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It Mii: The Rise and Fall of Miitomo

Nintendo's first foray into social networking is a nostalgic failure.


When I got my purple GameBoy Color in 1998, the feature I was most excited about was the little black infrared port on the top right corner. Certain games, like Pokémon Gold/Silver, let you match the port on your GameBoy with the one on a friend’s so you could trade items—supposedly, because it rarely worked. To me, it seemed like an exercise in social futility. Here we were, my friend and I, spending recess trying to line up our GameBoys exactly right instead of just hanging out with each other. But those few times we got it to work, we felt, for a moment, a complete, blissful nerdiness. (Which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t worth the pain.) That was cool! we’d shout together, watching new items appearing on our GameBoys.

Courtesy of the author

Nintendo’s newest venture, Miitomo—both a social network and the company’s first app for iOS—feels much the same. Since its release, Miitomo has reached more than 3 million users and quickly became the top free app in Apple’s app store. In Miitomo, you make a Mii (pronounced “me”), Nintendo’s version of personalized 3-D avatar, which were pioneered in the Wii and 3DS consoles. Your Mii can look as much or as little like you as you want. After that you exist in a room, sometimes with your friends, answering and asking computer-generated questions. Doing so helps you to gain coins, tickets, and candy, which allow you to purchase things at the Mii clothing shop and to play a fun pachinko-type game. There is no direct chat function: Instead, as Nintendo describes it, you use your Mii as a “social go-between”—your Mii talks to your friend’s Mii who talks to your friend. It’s a bit like passing notes through an infrared port; it looks and feels like a combination of taking an online survey and pressing through a video game’s NPC dialogue. 

Which is all to say: If you’re trying to fulfill any normal social function, in a way Nintendo did not explicitly build into the game, Miitomo is frustratingly difficult to navigate. (Quartz calls it a “Kafkaesque exercise in madness.”) Despite this, Miitomo has fostered innovative ways to interact. To add friends, you either have to connect through Twitter, Facebook, face-to-face, or through mutual friends—which means that you presumably already know your Miitomo friends in some way. These are the only people you can interact with—as in real life, you can’t just walk into a stranger’s house and talk to whomever’s inside. It defies the prevailing norm of most social platforms, where interacting with (and tearing down) strangers is often the name of the game. Take Twitter, which rewards conflict; Yik Yak, whose anonymity promotes harassment; and Reddit, whose forums are rife with hate speech. Maybe it’s because Miitomo is structurally a more intimate friendship network—or maybe because you’re projected through a caricatured representation of yourself—but the app seems to promote constructive interactions instead of negative ones. Users poke fun at the computer’s questions rather than each other and there’s no fear that your answers will be retweeted to 100,000 followers with the comment, “this is dumb af.” Honestly, no one really cares what you have to say at all, aside from the people you’re already friends with. And your Miitomo friends are probably your nerdier ones; in my case, they played Pokémon growing up and have screenshots of their best Neko Atsume cats saved to their camera rolls. I have a theory that this encourages Miitomo users to be as stupid and obscurely referential as they want. 

Courtesy of the author

Some questions the app might ask: What did you do last weekend? What would be the worst job in the world if you had to wear roller skates all day? Do you believe in aliens? 

Unlike Nintendo’s other social offerings, there seem to be very few constraints on what you are allowed to say on Miitomo. (The only time I got a warning message for unsavory language was when I tried to make the app pronounce my name as “Oh shit truuu.”) It feels less like a space for kids and more like a territory for Twitter jokes and former Something Awful users. The best jokes—which distinguish the best jokers—come from Miitomo’s Miifoto function. Undoubtedly the highlight of the app, Miifoto allows you to throw your Mii onto any picture on your phone. It’s the newest frontier for the dumb-genius netizens.

Miitomo’s sudden popularity probably has much to do with this function: There is surprisingly little already out there that lets you do what you can with Miifoto. It’s basically an infinitely customizable emoji that carries your own distinct imprint—your Mii. I’ve spent hours making them and snickering to myself before sharing them with my friends, who will definitely, probably, get the joke. I don’t use the app for communication, but creative collusion. It’s an escape from the all-too-public and judgmental universe of Twitter and from Facebook’s drudgery.   

But even within the first month, I find myself opening up Miitomo less and less. The jokes have gotten old, and I have run out of funny photos of the fat cat that I live with to post on Miifoto. I suspect this is true of many of Miitomo users: Unless Nintendo comes up with more features and functionality (although it seems they will soon turn their attention towards the release of new apps), it’s unlikely that Miitomo’s popularity will persist. At the time of this writing, a month or so after its release, the app has already slipped to 67th on Apple’s free app chart. It’s right behind Tinder, another social-connection app that seems past its prime.  

Anyway, as many have pointed out, Miitomo was probably created just so that Nintendo can mine our data. If that’s true, the app’s limited functionality may just be Nintendo’s way-too-real parody of a social network. It’s like they’re saying, “Ha ha! Socialization online is futile and dumb. But we will take your data anyways.” Or maybe they really are just that bad at social apps. Either way, my guess is that the Miitomo fad will fade quickly. Today, my GameBoy sits in a drawer somewhere, quietly leaking acid from its defunct batteries. Most likely, my Miitomo app will soon face the twenty-first century equivalent. It will eventually move into my iPhone’s graveyard—the folder that houses Compass and Stocks.