Nintendo Labo: Or, Tricking Kids Into Having Fun Learning to Code

If you’re a child of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, like myself, chances are you remember Neopets. At its surface a simple virtual pet site, Neopets belied a surprising layered and complex community, complete with a constantly-shifting economy, geographical conflicts, a weekly newspaper filled with user-generated editorials and comics… and then, there were the Pet Pages.

Each Neopet one owned came complete with their fully customizable “Pet Page”, which was, in essence, a single webpage accessible via a link on the pet’s profile. There were no pre-prepared assets, no bold and italic and link buttons, no easy sliders for font colors. No, in order to create the gorgeous custom page little ten-year-old you wanted so badly for your virtual not-quite-a-dog, you had to use HTML to code everything from scratch. The website had some basic guides for total beginners - how to change font colors, create a hyperlink, et cetera - but, for the most part, kids were simply left to figure it out on their own.

What resulted was a degree of customizability even the original programmers may not have foreseen. Dedicated users sat down and taught themselves HTML to a point that they were creating complex, fully functional webpages for themselves. Kids puzzled out how to code text boxes, scroll bars, layout changes, fonts of all shapes and sizes, even customized visual assets (Neopets didn’t have an option to upload images directly to the Pet Page, so hosting the assets on Photobucket and coding in the link became standard practice). You could soon find Pet Pages housing fanfiction, roleplay archives, webcomics, extensive character backstories, and more. Some advanced and generous users turned their Pet Pages into a hub of pre-prepared HTML-coded content, for the less capable to copy and paste onto their own. For the truly dedicated, it was even possible to build your own small network of interconnected webpages: each Neopets account allowed for four pets, meaning four Pet Pages, and five total accounts were allowed under a single email, allowing for a theoretical twenty webpages at your complete control. And that’s without considering collaborating with your friends to build an even larger network…

The point is, elementary and middle schoolers were taking to Neopets.com and, of their own free will, teaching themselves a real-world programming language. They were becoming web designers - and surprisingly competent ones! - at an extraordinarily young age. Even I picked up tidbits of HTML coding, despite being much more inclined to the creative aspects of the site than the programming sphere. Many of the kids who grew up on Neopets later sought out education and careers in programming, coding, web design and the like, all inspired by those early days building their Pet Pages.

This small miracle looks to be repeating itself with the introduction of Nintendo Labo.

A Nintendo Switch console, soon to host the Labo series. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Now, a bit of backstory to provide you context: on January 18th, 2018, just under a year after the release of the Nintendo Switch, the company’s latest console, there was teasing of a big announcement soon to come regarding “a new way to play”. Naturally, this spurred plenty of intrigue and speculation among fans and the media alike, but luckily Nintendo didn’t make them wait long for answers. Later that day, they announced their newest Switch-exclusive franchise, Nintendo Labo, a series of games that would focus on… building game accessories out of cardboard?

People were stunned, understandably so. Nintendo was placing a huge amount of faith and hype on, as many skeptics noted, a $70 pack of cardboard. There were concerns that this gamble would quickly prove a passing fad, and ultimately place a black mark on the previously-successful console. Others were delighted at the sheer audacity of the move, eagerly awaiting further information on the project. I was one of the latter, immediately charmed. I hadn’t even purchased a Switch yet, but the thought of the tactile experience of assembling the “Toy-Cons”, combined with fond memories of a childhood piloting cardboard-box rocket ships and time machines with my brother, made me immediately want to buy a console and give Nintendo my full support.

Recently, after months of me trying to be stingy with my money, my family stunned me by pooling their funds to get me the Labo Variety Pack as a birthday gift. It was an active fight not to tear right in and start building - at the time I was neck-deep in midterms and had plenty of work to focus on first - but a few days later, with a brief period of downtime available to me, I decided to dive into the “starter” project, a little “RC car” that resembles a blown-up, cardboard HexBug.

The tactile experience was exactly as rewarding as I’d thought, with Nintendo seeming to specifically engineer the templates to pop out of the cardboard sheets in an extra-satisfying way, and tabs sliding easily, perfectly into their required slots. The whole process was loaded with charm, from the stubby-legged beetle-like design of the car, to the brightly-colored and encouraging instructions on the game screen, to the little “antenna” made to slot into the Switch screen and make it look more like an RC car controller.

And the experience of playing with the car was nothing to sneeze at either! By slotting the Switch controllers into the beetle-car, and pressing coordinating buttons on the screen, the controllers would send vibrations down the bug-legs and allow the folded sheet of cardboard to move around. I brought the car down to show off to my family, and within moments we were all passing around the Switch to try it out and gawk at the little cardboard beetle-car scuffling around on the table. A “Discover” mode in the game also explained all the technical specs and related possibilities for play in simple, easy-to-grasp terms, from the infrared camera on the controller allowing for a self-driving mode, to the cardboard chassis being designed to host front-loading mods for races, “sumo matches”, or just plain decoration.

So, to sum up: Nintendo made it easy, rewarding and fun to build something in real life, play with it, and understand the engineering and technical specs behind its use. All in a child-friendly package!

And that’s just the start of it. Remember earlier, when I talked about Neopets convincing kids to learn HTML coding, and how Labo continues this tradition? Well, that’s because of a somewhat less advertised feature of the game, the "Labo Garage" - a game mode that allows for players to make chains of various call-and-response nodes of their choice. For example, you can link a couple of nodes dictating that, if the A button on the controller is pressed, this specific section of the screen will light up.

So, in other words, you can create and run customized code for the Switch and controllers within the Labo video game.

Naturally, as soon as kids and adults alike figured this out, they started to play with the software and create amazing, unique, creative, challenging, complicated creations all their own. People started creating playable instruments by linking actions with the Switch, controllers and cardboard peripherals to musical notes. Ultra-simple, Atari-esque games were coded and made completely playable. People soon realized that they could create games with more complex graphics by making paper or stencil overlays of “sprites” to physically place over the screen, allowing the sprite in question to “light up” and become visible with certain actions. Custom cardboard peripheries were engineered, designed, and built to allow specific actions based on their movement and coding.

Nintendo caught on to this creativity and passion quite quickly (or, as is much more likely, expected such a response all along), and soon held a “Creators Contest” to showcase and reward those working with the software. One such winner created what was more or less a fully-functioning cardboard arcade cabinet, which would recognize if a quarter (and only a quarter) had been inserted and only allow the game to be played after this point, and reward the player with candy if they completed the game. Several other winners created relatively basic but fully functional games with the software, including a young child who coded a “Simon Says”-style game complete with the aforementioned sprite overlays. One particularly dedicated fan designed, engineered, and built a pair of life-sized cardboard fortresses, coding a game where players would try to destroy each other’s fortresses with balls, and programming the Switch controllers to see and register when a fortress had been “hit”. (My personal favorite highlighted creations were a cooking game featuring realistic motions of the controllers to “prepare” dishes, and a “Tea Time” game featuring homemade cardboard teapots, which needed to be physically manipulated to complete the game.)

Nintendo sold a video game, threw in some cardboard and a bare-bones coding software, and before anyone knew it they were becoming programmers. Engineers. Industrial designers. Video game designers. Composers. Graphic artists. If it can be done with Labo, then creatively-minded people can, are, and will continue to do it. I have no doubts that the kids growing up with Labo now will carry the experience with them going forward, continuing to learn everything they can and honing their craft. In the next five, ten, fifteen years or so, I would expect an onslaught of talented young engineers, programmers, and video game designers, all of whom got their start by making their own unique projects with Labo. And frankly, I think that’s an incredible thing.