This is a pretty personal post for me and I think a lot of us out there. The world lost a huge influence the other day, Satoru Iwata, the CEO of Nintendo, and many of us are reeling from the news. He believed in gaming together and that the joy of playing is what makes a great game. All over the world, gamers are in mourning. Including this one.
When Iwata started as CEO, I was graduating high school. It was the middle of the sixth generation console wars. There were two camps in my college dorm that fall - on one end of the hall you had the guys who went in on an Xbox and never stopped playing Halo and on the other end were the two quiet guys who got a GameCube pretty much to play Wind Waker. The Xbox room grew in spectators steadily until they had to move into the common room, the playing rotation so big it got up to over an hour between. The GameCube room had people in and out but usually it was the guys from the room or myself holding controllers.
It became apparent pretty quickly which end I belonged on. I’m personally not into shooters, I’m pretty terrible at them, am not much for realistic violence and prefer games that have more puzzles than quick reactions. When the Xbox campers talked about their evening of gaming it was all about how they snuck up on someone and blew their head off and how cool the blood looked blasted everywhere. When the GameCube guys shared stories of their time gaming it was the excitement of finding something or completing something - that is way more my jam. Through that time, I felt ostracized from a beloved pass time by a slew of games that were aimed directly at the other end of the hall.
According to Iwata, I was not alone. In an opinion piece he wrote for The LA Times in 2006 he worried about how the gaming industry was becoming closed off to new customers by barriers to gaming like increasingly complex controls and material meant for a very distinct demographic. He compared the industry with Hollywood and asked that game developers take care not to make the same mistakes that have lead us to a movie market more interested with explosions and masses of CGI instead of an enticing storyline and immersive gameplay.
“The challenge for our industry is to also find ways that improve the experience by means other than what is seen. That shouldn't be too hard, because we operate interactively, rather than within the restraints of passive storytelling. Logically, we should expect video games' growth to be driven by two areas: the physical and emotional ways people interact with our games. These hold the greatest potential for causing dramatic changes to the industry.” Satoru Iwata, The LA Times, 2006.
As an actual game engineer, a rare resume line for CEOs, Iwata understood that he wasn’t just creating entertainment, he had an opportunity to bring people together. Through his time at Nintendo, Iwata lead a culture of accessible games that were challenging and exciting to any level of player, breaking down barriers that had risen between gamers and nongamers. An example close to my heart: a WiiU strengthened my previously non-gaming best friend’s marriage. There were some pretty rocky times but being able to play video games with her husband really changed things for them. It has been about a year since Lacey started gaming. Her marriage is strong and when they came over last night she kicked my ass in Mario Kart 8.
“But what we have found with some of our most successful products, is that they tend to be ones where people are playing them together and the communication is spreading much more broadly and more easily than standard word of mouth communication. And what you start to see is people of different generations playing together and talking with each other, and sometimes you even see grandchildren talking with their grandparents about a video game. And when the game itself is one that reaches across those different age groups, then you see situations where different people are talking about it together and learning from one another different things about the game.” Satoru Iwata, Time magazine, March 2015.
Hold the phone - different generations talking to each other about how to solve challenges facing them? I KNEW IT. Gaming can save the world.
While we have other systems in the house, the ones that are most often connected are the Nintendos. Non gaming friends come over, see the SNES, N64 or WiiU and ask to play - they haven’t touched a controller in years but the nostalgia or curiosity is just too great. Most of these friends now ask for a few rounds of Smash Brothers or Mario Kart any time they sit down in the living room. Gaming has (again) become our social activity, just as when we were young. When I hear the so familiar music, hear the laughter of my friends around me, I feel like there isn’t a care in the world besides saving that princess. Iwata understood gaming’s ability to to truly connect and it saddens me greatly that he will no longer be at the reigns of the company I have loved my entire life.
Thank you for all the inspiration, Mr. Iwata.