Screengrab: Nintendo

Nintendo's Charming 'Miitomo' Could Be the Most Brilliant Data Mining App Ever

It sounds innocent enough. But users are growing suspicious of the app’s whimsical, canned questions, many of which read like a marketing survey.

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May 5 2016, 5:25pm

Screengrab: Nintendo

Nintendo's first-ever smartphone app, Miitomo, hit number one on the iOS app store less than 24 hours after its release last March. Now, over ten million people are on Nintendo's mobile social network, designing avatars in their likeness and trading answers to Miitomo's questions with their friends, the free-to-use app's two main mechanics.

It sounds innocent enough. But Miitomo could be the most unabashed data miner we've seen yet. And users are growing increasingly suspicious of the app's whimsical, canned questions, many of which read like a marketing survey:

"Ok… What are you saving up money for right now?"

"What type of cosmetic product do you use the most?"

"What's your favorite TV show right now?"

Miitomo's appeal is immediate—costuming adorable Miis and telling your friends what you ate for breakfast—but not enduring. After a month on the app, I began to have some questions of my own. Why would my friends care about my favorite soft drink? Why does this social network feel like a stilted Q&A? Why is this the whole app? Why is it so captivating and why is it free?

Data mining could be the answer, or at least part of it.

The app's design compels users to volunteer personal—and marketable—information about their demographic, commercial preferences, and emotional needs as a platform for interacting with friends. Upon signup, users enter their age and customize their avatar's gender, skin color, and clothing. Miitomo then gives them the opportunity to customize their "personality" with stats ranging from "pretty relaxed attitude" to "not so expressive," a mechanic that doesn't have any obvious effect on gameplay.

That gameplay, primarily, revolves around users and their friends wandering into each other's houses to answer and share answers to Miitomo's pre-packaged questions. Responding to questions earns users Miitomo coins, which they spend on tricking out their Mii.

The incentive to keep playing is high: Upon each log-in, users are flooded with a stream of rewards for continuing to use the app and engaging with other Miis: 1,000 Miitomo coins, tickets to win themed outfits (Nintendo's Splatoon-themed ensembles were a hit), and new titles like "Ultra Friend." Nintendo updates its clothing store every day.

Oh, and you can take photos with your Miis:

Miitomo users can include their friend's Miis, as well as a variety of breakfast foods (or whatever they'd like), in their Miifotos. Screengrab courtesy the author

"It's so addictive," wrote one Redditor. "I'm choosing to ignore the blatant data mining that seems to be all part of the game."

"The whole thing feels like a data mining experiment," another Redditor commented. "Hopefully some platinum rewards will drop next month."

The real question is what Nintendo will do with its user-generated content, coveted advertising intel like your fantasy potato chip or favorite method to perk yourself up.

Like an increasing number of smartphone apps, Miitomo can mine users' Facebook and Twitter accounts for connections who also have the app. "Having fun with friends is what Miitomo is all about!" your new Mii effuses upon creation. "And once we start adding friends, they'll want to know all about us…"

Of course, connecting an app to Facebook opens the floodgates for content leak to marketers, although Facebook alleges that content released for targeted advertising is not "personally identifiable."

Under Miitomo's privacy policy, users' answers can be shared with any of Nintendo's third-party partners, including analytics providers, who are permitted to set cookies and use web beacons within the app to grab information. From there, the privacy policy states, "These third parties may use that information to provide you advertisements, across the Internet and mobile applications." The text also notes that, if users connect a third-party service, such as Facebook or Twitter, to Miitomo, that service is free to use their information however they'd like under their own privacy policy.

"Volunteered data is the best kind quality of data."

Miitomo's user agreement is even more transparent: By using the app, users give Nintendo license to "reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, distribute, perform, and display" their Miitomo answers and all other user-generated content. According to the user agreement, Nintendo does not review or monitor third party services. Users can also opt out of Miitomo's data collection at any point.

Nintendo declined to comment on how it uses user-generated content from Miitomo.

Miitomo's privacy policy and user agreement are industry standard. But when paired with its highly gamified and prying inquiries, the app's information politics can feel just a little insidious.

Digital tracking expert Wolfie Christl suggested that a precedent for Miitomo's potential data mining could be the online quiz model. Psychometric quiz companies like VisualDNA have been known to collect consumer data, predicting loan repayment patterns and other valuable information from it. Current trends in emphatic self-expression, like posting on your Facebook wall how you'd die in Game of Thrones, are a marketing gold mine.

"Volunteered data," Christl explained, "is the best kind quality of data. You can really build valuable personal profiles off that." More reliable than observed or inferred data on user behavior, Christl added, self-reported information isn't based on probability. It turns out that, by telling marketers who you are and what you like, marketing to you becomes infinitely easier.

"Nintendo has done something incredibly smart with Miitomo in terms of getting customers engaged and, at the same time, generating valuable data sets about the interests and preferences of its players," explained Anders Drachen, a games analytics expert at Aalborg University in Denmark.

Drachen is unsure whether Nintendo is capitalizing on these data sets financially, but has a few theories on how Nintendo might utilize users' answers. Refining the gaming experience is the most obvious application for tracking and analyzing user-generated content, and Miitomo's privacy policy confirms this. By discerning what gamers like and don't like, a game company can maximize those mechanics. Even though Miitomo is distinctly not a game, its interactive features are constantly updated, continually testing which features to capitalize on for ultimate addictiveness.

And, in any case, any one of Nintendo's other games could benefit from learning "What's something you've been really into recently that you would recommend to other people, and why?" That's an actual Miitomo question.

"It's common for games companies to survey their players, to post on community forums asking what motivates their gaming habits," Drachen added. "But only a small percentage of players fill out these surveys. That's standard marketing research. This level of integration directly into the design of the app is something I've never seen previously."

A Miitomo friend, Mis Sy, tells me her favorite food. Screengrab courtesy the author

The other application for Miitomo's user-generated content, he says, could be marketing: Knowing players' preferences can help Nintendo—and any one of its third-party business partners—advertise to them.

Unnervingly, the Wii U turns itself on to advertise Nintendo games available for purchase. (Miitomo encourages users to create and connect their Nintendo accounts to the app). It's entirely possible that, if her devices are connected through a Nintendo account, a Miitomo's user's professed love of knitting can prompt an ad for Yoshi's Wooly World on their Wii U gamepad.

Drachen noted that Miitomo's revenue model could clue users into where their data goes. "Either you sell the game for, like, $2.00 up-front, or you get money from the ad network you work with," he said.

In other words, Miitomo could be the unassuming, easy-to-use service Nintendo needs to lure in new audiences before the NX's release.

Miitomo is a free app, and like many free-to-play games, could be harvesting data for ad networks. When asked whether a user's Miitomo answer could end up influencing what ads appear on her Facebook feed, Drachen gave an emphatic yes. (Miitomo also generates money from users who choose to purchase Miitomo coins in exchange for virtual clothing.)

It's worth noting that Nintendo's release date for its new NX console will be March 2017 instead of the expected 2016 holiday season, bumping it from E3 this June. Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima explained that the company wouldn't launch the hardware at a loss, adding that the strength of the Japanese yen is a factor in its release. In early 2015, Nintendo became profitable again after 2014's $456 million loss in operating income. In 2007, in the wake of another financial trough, Nintendo's recovery tactic earned it Ad Age's "Marketer of the Year" award, expanding its market by appealing to non-gamers.

In other words, Miitomo could be the unassuming, easy-to-use service Nintendo needs to lure in new audiences before the NX's release. And Miitomo's potential for analyzing Nintendo's audience will earn the company special insight into what fans will want out of NX software.

Under these circumstances, it seems possible that Miitomo could be the least insidious data miner ever, peddling our content to whichever back-alley information broker it pleases. Or, Miitomo's developers might really think that a forced Q&A format is the future of digital socializing.

"Think you know your friends?" Miitomo asks. "Guess again!"