Why Nintendo Is (Probably) Sticking to Friend Codes

A couple weeks ago, Nintendo held an event in Japan to spin hype for the upcoming 3DS handheld system. The Nintendo World 2011 event featured the grand, public unveiling of the soon-to-be-released system to the Japanese public, with almost all of the launch titles playable. Check that link for event details, but it's what came after that's interesting.

One of the sad pieces of information to come out of the event is the rumor that the 3DS will continue to make use of friend codes for online play. It's still just speculation based on a translated report from Famitsu, but it makes all too much sense. While it may seem backwards to many American gamers who know and love Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, given what I know of Japanese culture, it’s not terribly surprising. What lies at the root of it all is the Japanese sense of public self and how it differs from the American equivalent.

Let me give an example. You have a Facebook account, right? Of course you do. My 86-year-old grandfather has a Facebook account, for god’s sake. Anyway, last week on Facebook one of my friends dropped the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” of swearing after our beloved Oregon Ducks lost the BCS National Championship to Auburn. The next day, she mentioned that masterpiece of cursing cost her 30 friends on Facebook. Her reaction and mine were both cavalier, thinking if those people couldn’t handle that sort of an outburst, they didn’t deserve to be her friend. That response is an incredibly American sense of individualism. Sure, I may not share everything I want on Facebook, but I feel confident in my sense of expression. Facebook also uses my real name and details, and it encourages everyone on the site to do the same.

But Facebook isn’t very popular in Japan. According to a recent New York Times article on the subject, there are only about two million Japanese Facebook users, fewer than two percent of all Japanese internet users. However, this doesn't mean that social media is unpopular in Japan in general. A crucial difference is that Japanese social media sites, namely Mixi, allow for anonymity and greater control over who sees what you post to the site. It’s more akin to a messageboard, where you have a pseudonym, than a social media site as we in the United States know it. This is also seen in the popularity of online site 2chan, the completely anonymous Japanese messageboard that inspired the nerd hive-mind of the western world, 4chan.

This preference for anonymous online media ties in to the Japanese sense of self and the difference between public opinions and personal thoughts. The two words are honne (本音), which means “real intention,” and tatemae (建前), which means “public position” or “face.” The idea of “face” is quite foreign to most Americans because we are so highly individualistic, but it’s vital in many other cultures. Japan is, like most Asian societies, based more on group consensus than the United States is; coming to an agreeable decision is more important than holding out your opinion. The popularity of certain fashions or items in countries like Japan or South Korea is fed by the need to fit in; if all of your friends have the same jacket, you need it, too. An American may likely view that as being just like everyone else, while a Japanese person may publicly consider it harmonious.

Having an anonymous social media site, then, is a way to show your innermost feelings without giving away who you are. In a world where even having your favorite hobbies publicly advertised is damning to public reputation, the lengths of privacy start to make sense — or, at least, are understood. Keeping that desire for privacy in mind, then, it can make a certain amount of sense why the Friend Codes began with the Wii and why they will most likely continue on 3DS. It’s another layer of privacy, and an example of how different some cultures can be when it comes to gaming.