Why do we relish Nintendo’s crises so much?


Ian Bogost is an author and game designer. His collection of ‘game poems’ A Slow Year is available here.

This year is Nintendo’s 125th anniversary, and so the company is celebrating by haemorrhaging money. The figures are dour. Nintendo announced net losses of $229 million for fiscal year 2014, a saddening reversal of 2013’s return to profit. Just 2.7 million Wii U units were sold last year, compared to 7 million PS4s and 5 million Xbox Ones shipped in half as much time.

In the wake of such news, gamers quickly become armchair financial analysts. In an endless stream of ‘What can save Nintendo?’ opinion pieces, predictable and conflicting ideas emerge: Nintendo should abandon hardware; it should embrace smartphones and the Internet. It should redouble efforts to exploit its most popular franchises; it should develop new franchises rather than relying on Mario, Zelda and Pokémon. It should hire more adept designers; it should focus only on the output of its star designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. It should give up on gimmicks like the Wii U gamepad; it should develop more distinctive hardware and peripherals. Then there’s the perennial favourite, some variant of ‘Nintendo should just stop sucking’.

It’s a recurring theme for the company, which falls into ruts every few years, but eventually emerges victorious (so far at least). Not too long ago, 3DS was a fiasco, selling far below expectations despite its price drop. Before Wii’s meteoric rise, Nintendo saw a 38 per cent drop in profits when GameCube sales missed forecasts by a factor of two. Every few years, foreboding prophecies of the company’s imminent demise bubble up, mostly from gamers and industry pundits with little experience or expertise from which to draw credible conclusions about the company’s financial plight.

It’s time to set aside such hand-wringing and ask a more fundamental question: why do players and critics take such relish in lamenting and then ‘solving’ Nintendo’s crises? What itch does this tradition scratch?

One part is that games are strongly connected to the technology industry, and the business of technology is now inextricable from its culture, for better or worse. By contrast – and with a few notable exceptions, such as Disney – the cultural impact of novels and films is derived from authors, actors and directors more than the holding companies that maintain IP or the publishers and production companies that bring them to market. But when it comes to tech, financial and cultural success are taken as equals. If anything, financial largesse might have overtaken or replaced aesthetic discernment.

But for another part, Nintendo is not just any technology company, nor is it just any media company, nor even just any gaming company. It is the company that revived home console gaming from its premature death in North America and Europe after the crash of 1983. But in so doing, Nintendo recast games as children’s playthings, a harmless distraction, a juvenile activity with colourful characters. In the west, Nintendo’s safe, bright, clean look helped repair the image of games as an unseemly slum of low-quality home products and indecorous arcade shantytowns. If nothing else, Mario, Link and Kirby look wholesome.

But three decades later, even those who grew up on its systems and games are unsure how they feel about its legacy. It’s no small group, either: the millennials whose first console was an NES or a SNES account for 25 per cent of the population. As the youngest enter adulthood and the oldest settle down, Nintendo represents a rusty, squeaky hinge on the threshold between past and future.

On the one hand, Nintendo embodies a common introduction to gaming, even an eponymous one. Its characters, its hardware, and the memories they bear are ones we treasure. We want them to persist like all good classics persist, partly to combat the encroachment of finitude growing older brings. Yet we also want to overcome our childhoods. We want to dispense with Mario, to forsake Link. But alternatives still ring hollow: Booker DeWitt and Samantha Greenbriar still haven’t quite graduated games out of the twinges of young adulthood.

Nintendo’s moments of crisis offer an excuse to act out this anxiety in public. We secretly want Nintendo to fail, so we can move on at long last, so we can get over it. But then again, we desperately want it to persist, so that we can cling to its familiarity and so we can bask in its comforts. We want Nintendo to live and we want it to die. And this is why we so relish the company’s financial upheavals.