Trig­ger Happy

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.steven­

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