On Sunday, a new co-worker wearing a pair of cat ears dropped by to say hello. I would have liked to offer her a drink, but I had nothing on-hand. And though I wanted to introduce her to my cat, he was nowhere in sight. In any case, she stayed for only a few minutes chatting amiably about the latest installment in the Fire Emblem series and Galaxy Quest. Before I could respond in kind, she turned and walked out the door.
To be clear, my co-worker hadn’t visited my Washington, D.C., row home—to the best of my knowledge, she doesn’t even know where I live. Instead, she—or her digital double—had come to my spare, virtual apartment in Miitomo, Nintendo’s first app for smartphones. Released last Thursday, Miitomo almost immediately accumulated millions of downloads. Despite that, it’s still not entirely clear what it is, prompting guides for the perplexed and celebrations of its weirdness.
At its core, Miitomo is a social media experience that offers a disquieting prophecy of social networking’s future, one in which we largely cede the actual labor of interacting with other people to the networks themselves. Miitomo’s world is one in which connection and communication happen according to the dictates of algorithms that are largely obscure to us. In this regard, it intensifies what Facebook and its kin are already doing, making the increasingly structured quality of online interactions all the more visible in the process.
Here’s the bare-bones version of how it works: When you boot the app up for the first time, you’ll be prompted to create a cartoonish avatar, a “Mii” in the parlance that Nintendo has been using since 2006. You then seek out friends, either by physically pairing your phones or by connecting Miitomo to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you want to show off to these acquaintances, you can dress your Mii up in clothes purchased with in-app coins or won from a barely interactive set of pachinko machines. Though you can pass on this sartorial element if you choose, showy self-presentation is central to the app’s appeal, a fact that becomes clearer the longer you engage with it.
If this really were a game—and many will tell you that it’s not, despite its corporate provenance—it might be retitled 20 Million Questions. Most of your actual time will be spent answering queries about yourself from your Mii: “What’s your favorite food?” it will ask, only to announce that it loves the same delicacies. “What outfit would you never be able to pull off?” it will inquire, only to bemoan its similar stylistic limits. Regardless of what or how you answer, your Mii will obligingly share these revelations with your in-app pals while also reporting back on their own responses.
Significantly, these requests arrive without context or explanation. They appear to manifest at the whims of the app’s designers instead of emerging from your actual interactions. Likewise, you have little control over which of your friends’ remarks make their way back to you, especially as you acquire more acquaintances. These features lend the proceedings a slightly dreamlike tenor since your interactions are unshackled from the ordinary laws of social causality. Reviewing the app in Quartz, Mike Murphy attributes a Kafkaesque quality to it thanks to the simultaneously structured and arbitrary quality of its world. By contrast, however, Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin describes it as a “generally pleasurable social media platform” since it offers a “constructive rather than destructive” way to “learn about others.”
Parkin’s focus on the app’s social qualities is apt, but if Miitomo isn’t quite a game, it still draws on principles of gameification, complementing our hunger for likes and faves with token gifts of in-game coins when you answer questions or listen to your friends’ own replies. (If you want to purchase any of the big-ticket items such as a bear or pirate costume, however, you’ll probably have to plunk down real-world money.) Miitomo shares something with passive “games,” such as the cat-collecting sim Neko Atsume, except that here you’re gathering facts about your friends instead of the favor of strays. Like those apps, this is the outer limit of gaming, a candy-colored illusion of play with few real opportunities for playfulness.
In the long term, social media is probably secondary to Nintendo’s true goals for Miitomo. Known for its consoles and handheld devices, Nintendo seems to be trying to create a new platform through which we can access its signature branded characters and games. There’s a hint to this in one of the first costume rewards that the game offers to diligent players: Mario’s iconic red cap. As Miitomo develops, it’ll likely become more of a hub, a launching pad for other games and titles.
If that works, however, it’ll be because Nintendo understands social media so well. Even in these confusing, early days of the app’s lifecycle, Miitomo functions smoothly. Stuff praises the app’s social prompts, since “you don’t have to actively think of things to post,” going on to observe that your answers can spark real conversations—you can reply to or “heart” your friends’ own comments, much as you might to a Facebook post. In fact, the game even incentivizes dialogue by rewarding users who answer questions in ways that spawn multiple responses from their friends.
Miitomo’s world is good-natured, then, but that’s not to say everything’s sanitized: You can get weird in Miitomo, and many already have, using the in-app selfie tool to create bizarre—and sometimes borderline pornographic—images. There’s also little to stop you from swearing or otherwise going off the rails in your answers to the app’s questions. As Jonathan Ore writes in his CBC review, “Miitomo is only as work-safe as you and your friends make it.”
Image hacking and filthy-mouthed Miis shock primarily because they so clearly violate what Nintendo is going for with its cutesy art style and congenial ethos. But these small revolutions are still happening on Nintendo’s terms—and in performatively pushing at the app’s limits, they arguably substantiate them. Though you can write whatever you want in response to a question, you’re still stuck with the framing that Nintendo furnishes, and that framing almost exclusively revolves around the things that we want or enjoy. Where other social networks have long shaped how we express our feelings—and perhaps even how we feel—Miitomo funnels us even more directly toward a fixation on our own desires. Any freedom that we find while under its spell is largely circumstantial.
The most immediate consequence of that condition is the way it shuts the rest of the world out. Facebook has tried to keep users on site with instant articles and live videos, but Miitomo simply makes users themselves into news, keeping us coming back by looping us into a circuit of benign gossip. Even when the app asks about current events, it encourages you to discuss them without the benefit of outgoing links or other external points of reference. It would be challenging, for example, to meaningfully discuss the case of Alison Rapp, an employee of Nintendo who was dismissed for still-unclear reasons after months of GamerGate-related harassment. That difficulty’s not a consequence of outright censorship so much as a result of the app’s algorithmic eccentricity and emphasis on icebreakers.
This is the crux of the matter: Though it promises to provide information about your friends, Miitomo is the endpoint of social media’s most narcissistic trajectory. Even when it asks who or what you’re thinking about, it’s still asking about you—about your interests and concerns—and not about the world you occupy. Its defenders will argue that it’s just meant for entertainment, offering a respite from the argumentative bluster of other social networks. But if it entertains, it does so by letting us hold up a quirky mirror to ourselves. Maybe, then, Miitomo is a game after all, but if so, we’re the ones getting played.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.