What is Nintendo really attempting to do with the Wii U? Game designer and researcher Ian Bogost, in the latest installment of Persuasive Games, looks for the answer.
For a century and a quarter, Nintendo has devoted itself to an unspoken mission: making games safe, stripping them of their risk and indecency. The company started as a hanafuda playing card manufacturer in the late nineteeth century. Like most gambling, hanafuda was closely tied to organized crime, and the term yakuza, the Japanese word for an organized crime mafia, finds its origin in that game. Nintendo set up shop just after hanafuda had been made legal in Japan, and the company seems to have remained embroiled in gambling and organized crime even as its products sanitized that practice for a newly enfranchised general public.
But even after 70 years in business, Nintendo still struggled to turn the proverbial tables on playing cards. Finally, in the late 1950s, a licensing deal with Disney allowed Nintendo to produce a series of family-oriented card decks and instructional books, changing its fortunes, and marking its second great taming of the medium of games.
After diversifying into electronic toys in the 1970s, the company imported video games to Japan -- it was a distinctly American form of entertainment that had been commercialized by Magnavox and Atari. Nintendo's first video game products, the TV Game 6 and TV Game 15, were based on Odyssey technology licensed from Magnavox.
But by 1981, original handheld and coin-op games made their way out of Nintendo's factories -- the Game & Watch series and the Donkey Kong cabinet being the most notable of these.
A Bittersweet Savior
Nintendo's attempt to re-commercialize home console gaming in the West marks the company's third redemption of games. In the wake of the industry crash of 1983, Nintendo devised an ingenious response that would set the pace for the next three decades -- for better and for worse.
First, Nintendo returned video games to the toy marketplace. The Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) first bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) helped sell this pitch to American toy retailers, most of whom had been badly burned by the '83 crash and had lost their taste for video games.
Second, having learned from its own experiences as a licensor, Nintendo introduced what we now know as the first-party licensing model. A "Seal of Quality" would insure that retailers and consumers knew a product was worthy of their investment. Such a label would have to be licensed from Nintendo by publishers, which Nintendo itself would select and approve. Nintendo would also manufacture all the games at a mark-up commensurate to its influence among retail buyers. Everybody wins -- so long as everybody is Nintendo.
The result surely saved the video game retail market in the West, and for that gift anyone who makes a living or a pastime from video games owes Nintendo its gratitude. But this bailout came with a price. It also changed games, reducing them to a children's medium sold in toy departments and toy stores, rather than a burgeoning form capable of many different uses and experiences.
Popular opinion blames the crash of '83 on a flood of poor-quality games -- not just scapegoats like Pac-Man and E.T. for Atari 2600, but a whole mess of absurd and unplayable games hacked together by speculators attempting to cash in on the latest fad. But this is an unfair -- or at least an incomplete -- characterization. Terrible though many games might have been in the Atari/Intellivision era, they were also diverse and distinct, in a way we have only begun to recover in the last half-decade.
The earliest NES games represented familiar genres: mostly sports (10-Yard Fight, Excitebike, Golf) and fantasy adventure (Super Mario Bros., Clu Clu Land, Hogan's Alley), along with the curious puzzle games made to work with R.O.B. (Gyromite and Stack-Up).
By contrast, in the leading up to the 1983 crash, players could find Atari games that took up the rodeo (Stampede), aeronautic acrobatics (Barnstorming), tax strategy (Tax Avoiders), masturbation (Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em), advertisement (Kool-Aid Man) -- even adaptations of raunchy, R-rated movies (Porky's). In the 1970s and early 1980s, games were made for adults as often as they were made for kids -- played in bars and bowling alleys as frequently as arcades and basements. Video games might have been new, but they weren't immature.
Kids Become Teenagers
Before Nintendo came around to rescue video games, the industry was well on its way to becoming just the sort of general-purpose mass medium today's developers and critics like to think they are inventing anew. Ironically, many of those creators are too young to know what came before, and thus see themselves as saviors contributing to a long-withheld maturity, not realizing that such effort is only necessary thanks to their childhood video game idol.
A similar self-contradiction can be found in Nintendo's own success. In the 25 years ending in 1985, Nintendo went from an obscure licensor to a major entertainment company with its own intellectual property. But those properties -- Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and so on -- remained yoked to toy culture. They are children's characters and children's games that have persisted long enough that the children who first bought them have become adults with their own children. Thus Nintendo's reputation: wholesome, yet juvenile. Profitable, but harmless. Pop culture, not art.
The Return to Family Play
In the 30 years since the NES, the rest of the video games industry has "matured," for certain values of maturity. By the mid-1990s, Nintendo had just released Donkey Kong Country for its purple-and-lavender-clad Super Nintendo. Meanwhile, thanks to the advent of the first-person shooter and the Sony PlayStation, video games became an adolescent's distraction more than a kiddie toy -- something like the statistical average of the 1970s bar and the 1980s basement.
In 2006 Nintendo finally offered a definitive response: the Wii, whose novel physical controls and simplified graphics and interaction models mimicked forgotten aspects of Atari's business thirty years earlier, and Nintendo's own business of a hundred years prior -- making games safe for families to play together.
The Wii wasn't so much a "revolution" in interaction design, to invoke the platform's famous code name, as it was a return to prior ideas: the television as hearth, accessible and appealing family or group play, quick game sessions, lower-cost hardware -- all ideas Atari had addressed in the late 1970s. For Nintendo, the Wii was to video games what Disney playing cards had been to hanafuda. But once again, the only reason the Wii had to take on such a role is because Nintendo had inadvertently poisoned adults to video games with the NES two decades earlier.