Sam Smith, 1990 – I recently spent a weekend in a house occupied in no small part by an eight-year-old and a Nintendo set. Having had no eight-year-olds around the house for some time, I had ample excuse for ignoring what those to whom we will pass the torch were about. Nonetheless. it would have been a mistake. If my weekend sample is any indication. a new America is arising in darkened living rooms and arcades throughout the land that will shape the course of our history as much as perestroika or the downfall of Drexel Burnham.
Since I don’t really understand what is going on, I shall simply report what I have found and let the reader determine what a new elite of the digitally dextrous means for human society as we know it. Nintendo is an outgrowth of what we, in simpler and happier times, referred to as Atari games. Atari is still around, as is a third competitor named Sega, but as my informant noted: “I know some people who have Atari, Sega, and Nintendo but nobody plays Atari even if they have it.” According to newspaper reports, Nintendo was the most popular Christmas request of any sort by American children. A recently released game, ‘Super Mario Bros 3’, sold 700,000 copies in a month. One bereft mother claims to have driven 200 miles searching in 20 stores for a copy.
To give some idea of the advance in video game technology, the strategy for the game Tetris, a relatively simple spin-off of the Nintendo era, takes ten pages to describe in a recent issue of Nintendo Power, the bimonthly Bible of Nintendo aficionados. Tetris involves a series of geometric shapes that descend from the top of the screen onto a wall at the bottom. One attempts to build a solid horizontal line of bricks by sliding, turning and twisting these shapes at the appropriate moment. When successful the reward is a higher score and a pleasant cacophony of computer noises combined with a partial collapse of the wall. When unsuccessful, the shapes pile up on the wall and as they do so their successors fall with increasing velocity and perversity until the wall fills the screen and the dreaded words Game Over! appear. By Nintendo standards, it’s a piece of cake. No mutant turtles, double dragons, nerve centers, Vo.H Stages, surprise jaders, heat waves, dragon breaths, wraith chambers, rope rooms, fire bridges, haunted islands, thirteen levels of experience, specters, terstorms. statues of unknown agents, aero circuses, and so forth with which to contend.
In fact, Tetris doesn’t even make the list of the 25 players’ favorite games according to Nintendo Power. Therefore it is humiliating to report that the highest score I was able to achieve in Tetris in my first forays was 780. By comparison, my eight-year-old advisor, who had a personal best, told me that in the basically, the only reason” adults did so poorly was because “Nintendo wasn’t around when adults were young. You really have to be born at the right time to like it.”
Then on reflection he added, “Say you’re 60 years old and you suddenly get Nintendo. It’ll probably take you five years to learn it. But if you were 12 it would only take 2 or 1 years.” Besides, he noted, “You don’t come home from work and go to an arcade, do you?” I agreed that was not my usual pattern.
Yet if our relative abilities are in any way typical, it suggests that one’s potential for the game regresses at a rate of approximately 1000 points a year. (My informant’s father challenges this with certain unverified claims concerning his own skill but, like Nintendo Power. I shall await a photograph of his winning game before I believe him.)
Age is not the only disparity upon which Nintendo feasts. It is also clearly a boys’ game. Given the substantial attention given to ending subtle distinctions by sex in child-rearing it is remarkable that a generation of feminist mothers has not noted this and done something about it. My informant tells me that for girls, “Nintendo is a word that’s not even in their vocabulary.” And a study of the list of recent Nintendo high scorers in NP finds only about 8% being names of girls or women as the case may be, although most likely the former.
Further, over half of the winners come from only seven states, with California alone taking 17% of the trophies. You may say that it is only a game (or more precisely a complex of dozens of games). But one can not read the 100 graphic-packed pages of NP without an uneasy sense that this corporation is up to something far more. As my advisor pointed out: “The brain is very big in Nintendo.” And if one disregards the ultimate mindlessness of the objective being taught, JVP is at its core a highly sophisticated curriculum, teaching young minds how to deal with conflict, complexity, and rapidly changing events.
In other words, your average world of tomorrow. Nintendo Power could, in fact, be a model for any school system wallowing in despair over the failure of its current efforts. Put Kierkegaard in the costume of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle under the direction of the software team at Nintendo and every kid in America could understand him. Most particularly NP is preparing young Americans for a world dominated by computers and computer thinking. The magazine mimics adult publications, including a feature called Counselor’s Corner which deals with such issues as “How do I pass the dancing Japanese zombies in level five?” – no small feat especially when you think of the amount of unsuccessful effort Washington puts into figuring out how to pass sitting Japanese politicians at level one.
Another page describes in some detail the making of “Mario Bros. 3.” Keeping in mind that we are talking about a children’s publication, consider this excerpt:
A tool that makes this procedure easier is the Character Generator Computer Aided Design (CCGAD) machine. Using this computer, designs can create ‘character banks’ which contain the graphic shapes used to draw images during game play. Each shape is given a number which the NES can use to access the shape and combine it into a complete image. A NES game program consists entirely of numerical data strings for doing the the graphics of the game…
Forget about porn, did you know your kids were reading this stuff? Perhaps most striking is the personality profile — in this issue up close and personal with Shigeru Miyamoto who is not a Japanese hunk or rock star, but a pleasantly nerdy looking gentleman in white shirt and tie among whose claims to fame is the fact that he invented Donkey Kong in 1980, the first big success of Nintendo. This novel role model for the young has a BA in industrial design and likes to listen to bluegrass. “A typical working day for Mr. Miyamoto starts at a flexible time in the morning and sometimes lasts until the wee hours of the morning. During a typical day he will check on the six or seven software projects for which he supervising development…”
Parents might have some problems with a culture hero proud of the “dastardly, fascinating and repulsive enemy characters” he has created, but the case might be made that Nintendo will prove the ideal outlet for aggression in post-perestroika America. One indulgent father tells me that the games have a combination of silliness and sadism that appeals to the national pysche.
Those concerned about Japanese-American competition, however, would do well to turn their minds from trade barriers to Terra Cresta and Twin Cobra. One cannot peruse NP without a sense that a second front is being opened here. Are we, in fact, reading a training manual for future colonial administrators? I probed my informant for incipient jingoism, but he was unconcerned and cautiously optimistic that “Americans could put out something that good.” It was .just that “Japan started it first.”
In any case, the American spirit is not totally moribund; a nine-year-old boy in Bridgeport, Conn., has filed a a class action suit against Nintendo of America charging that ‘Major League Baseball,’ a Nintendo-licensed product, fails to provide sufficient data to allow one to make the managerial decisions promised and that there is no way to verify the statistics included in the game. He wants his $40 back.
There is no moral in all this except that change sometimes comes when we’re not looking. Nintendo has considerable potential to affect the course of employment choices, inter-sex relationships, and international affairs, but because it’s only a game, people who study things that matter haven’t given it much attention. They probably should. It may be the beginning of Nintendo and not the end of history that truly shapes the world. Besides there is evidence that the Nintendo gestalt is infiltrating adult values as well. Egghead Software is offering a simple software program called The Boss Key. Its function is to turn off the game on one’s computer when the boss enters the office. People appear to be buying it.