But that labor creates a shared experience of searching for worthy competitors and collaborators that isn't too dissimilar to that of multiplayer arcade gaming. Online play, especially in MMOGs and squad-based FPSs, may attempt to recreate the emotional tenor of arcade matchmaking, but the sheer number of random players you encounter in these environments often flattens the social aspect of play. By forcing players to seek each other out rather than simply throwing them together, however, the experience once again feels personal.
Another noticeable byproduct of Nintendo's Wi-Fi service requiring friend registration for each individual game is that you often end up with dramatically shorter friend lists than those of any other service. A leaner friend list may mean slightly less variety in companionship and competition, but it also makes the experience of playing online more intimate. Instead of ending up with a friend list that's reached its maximum capacity after adding every single random person you've played Team Fortress 2 with on Xbox Live, your network is made up of people you know you are going to play those specific games with. Instead of being born of a handful of actual friends and a multitude of complete strangers met online, your community actually reflects the way you play your games. You pick and choose whom you will play with more carefully, all because it's less convenient to add them.
But the truth is that the Friend Code's merits are almost purely accidental. At no point in the development of Nintendo's Wi-Fi service did Satoru Iwata walk into a board room and loudly announce that Nintendo would finally bring online play to their systems by annoying the hell out of their player base.
The Friend Code was born of incompetence and an almost pathological corporate need to appear safe. But inside the random jumble of each 12-digit string, there is a lesson to be learned about the way people play games together. Online gaming services can occasionally seem too big, too daunting and too vast to feel real. Making players do extra work to play with or against one another isn't necessarily the answer, but the Friend Code's requirement of a would-be handshake prior to play is a good idea. It's the digital equivalent of heading to your local arcade, finding your favorite game and putting your quarter up on the screen. There is nothing easy or convenient about it, but when hear your teammate laugh or your opponent wail, you know it was worth the effort.
John Constantine is a freelance games journalist whose work has appeared in Play Magazine and on 1UP.com. He is the founder of 61 Frames Per Second and spends 70 percent of his waking life hoping Namco makes Klonoa 3.