By Neil Merrett
There was a time, which now seems eons or at least one lifetime ago, when defining what a videogame was or could be was a simple affair.
Yet the last seven days have arguably complicated the notion of what a game actually is. We have had the emerging culture of professional gaming teams that are having to face up to a host of pesky real world sporting considerations around prejudice, equality and snazzy merchandise.
At the same time, Nintendo promised a mysterious new announcement on the future for its Switch console that led to speculation among the ravenous hordes of gamers about how the company would try to steal the march on more powerful rival hardware on the market. The answer was quite literally cardboard.
And so it was that the Nintendo Labo was unveiled to the world. You’d be forgiven for thinking the world’s most iconic manufacturer of video games was making an ironic statement on the sometimes impossible expectations of gamers and technology nerds.
Five seconds into their shiny promotional video and the collective internet must no doubt have thought what could be in the Nintendo Labo box, before realising the concept was itself the box. How then could a collection of cardboard pieces that you can push out, assemble and then colour in be a videogame?
Was Labo a statement on our so-called post-fact world having gone too far, or a high concept parody of modern marketing? Perhaps it was an attempt to restore a perceived loss of childhood wonder in adults. The answer may in fact be a mixture of all three.
After all, if you could convince a child that a simple log is a hit new toy and they will probably find something to do with it.
As a concept, Labo appears to be a very 2018 innovation that combines crafting, design and digital apps – whether it succeeds or not is another question.
Labo is a so far two sets of cardboard kits that can be built and customized between children and parents, or perhaps a group of grown people, in order to create new peripherals and ways of playing games on the Switch.
By plugging in the console or its controllers into these kits, the player is able to build a functioning digital fishing rod or piano. The most expensive launch option, valued at £70, appears to create a rudimentary robotic exoskeleton and VR helmet made of cardboard and string pulleys that can literally be worn by the player.
The aim, at this very early stag,e seems to be to build the sets that function as either traditional videogames, or to build models and devices that can be manipulated via the console itself as a form of high-end remote control.
According to Nintendo, part of the Labo’s remit will be to encourage players to think creatively on how to use the new sets, though it remains to be seen how versatile they are for wider experimentation. Part of the thrill could be in watching how the wider world hacks and builds devices and concepts well beyond Nintendo’s own vision.
It was fair to say that few could have predicted what Nintendo’s latest gambit was in advance.
The internet, as ever, provided a number of different views on how successful Nintendo’s smart cardboard concept might be.
Opinions ranged from it being a bold attempt to meet wider concerns about getting young people into engineering and science and engage with others, to the company having a surplus of boxes left over from unsold models of its Wii U console.
All the unsold Wii U boxes being repurposed for Labo is an excellent idea.
— Kevin Carreiro (@Tenkay23) January 17, 2018
Yet people were nonetheless embracing the more playful nature of Labo. whether or not they would wish to part with their hard earned cash for a cardboard technology demo.
Nintendo Labo looks wonderful. However, I wish it cost less. Perhaps with the digital side of things being a download only? I’d pay $20 for just the cardboard. https://t.co/MBM7wzkP6y
— Matthew Bogart (@MatthewBogart) January 19, 2018
@YongYea And yet nothing on the fact that Nintendo’s new upcoming Labo is over priced cardboard. Toy Con 1 cost $70, and Toy Con 2 Robot cost & $80, with there stencil set costing &10, making them all cost $160. So your paying $160 for two Demo games.
— John Bane (@JohnBane3) January 19, 2018
I’ve worked with middle schoolers doing similar STEM projects where iOS was the platform, and the kits we used had buggy software, cheap parts, and less functionality but still cost just a little less than the Labo kits. If Labo is well polished, Nintendo could lead the space.
— John 🐺🌹 (@blues_turn_gold) January 19, 2018
What the journalists thought
Eurogamer claimed Labo’s cardboard concept was a surprising reveal in keeping with the makeshift DIY visual approach of French Filmmaker Michel Gondry, whose 2008 film ‘Be Kind Rewind’ imagined a similar cardboard approach to remaking blockbuster movies.
Aoife Wilson was extremely positive about the overall concept, describing it as well in keeping with Nintendo’s broader approach to innovate games beyond traditional perceptions of hardware and software.
However, Polygon’s Emily Heller was a lot more critical, noting a mixed reaction to the technology online. Heller argued that the company was behind the curb of an emerging trend for toys with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focus.
She wrote, “Some parents are (understandably) thrilled at the idea of a fun project they can work on with their kids while others are (also understandably) sceptical about buying what is essentially a $70 piece of cardboard.”
Heller added that existing build-and-play toys on the market were designed to stealthily encourage more educational play among children and were often made with sturdier materials then cardboard.
She said. “ Labo is just another toy in a long line of toys that might sneakily teach your kids engineering skills without them realising it.”
“Nintendo has the advantage of already being a beloved property for both kids and parents — other toy companies have developed partnerships with similarly kid-favourite brands like Minecraft and Star Wars to trick and encourage kids to learn about coding.”
Writing from the perspective of a father, Matthew Razak for Destructoid argued that Labo appeared to serve as a blending of the physical, cooperative appeal of constructing toys such as Lego, albeit with the immersive appeal of videogames.
He said, “Kids need to play. Please don’t take this to mean that I’m saying that video games aren’t good for kids or they teach children to be mass murderers. I grew up on gaming, and believe that educated parents allowing their children to play age-appropriate games can lead to some incredible family time, education, and just plain fun.”
“But actual physical play is also insanely important for kids, both mentally and physically. Kids learn through play, and they learn more through play that’s engaging, whether that be running around outside or putting together a craft.”
Razak saw the development as a further attempt to broaden the appeal and scope of gaming, without compromising the inherent appeal of the medium.
In an age where huge global communities use Minecraft as a creative or education tool to teach concepts or architecture, maths or society, Labo is pointing to a world where the concept of videogames are further integrated in to our broader lives.
Were another example of this needed, there may be no better example than gaming – for a select few – becoming a profession as well as a pastime.
A league of their own
This month saw the launch of the inaugural season of a competitive league based on Blizzard’s multiplayer online team game Overwatch. In it, specially built teams from around the world will compete in streamed and televised matches for the next six months to decide a kind of world champion with prizes and prestige, at least in certain corners of the internet.
Twelve teams including London Spitfire, Seoul Dynasty and the Los Angeles Gladiators will engage in competitive matches for the next few months in a league that will closely mirror real world professional sports teams with spectators urged to pick a side and buy their lucrative merchandise.
Covering the formal launch for the Washington Post, Avi Selk noted that the launch of an official branded league focused on a hugely popular videogame with specially chosen players all adorned in their own colours highlighted the emergence of a new kind of professional sport.
Selk said it was yet to be seen whether it could become a “respectable sport” despite a growing number of significant prizes available to the best players of key titles.
He said, “Fans of Overwatch, a hugely popular team-based game released in 2016, couldn’t have hoped for a better start to its inaugural tournament.”
“A reported 10 million people streamed the opening games, when teams from around the world gathered inside Blizzard Arena in California to play — essentially — an elaborate variation of capture the flag. They played on computers, yes, but with all the strategy, skill and speed of prizefighters.”
E-Sports News UK. a title set up to cover competitive videogames in the way newspapers and fanzines are developed to look at all aspects of traditional sports, saw a number of parallels between the Overwatch League and real life spectator sports.
The publication noted, “There has been some criticism around the so-called global league being very focused on the US and teams not having seemingly a lot to do with each region, i.e. London Spitfire fields an all-Korean roster of players (which, let’s face it, isn’t unlike football and its focus on international players regardless of club).”
An audience of reportedly 350,000 caught the initial night’s league matches, broadcast from a specially constructed studio arena in the US, on the streaming service Twitch alone.
With months to go until championship playoffs that will determine the overall winner of this first season, it will be interesting to see how an audience and spectator culture may develop for online games.
However, ambitions to create a gaming league that can match football or the Superbowl as spectator sports in terms of revenues and worldwide audience have already created real world issues.
“It’s in the game”
Writing for Engadget, Jon Fingas reported that controversies were already arising after the Dallas Fuel team had to suspend its player Felix “xQc” Lengyel over a homophobic insult against another team’s player.
Austin “muma” Wilmot, an openly gay player who is part of the Houston Outlaws had reportedly used one of Lengyel’s own lines in response to a victory over his team. Lengyel that reportedly hit back with language deemed to be homophobic in nature and intent online.
Fingas wrote, “The League initially suspended Lengyel for four matches and fined him $2,000. Fuel, however, followed by suspending him for the rest of Stage 1, which ends on February 10.”
“He’ll also receive ‘additional resources, focus coaching, physical training and support’ to help reflect the principles of the team and the league at large.”
A very real world sporting response to a real world controversy.
Some critics have also queried why, considering the unique nature of e-sports as a competitive form of simulation, that the Overwatch League was so far all-male in terms of its participants.
Writing in Polygon, Ashley Oh said that although women had competed and been part of a previous Overwatch World Cup and have huge audiences when streaming competitive matches, they were absent from the league.
She wrote, “A growing industry like E-sports has room to stretch its legs — but right now, it’s a boys’ club. And the solution isn’t creating a similar, separate girls’ club to level the playing field. The solution is to get women in the same arena, right alongside the men.”
“But you have to begin work at the bottom before you can fix what’s going on at the top.”
Oh pointed to the issue of abuse within gaming communities as creating an environment for some female talented players where the biggest challenge in making teams was not their skills, but the ability to deal with hostile personal attacks.
She added, “If there is any game that can shatter E-sports’ glass ceiling, it’s Overwatch. Blizzard prides itself on Overwatch’s rich, inclusive cast of characters. With a world full of people (and omnics) from such different backgrounds, it would only be natural for us to see more diversity among the pros too.”
“That is to say, it’s not all on Blizzard, the athletes, or the OWL itself. It’s an entire culture that needs to shift. But the Overwatch League is still new, and I believe it has a great potential to change things for the entire competitive space. I don’t doubt that its teams and players can do it — the sentiment is there.”
And so it comes to pass that in aiming to create a real-world sport from a hugely popular digital pursuit, Blizzard faces some very real world problems to be overcome.
What makes a videogame? Now that’s a complicated question.