Talking Point: Nintendo's Safe and Family-Friendly Focus is Integral to Its Fortunes

While heavy handed with Swapnote, providing a clean environment is crucial

Nintendo has made some interesting headlines recently here on Nintendo Life, as it's acted proactively to avoid potentially embarrassing issues with Nintendo Letter Box / Swapnote and the Japan-only (so far) Flipnote Studio 3D. The company disabled SpotPass communication options in Swapnote, and has also closed down the Friends Gallery in Flipnote Studio 3D in Japan; at the time of writing the paid-for and more public World Gallery is still active in the latter, meaning that in theory there's still hope that the app will make it to the West in some form.

The issues seems to ultimately derive from gamers exchanging Friend Codes online and then sending each other inappropriate content; in this case Swapnote photos have been highlighted as the main concern. Nintendo's stance is that it's looked at ways to close loopholes but came to the conclusion that shutting down functionality was the safest option, as made clear in the official statement announcing the decision.

Nintendo has been investigating ways of preventing this and determined it is best to stop the SpotPass feature of Swapnote because it allows direct exchange of photos and was actively misused.

This is a topic that's far from simple. To start in defence of these moves, it's important to recognise that if Nintendo loses its reputation for being the safe, clean gaming platform provider in the marketplace, much of its consumer base is irreparably lost. Many of the Nintendo Life staff and our community may have been gaming since the NES days — or even before — and accept that mature content can be part of gaming life. Yet, with the exception of some third-party games and — particularly — their online components, these concerns rarely manifest themselves when playing on a Wii U or 3DS. A look at the major releases on Nintendo systems this Holiday season, compared to rival platforms from Sony and Microsoft, tell you all you need to know about how family-friendly the big N's systems are.

And it's unsurprising that so many mature-rated multi-platform games barely sell any copies on Nintendo systems; large parts of the audience either don't want these games or get them for other platforms, and third-parties often produce flawed ports as the investment in Nintendo versions isn't worthwhile. It's a catch-22, but Nintendo's core audience consists, undeniably, of a significant percentage of families, children, and also gamers that are fans of the company and also enjoy the different range of content.

For that's the key with Nintendo systems — they serve unique and exclusive games that, with some exceptions, rarely have equivalents on other platforms; that colourful focus on entertaining games is a major part of Nintendo's unique selling point. For some older gamers — such as this writer — it can also be refreshing to fire up a platform knowing that playing games in a relaxed environment is seconds away. If you take major sellers and online games on various platforms — even in Wii U versions with voice chat, albeit less so — it doesn't take long for examples of homophobia, sexism and all sorts of prejudice to rear their ugly head. Online gaming can get out of control and be a cesspit of abuse in the worst situations; yet some still wonder why Nintendo often sticks to local multiplayer.

Yet Nintendo still has questions to answers and mistakes from which to learn. As we pointed out, the company isn't always diligent in dealing with inappropriate content, as we highlighted with explicit lyrics in Wii Karaoke U, and the handling of the Swapnote issue seems to be a decision of resources and practicality, as much as one focused on moral reasons. It was Nintendo that introduced the option to exchange photos in Swapnote, and it would be either naivety or sloppiness that would mean the thought of inappropriate photos being shared wasn't a possibility. Nintendo established the service and, as our very own lead moderator stated in a comments thread for one of the recent articles in question, it's the Kyoto company's responsibility to moderate and control issues. Nintendo's not alone in dropping the ball with these issues — problems of online bullying and controversial content have afflicted Facebook and Twitter in recent months — but that doesn't mean it's not culpable.

As the Wii Karaoke U example also shows, Nintendo will on occasion pass off the lack of ratings or responsibility of individual artists to absolve itself of responsibility. The situation, though perhaps comparable in terms of maintaining family friendly content in its apps, isn't quite the same for the singing app and Swapnote. We should be clear that it goes without saying that inappropriate exchanges of images between minors and adults is a serious — potentially criminal — issue, and that's clearly what's driven Nintendo's actions. Even if it is a tiny minority of users that are culpable, those kind of situations have to be dealt with.

The problem here is that Nintendo, for the time being, has seemingly taken the easy, inexpensive option. Rather than moderate content, release a mandatory update that disabled photo sharing and tackle the issue, it's hit the off switch. Again, issues of inappropriate images being exchanged is very serious, but Nintendo has punished the majority rather than fully take responsibility. Miiverse is a primary example in that it is moderated and, beyond drawings, the only images shared are those from within games. It is possible to control a social platform and keep it reasonably clean, but in this case the simplest option has been chosen.

So we have a contradiction. Nintendo has seen a problem and stopped it happening, which is a positive. Yet it's done so in a heavy-handed, sweeping manner that punished millions of 3DS owners, which is thoroughly disappointing. Whether Nintendo is simply resistant to spending money on moderators or applying resources to amend Swapnote is for the company to know and, hopefully, explain, but as exchanging photos and inappropriate content was due to the app's design, surely changes can be made to allow us to send messages to friends through an online connection while securing the moral compass of the service. Perhaps that will come in the future.

Yet Nintendo's desire to preserve its family-friendly policies shouldn't surprise anyone, and despite the flaws of its actions this week it's vital it continues to do so. Nintendo stands apart from Sony and Microsoft in its general approach to these issues, for better and worse, and as a result forges its own separate path. For gamers that primarily desire major multi-platform games and those triple-A hits with an 18 rating, rival platforms are the port of call. Parts of that audience may own a Nintendo system as well, but single-system gamers in that demographic are long gone for the big N.

And so franchises, such as Super Mario, Mario Kart, Smash Bros., Animal Crossing and Pokémon are the front-runners for Nintendo; all family friendly and accessible — yes, even Smash Bros. is easy for anyone to play.

What we'd hope recent events — and the backlash — will teach Nintendo is that it does have loyal supporters that enjoy the options to communicate with each other, and don't appreciate over-caution scuppering such apps. Miiverse is a wonderful part of the Wii U and Nintendo's made it work, so whether through an updated Swapnote in future or in the promised portable version of the bespoke social network, the company must combine its caution and dedication to safe gaming with features that we, as gamers in 2013, expect. The responsibility for maintaining the safety of its platforms is Nintendo's, and it should ensure it serves the majority and punishes the minority.

Perhaps Miiverse on 3DS will be the answer.

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