Miitomo, Nintendo’s sophisticated new smartphone app, is a hybrid of free-to-play game and social network. By combining aspects of each, it becomes a disarming information gathering project. On its face, it makes a game of asking trivia questions about your friends and shares the answers with you. Under the surface, it uses the framing and rewards structure of a free-to-play game to encourage you to expose personal information to as many people as possible. I worry that Miitomo makes eroding your privacy into a game.
Miitomo is built around icebreaker questions. “What’s the best thing about cats?” is one of the first questions every user gets. A question I saw early on was “What do you do to relieve stress?” Many of the questions are silly conversation starters: “If you could travel through time, where and when would you go first?”
Your friends see a random selection of the questions you choose to answer, and they can like or comment on your answers. Unlike most social media networks, however, all of the discussion on Miitomo is on Nintendo’s terms. There’s no way to post anything but a direct answer to one of Miitomo’s specific prompts and no way to see what your friends have posted in chronological order. You can defy this structure by giving nonsense answers and posting those to social media, but Miitomo pays you a tangible currency to keep answering.
While most social media networks rely on a positive feedback loop of likes and reblogs to keep people hooked on their service, Miitomo goes a step further. You get coins and prize tickets for adding friends, answering questions, replying to your friends’ answers, and posting answers your friends like and discuss. You get coins for connecting Miitomo to your Facebook or Twitter to add friends. You gain “Social Levels” for posting answers your friends engage with, earning you even more rewards. Those coins and prize tickets can, in turn, be used to buy cosmetic items for your Mii to show off in Miifotos, earning you more positive feedback and more rewards. Some of those rewards can even be exchanged for free or discounted Wii U or 3DS games, if you go through the circuitous process of connecting your Nintendo eShop account to Miitomo. You’re directly rewarded for adding as many friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances to Miitomo as you can.
Many of the questions funnel users toward Nintendo’s desired topics. “What’s the best thing about cats?” Nintendo would say it’s the fact that—for a limited time only!—you can spend coins and tickets to play Miitomo Drop, a pachinko game that can randomly unlock cat-themed items for your Mii avatar. There’s a very good chance the first things you will see when opening Miitomo are an ad for Miitomo Drop, your Mii asking you about cats, and a picture of one of your friends, dressed like a cat-themed party clown.
Numerous questions are personally identifying — “Where do you live?”— or potentially embarrassing —“What have you done recently that you regret?” “Have you made any big mistakes recently?” Only the people you have friended on Miitomo can see your answers, but all of the incentives encourage you to have a wide social network added on Miitomo. You want friends, friends of friends, and casual acquaintances to see and interact with your answers. The probing questions and free-to-play-style rewards push you to share and over-share.
Miitomo frames all of this as a natural extension of conversation between you and your friends when clearly it’s anything but. My friend’s avatar, using a computerized approximation of his voice, asking me about the latest commercials is disarming, which means I don’t immediately notice that it’s suspiciously similar to a marketing survey. My friend even happens to be a professional musician. Does that affect which questions Miitomo puts in his mouth? No way to be sure. He definitely didn’t choose this question to ask me, since there’s no way to choose which questions your friends are asked.
Answer enough questions, and patterns start to emerge. “How often do you buy a new cell phone?” “What clothing store would you recommend?” Many of the questions are suspiciously targeted at getting you to reveal demographic information or talk about your consumption habits. Harvesting this sort of information is typical on social media networks, but Miitomo’s leading questions and artificial intimacy create an ideally suited space.
To develop and run the game, Nintendo partnered with DeNA Co., a Japanese mobile gaming firm known for its rigorous, detailed analysis of how player moods and behavior affect their buying habits. In addition, in an earnings call from last year, Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima described the company’s plans for the My Nintendo service, including using members’ “profile, purchase records and play records” to send “notices and gifts”, including “membership service benefits in other real-life facilities such as theme parks, movie theaters and retail outlets.” This earnings call had one of Nintendo’s earliest detailed descriptions of Miitomo, then described as part of a plan to “push forward the My Nintendo membership service.”
UPDATE - 6:14pm, May 16: Nintendo has decided to comment after all: “The goal of our Miitomo questions is to spark fun conversations with your friends and for you to discover new facts about them as they answer the questions being posed. That’s why Miitomo generally avoids yes or no questions. As to the answer information our consumers provide through the Miitomo app, it is only used to provide a better experience for Nintendo consumers and to support the application. Neither Nintendo nor any of its partners sells or shares that answer information for any other purposes.”
Miitomo tries to create a trusted, intimate space to disarm your suspicions about questions that would be very convenient for data collection, but in doing so it also encourages you to share potentially damaging facts about yourself. Nintendo treats this erosion of privacy as just part of the fun. In Japanese television advertisements for Miitomo, a student discovers that her classmate is secretly moonlighting as a luchadora. In the ad, Nintendo presents this discovery as a positive one, but it’s easy to imagine there could be more damaging consequences.
Miitomo feels like a surveillance camera with a friendly face. It’s just enough of a social media network to encourage you to reveal what coincidentally happens to be resellable personal information. It’s just enough of a game to reward you for playing along and encouraging your friends to play along too. In combination, it’s a uniquely intrusive social network, launched at a time when other social media networks are struggling with malicious users combing through people’s profiles for information that can be used against them. Nintendo’s new smartphone app isn’t like its previous, clumsy online efforts, but this new, seductive, invasive Nintendo is hardly nicer.
Jay Allen is a freelance cultural critic and cat roommate.