Video games are a relatively new industry. Though we can trace their origins to the mid ‘50s, it wasn’t until the early ‘70s and Pong when video games became well known. It’s an industry less than a half-century old, so despite bringing in nearly $50 billion in revenue, we still connect to the names and faces that helped gaming grow into the behemoth it is today.
Perhaps that’s why the news of Satoru Iwata’s recent passing feels unlike other public figures’ deaths. If you’re unaware of Iwata’s background, his status as the former President of Nintendo Co. Ltd. doesn’t begin to describe the man. He was a game developer, coder, and employee of HAL Laboratory (a long-time Nintendo collaborator) long before he was entrusted with the reigns of the world’s biggest gaming studio.
When he became Nintendo’s president and CEO in 2002, the company’s newest gaming system — the GameCube — was woefully underperforming compared to its competitors. But in a matter of years, Iwata would introduce the touchscreen-focused Nintendo DS and motion-control Nintendo Wii systems, both of them simple, accessible gaming consoles marketed to people who normally wouldn’t play video games. The result was Nintendo’s return to the industry’s forefront, and an era which saw the company sell over 250 million systems as it connected with the casual audience Iwata wanted to bring into the gaming world.Instead of cultivating an atmosphere where games became inaccessible and disconnecting experiences, he desired for all people to enjoy his medium and, in the process, experience community.
I suspect that connection is why Iwata’s death has garnered such a wide response. Time and time again, he proved that his greatest qualities were approachability and authenticity, character traits which directly align with our culture’s definition of trustworthiness. As millennials grow older, our concept of what it means to “sell out” has changed. It’s okay for our industries, artists, and heroes to mingle; in fact, like a recent Washington Post article mentions, it’s almost expected and condoned so long as people think you’re still trustworthy.
However, the gaming industry is a bit more prickly. The past year has seen GamerGate and a host of social activists blast voices and figures from outside gaming as detrimental and unworthy because, well, they simply aren’t gamers. Gaming’s growing pains are well-documented, and, sadly, proving your worth to belong in the industry is still a necessity.
This unsteady ground is where Iwata’s genius and humility shone best. Instead of cultivating an atmosphere where games became inaccessible and disconnecting experiences, he desired for all people to enjoy his medium and, in the process, experience community. It wasn’t always easy, and his approachability often led to derision in the public sphere when people weren’t satisfied with Nintendo’s direction. But he always maintained the outlook that games were meant to be one thing: “Fun. Fun for everyone!” That simple desire — for people to have fun — is what makes gaming so enjoyable, and Iwata’s dedication to that philosophy reached beyond his industry.
Even more important is that Iwata’s business acumen was paired with a compassion rarely seen in executives of his stature. When Nintendo ended the 2013 fiscal year with a notable revenue loss, he directly and publicly assumed the blame for its poor performance. He then went a step further: instead of firing employees to bolster short-term gains, he halved his CEO pay in order to avoid eliminating even a single position, saying that “[r]estructuring the workforce is not the first option we consider even when cost cutting is required. I would like you to understand that this is because we do not see a dark future for Nintendo.”
That unflappability and selflessness was just one method he modeled consistency as the most respected gaming figurehead. Instead of embracing microtransactions and questionable business practices like other gaming companies, Iwata insisted games be released with no hidden fees and working perfectly. Instead of the cold and aloof demeanor we’ve come to expect from executives in a post-Steve Jobs world, Iwata’s humility and kindness endeared him to employees and fans alike. Just look at the first post on this thread at a popular gaming forum, or this tweet from Skype’s official account a few hours after the news of his death was publicized. PlayStation’s official account tweeted this about Iwata, and other companies showed a level of solidarity for his passing rarely seen within the industry.
In a way, Iwata’s life spoke a universal language that transcended his status as Nintendo’s president. His heart was to bring joy to the lives of others, and his passion for gaming created a company where quality co-existed with helping people discover new ways to have fun. Most importantly, he wanted to bring people closer together: “Today there are people who play and who don’t… [w]e’ll help destroy that wall between them.”
I wish we could have met. We probably would talk about his life in video games or the risk he took after graduating from college and choosing to work at a small start-up (which essentially left him and his father on non-speaking terms for over half a year).
But more than anything, I’d want to meet the man who helped give me worlds to explore, stories to share, and some of the best moments of my childhood. The CEO who cared to create Iwata Asks, a series of lengthy interviews that offered windows into Nintendo’s mostly unknown and mysterious workings. The technical genius whose coding wizardry enhanced and saved games that might have otherwise never been released. The humble, quiet soul who said that, despite his professional achievements and technical background, he was a gamer in his heart. The man who knew the inclusion and wonder games could bring us. The man who slyly invited us through “Nintendo Directs” to “please take a look” at what he had planned for each year.
Now that he’s gone, I suspect many people share the opinion that gaming will be hard-pressed to find another person who so wonderfully models compassion, humility, and the desire to bring joy to others. Even rarer is the way Satoru Iwata influenced how we have fun and his desire to bring people into community: “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.”
Even if you don’t play videogames, those ideas are worth celebrating and remembering. I’m fairly certain it’s exactly what he’d want.