1-2-Switch's Milk game (farmers not included) Credit: Nintendo

I was already prepared to make suggestive jerking motions with my right hand in order to milk a virtual cow as part of a recent preview event in the West Loop for Nintendo’s Switch gaming console. Adding to the awkwardness, a floppy-haired Nintendo employee wearing an oversize cowboy hat made an unusual request: Lock eyes with your challenger while you play.

“There’s no need to look at a screen,” he said. “It makes for a better experience if you look at your opponent.”

And so after being signaled to start the game, the appropriately named Milk, I held the candy bar-size Switch controller aloft and pantomimed squeezing the mammary glands of cattle while exchanging bemused stares with the bearded twentysomething man sitting across from me. It was goofy fun, and also weirdly and surprisingly intimate.

On the list of activities likely to generate genuine human connection, video games rank fairly low. That’s especially true in 2017, the year that virtual reality—for better or worse—has begun to take over the industry. Devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and Google’s Cardboard are becoming a bigger part of the video game landscape. And while it can be thrilling to immerse yourself in computer-generated environments, the experience can also be disorienting and isolating. Games were already good enough at keeping people’s attention on brightly lit screens. By wearing a bulky visor over the face that turns everything in one’s field of vision into one massive screen, a VR user is literally blocking humanity from view.

Nintendo SwitchCredit: Ryan Smith

It’s precisely the ascendance of virtual reality that makes the 1-2-Switch game for Nintendo’s new console so refreshing. Instead of a break from the world, the “party game” uses Nintendo’s new technology to foster a kind of stripped-down and simplistic play through a host of activities centered on physical interaction with others.

During 1-2-Switch’s wild-west duel simulator Quick Draw, I stood at the ready several feet away from my opponent, holding the so-called Joy-Con controller in my sweaty palm as if it were a six-shooter. Signaled to draw, we each flashed our controllers at each other and pressed a button to shoot. The game quickly informed me that I’d lost because I pulled the trigger less than a tenth of a second too late. I managed a small measure of revenge during the next 1-2-Switch activity, Samurai Training. When my fellow combatant swung a virtual blade from overhead, I managed to clap my hands together at the perfect time and stopped it from making contact with my head.

While playing 1-2-Switch, I looked at the wall where the game’s visuals were being projected only 30 percent of the time. And I’ve gotta say: I did not miss them.
It’s true that 1-2-Switch is just one entry in the repertoire of Nintendo’s new console. Of the 15 or so games I sampled, almost all were more traditional and involved staring at a TV or at Switch’s built-in monitor. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, for instance, is essentially the same game we’ve been playing for more than two decades given a shiny new paint job.

But perhaps 1-2-Switch will turn the gaming industry on to a bold, not-so-new idea: that diminishing the video aspect of video games can trigger an experience unrivaled even by virtual reality—a face-to-face interaction.

Nintendo is scheduled to release Switch on March 3.