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The Network
In Defense of the Friend Code

Anthony J Agnello | 22 Dec 2009 08:06
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The policy assumes, however, that the majority of young people playing Nintendo Wi-Fi-enabled games on the DS and Wii don't have experience playing online, which is naive to say the least. The Consumer Electronics Association found that, as of 2009, 78 percent of American males between the ages of 12 and 17 have played games online, in addition to 55 percent of females in the same age group. The statistics indicate that parents are more likely to be the ones lacking prior online gaming experience: Only 38 percent of adults aged 33 to 44 have played games online.

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Naive intentions or not, Friend Codes have achieved their intended purpose of limiting users' exposure to strangers. Unfortunately, they've done so by keeping the majority of players from using the service in the first place. As of October 2009, Nintendo reported that only 20 percent of Japanese DS users and 35 percent of Wii users play online. Though official statistics haven't been released by Nintendo of America, usage numbers in the U.S. are anecdotally not much higher.

But despite the barrier this system has erected between Nintendo owners and easy online gaming, Friend Codes have had one major success: They have, by way of inconveniencing players and forcing an added layer of human interaction typically absent from networked play, brought a guaranteed level of emotional engagement to online gaming that would otherwise be missing. Friend Codes may suck, but they make for more human, and potentially more meaningful, online experiences.

This is probably a foreign concept for many reading this right now. Chances are if you're a frequent visitor to The Escapist, you're comfortable playing games online with both friends and complete strangers. But Nintendo's fear-driven business policy is a recognition that not everyone plays videogames the same way as enthusiasts and industry members do. For many of the less hardcore players out there, gaming online isn't a foreign concept, but it can nonetheless feel cold and forbidding. Friend Codes end up circumventing some of the emotional detachment of online gaming just by forcing players to go out of their way to introduce themselves prior to play.

Whether people sit down in person to dig into their games and find the 12-digit numbers to pass along or meet up on websites devoted to the exchange of friend codes - relatively small communities like MapWii, friendcodes.com, DS-Play and many others - you still have to engage before you play. The labor involved in adding friends to each and every DS game you plan on playing online is a far cry from the ease and accessibility of dedicated console services like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live; even browser-based games like Club Penguin, which caters to an audience of 6- to 14-year-olds, prove more accessible.

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