but the only creative input the customer is afforded into these devices is decoration of the finished object. “Nintendo Labo invites anyone with a creative mind and a playful heart to make, play and discover in new ways with Nintendo Switch,” said Nintendo Europe head Satoru Shibata, which is a nice sentiment, but it basically amounts to just colouring in.
The same, naturally, is true of modern Lego sets that are designed to become one particular thing. When I helped my nephew build his elaborate Batwing over Christmas, we had a lot of fun, but we never had any choice about which tiny plastic part to put where. The experience was less like ‘making’ something and more like putting together an extremely elaborate piece of flat-pack furniture for a very tiny person’s garage.
The trouble with complaining about all this, though, is that it is to deny the fact that, most of the time, this is all we want. It’s so exhausting and stressful to be creative. Of course you can still buy sets of Lego that are general construction kits with which you can build any old random nonsense, but the popularity of the predesigned kits tells us something true about ourselves. Most of the time we want to be entertained, not to make our own entertainment.
So the fact that you have to assemble your Nintendo cardboard toy or your Lego batwing yourself is a kind of homeopathic dose of agency to make the act of consumption feel more noble. It is placebo creativity, just as choosing actions in a videogame with branching storylines is placebo creativity: even as we drive the game’s narrative engine down one path rather than another, we still want to be shown how the story will turn out, not write it ourselves. As music geeks will recognise, an analogous temptation is built into every new synthesizer or guitar effects unit: these are tremendously powerful tools for you to sculpt your own unique sound, but many people, terrorised by infinite possibility, just stick to the presets. (At least in this context you’re still kind of forced to be creative when you actually start playing the instrument.)
So the commercial invitation to ‘make’ something that has, to all intents and purposes, already been made, is one modern solution to the paradox of choice. As psychologists have shown, too many options don’t make us happy in our freedom; they make us freeze up in indecision and terror of choosing the wrong thing. In this sense, we are all like Buridan’s ass, the poor animal in the medieval thought experiment that found itself standing equidistant from two bales of hay, and being unable to choose between them eventually starved to death. Compared to which prospect, the existence of elaborate cardboard peripherals for videogame consoles seems rather a small price to pay.
The Nintendo ad goes big on the word ‘Make’, but this isn’t really making; it’s just assembly
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net