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Cult of personality: Why do fans love video game execs? Exclusive
February 26, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

Why are fans so attached to game company executives? Leigh Alexander examines the mockery and idolatry that surrounds the likes of Reggie Fils-Aime and Kaz Hirai at the outset of a new console war.

For serious video game fans, a console launch is akin to a Super Bowl, with that same shared cultural experience of anticipation, speculation, trash-talking and idolatry. The last one's a strange one, though -- game company execs often receive more fan attention and enjoy more instant recognition than anyone who actually develops games.

It's probable that there are more animated GIFs out there of Sony's Kaz Hirai than of anyone else in the industry, and that more people can cite the exec's flat-note enthusiasm for Ridge Racer at the PlayStation 3's announcement than most facts of his career. [See this insane mash-up of Hirai GIFs - Ed.]

At Nintendo events, president Reggie Fils-aime can sometimes be found high-fiving cheering fans, many of whom are over the moon just to get to see him in person after seasons of watching the big guy gamely manning his company's often-unflattering peripherals on big stages before hundreds. "My body is ready" (video above) became an internet meme recognizable even to those who never watched Fils-Aime act as a willing Wii Fit test subject way back in 2007 -- transcending even the video game community, eventually.

Thirst to personify the "suits"

Gamers fervently caricaturize big company executives, half reverently, half snarkily. It probably comes with the territory of being a face, a figurehead, a human shape to which the fortunes (or misfortunes) of a company can be ascribed. Games themselves are made by massive teams, and that probably breeds an understandable thirst to personify the hobby some way, any way.

But game development does produce the occasional "name" for fans to attach to, and yet the creators of the games these fans love don't become iconic in the same fashion. There's something there to do with fan interest in the business side of things that seems sort of disproportionate, and the motivation for that is a little murky.

There's a wide chasm between "games as a business" and "games as a form of entertainment people generally feel quite personally about." What's best for the business is often not what excites fans, and very few of us are genuinely interested in financial results or corporate movements. The enthusiast press has a spotty history when it comes to helping gamers understand the business side -- many players have been raised on a diet of headlines about numbers or layoffs without necessary context.

There's an understanding the "suits" matter, but the most visible execs are viewed in broad strokes: Either their single genius move will rescue the entire console industry as we know it (whether or not it is in peril!), or it will crush games and their fans along with them, a cruel betrayal worthy of years of humiliating soundbites and photoshops.

Fans may attach to fevered celebration and mockery of executive figures out of a desire to simplify a complicated business into winners and losers. That's probably a motivation for some of them, but that explanation underestimates how eager other fans are to understand and discuss the business nuances of the industry in detail.

Sometimes this community of armchair analysts is a gleeful fount of misinformation, but other times it's oddly adept, moreso than even some of the enthusiast outlets with their well-intentioned but mis-aimed headlines can be. Perhaps by making icons of industry execs, fans can feel like they're making their own calls, drawing their own conclusions and taking responsibility for being informed consumers.

Mascot culture

We also have a heritage founded in mascot culture. Those of us who cover games now were raised by glossy magazines that embraced the cheerful competition of the first proper console wars. In those days the competitors were represented by iconic creatures: A hedgehog, a plumber, a caveman. Each had to get ever more "edgy," perform in ad campaigns in accordance with the rad-troublemaker aesthetic of the early 1990s.

Your average fans didn't have internet access to a two-hour executive stage presentation about the Genesis, they had a smug-looking Sonic the Hedgehog and some provocative tagline about what Sega could do that its rivals couldn't. That brassy attitude to competition rankled. Kids picked sides, and yelled at each other across the playground about who was better. Bereft of real facts to make their case, they often invented some.

We were kids then. Yet lots of us grew up and thoughtlessly bequeathed this half-baked attitude to the figureheads of business competition onto our modern audiences. The mascot age is over, at least in that incarnation, but fans have shifted that idolatry and score-keeping onto executives, who are the closest thing to "faces" that modern consoles can have.

And they're funny faces, too. Nothing reminds us of the difference between the made-for-TV presenter culture we're acclimated to in the media and the often-awkward tech industry than seeing games people in bright lights and high definition (the slightly-awkward uniform pose of Bungie's team made Kotaku headlines and spawned a good-natured meme). Games presentations are exceptionally easy to snapshot and riff on.

Obsessive relationship

It isn't terribly unnatural for passionate players to attach deeply to the fortunes of a hardware platform, to personalize it and ascribe values to it that they may or may not relate to. That happens in all kinds of hardware competitions -- currently lots of mobile ad campaigns rely on making fun of the iPhone loyalist's unshakeable faith in Apple, even when offered ostensibly better specifications.

Lifestyle devices of any kind -- things we use every day, see as gateways to an experience it's important to us to own and control -- inspire obsession. For gamers, the canonization of executives is one major expression of their long-term relationship with a platform, the sort we've learned to nurture since we were young.

Game developers who inspire the most recognition are also responsible for a "platform" of their own, even if not a physical one. Any developer that inspires recognition, controversy and adulation can be seen to represent an idea space that some people feel a kinship to while others reject.

Watching the culture-cluster around execs can be enlightening, too -- seeing years of derisive Hirai GIFs give way to hyperbolic superhero GIFs assembles a telling, even touching narrative of fans' deep investment in the platform he represents. Ultimately it comes from a good place.

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E Zachary Knight
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I think there is a celebrity factor here. People want celebrities in the games industry and there are few people other than execs that can fill the role. That is what makes Reggie Fils-Aime and Kaz Hirai such big deals. They are pretty much the biggest celebrities in the games industry.

TC Weidner
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ones lack of ones own self identity comes to mind. The need to use and/or latch onto a third party be it a person, product, idea and to use that as a way to fill the self identification void. As you say, its a cult of personality. To admire someone or their work is one thing, what we often see on the internet as mentioned here is entirely a whole other level however.

Ahmad Jadallah
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well, I would say 70% of the known names in the industry are known only to developers in the field, the remaining 30% are known to hardcore gamers who are actually into following the names behind thier favorite titles. Unfortunately, for every one else outside the gaming world, those names are not at all identifiable. Its not like sport or movie names that almost everyone recognize. I hope that changes one day.

Carlo Delallana
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Riiiidge Racer!!!

Michael Kolb
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That reminds me, what's Jade Raymond up to lately.

Ian Uniacke
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Great article.

"Sometimes this community of armchair analysts is a gleeful fount of misinformation, but other times it's oddly adept, moreso than even some of the enthusiast outlets with their well-intentioned but mis-aimed headlines can be."


Bart Stewart
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Gaming is unusual. Who can name any of the people who designed or built the vehicle they drive? How about any of the people who made Skyrim or Gears of War or SimCity?

The relationship of gamers to the makers of games seems a lot closer than that of consumers to other kinds of products. Maybe that explains the higher highs and lower lows of how gamers treat game makers: familiarity breeds closeness *and* contempt.

Greg Back
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Even before I entered game development, it was the big dog creatives I knew about before the executives. Kojima, Miyamoto and Newell were names I always heard more of than Kaz Hirai and Reggie Fils-Aime. The only times I remember those names from was during console release.

Chris Skuller
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Interesting article, but it seems to overcomplicate things. I really think it's just a simple of the fact that these execs are the ones that take to the stage year after year at E3 to drop the biggest announcements. They exude power and authority, and are often the highest ranked people we gamers get exposed to. Of course people are going to place them on a pedestal.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Mike Jenkins
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Doesn't seem much different than elsewhere in the tech industry, i.e. Gates, Jobs, Ballmer, Woz, etc.

Lex Allen
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I didn't think most fans would be able to name a game executive.

Ron Dippold
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More simply the people for whom gaming, or perhaps a particular console, is a religion or tribe need their high priests and priestesses or devils. Our ape brains don't relate well to a black slab, so we require a primate face to go with it. Can you hate Activision? Well, sort of - but it's a lot easier to hate Bobby Kottick. Nintendo? Well, you can respect the name, but we can all love Miyamoto.

You can see this in every other industry. For instance with cars you've got Harley Earl, Carroll Shelby, Ferdinand Porsche, Sergio Pininfarina, etc. People who don't care enough, who just drive their car, will just give you a vacant look, but real valveheads could name at least a dozen. When people care A LOT they're going to find people to love or hate. If you can't see this for a particular niche, it's just that you don't care enough.

Alfa Etizado
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Hey I just logged in to inform something very important. Brackets were left open.

(the slightly-awkward uniform pose of Bungie's team made Kotaku headlines and spawned a good-natured meme. Games presentations are exceptionally easy to snapshot and riff on.

...right there. Do you see it? Now the entire article and the comments, possibly all of a Gamasutra and maybe even the Internet is contained within that opening bracket extending itself to infinity where a theoretical closing bracket exists. This is a highly unstable situation and may collapse at any moment, please close it.

Kris Graft
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Holy crap thanks for the heads up!

kevin Williams
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Wow wow wow!

Stop saying fans! The cult of personality is fostered first by the games media desperate to tie their bi-line and advertorial to a individual that they can build up and make each utterance gospel, and then when board of them knock them off the pedestal created by the media. The gamers and fans as you call them in many cases follow the hype - that's why they do it!

Now the game media is suffering we see the cult accelerated to new levels of stupidity - where certain individuals are promoted well beyond their capability - ending up giving tearful replies on Youtube. Stop it games media, your not helping - and we end up with over hyped products that fail and impact the industry!

Jeff Wesevich
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The cult of personality is fostered first by marketing/pr departments and secondly by desperate games media types. [slight correction].

I loved that "direct from the investor relations press release" bilge about "Why do gamers hate Bobby Kotick" (he makes money for shareholders) floating about a little while back.

George Blott
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maybe this is the chicken and the egg, but if you go to fan-driven forums like NeoGaf it's pretty clear that fans are part of perpetrating this 'cult of personality' as much as anyone.

Ahmad Daniels
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Nothing against any of these guys, but personally I prefer the developers to get up and talk about what they have even if they aren't always the most well spoken individuals.

Michael Pianta
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I think these people are just high profile. I don't agree with the premise of this article - that this doesn't happen to developers too. It totally does, if they're high profile enough! John Romero anyone? Hideo Kojima, Cliff Bleszinski and even indie designers like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish - their bold public statements attract attention. They make some comment on twitter and the enthusiast press picks it up and runs. Famous Japanese designers like Shigeru Miyamoto would be far more famous still if they spoke english better. Even so, "gamers" all know and adore those people. If it happens to executives too, more so than other industries, it's because the companies go out of their way to make that happen. The first thing anybody ever heard Reggie say was "I'm about kicking ass, I'm about taking names, and we're about making games!" - I mean, c'mon! That's marketing with the explicit intention of making him this larger than life figure - the public face of the company. I mean, if the president of Universal studios took to the internet twice a month to talk about how awesome their movies were and saying silly, flamboyant things - that guy would become famous too. I don't really think gamers are unique in this respect.

kevin Williams
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I can understand the misconception of the "check and Egg" augment - but fundamentally for the coverage to circulate, an editor and news writer have to allow it to pass by their terminals before circulation.

Certain of the "cults" who's utterances are reported are supported by media - rather than being presented by fan sites - though fan forums may report the utterances the majority of the coverage is supported by trade media. Why a certain 'cult' gets invited to give a key note at a conferences is more to do with hoped column inches rather than fan anticipation!

I know its hard for certain individuals to admit that the cult of personality is a bad idea - especially as some hope for their time in the sun - or even getting a Gong for their time in the sector - but we really need to look at the longevity of the market and that means some individuals will have to understand that what they say is not instant gold!

wes bogdan
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So what happens to epic when cliffy b leaves or lionhead when Peter m. leaves to gamers perceptions of gears or fable's future and would that be like mario without shiguru myamotoo?!!

John Flush
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I've always been 'anti-celebrity' myself and it is only worse in the gaming space for me. The performances, and news bites, of top executives usually makes me cringe at the industry and want to start apologizing to people and let them know gaming isn't usually so retarded looking.