On Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s Passing & The Legacy of Games That Bring Joy

Satoru Iwata

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

In a short press release yesterday, Nintendo reported that President and long-time Nintendo employee Satoru Iwata passed away. He passed on July 11, 2015 as a result of a bile duct growth, which he had surgery for in 2014. The whole gaming world, social media, and news sites are flooded with outpourings of sympathy and stories of love for the man who brought us so much joy.

I had been planning to write a three-part article on the state of queer inclusion in Japanese gaming, including a discussion of social attitudes, the wildly unique corporate structures in Japan, and the budding indie community. After hearing of Iwata’s passing, I feel it’s not the proper time to write it. The truth is, I can’t write it. Like most of us, Iwata represented the fun side of gaming to me, the side somehow removed from all this. Losing him now feels like a removing a Jenga block in my heart and watching the whole thing collapse.

Social media right now is full of anecdotes, tributes, art, quotes, and more on the ways Iwata affected people’s lives. I’ve seen several moving stories from Western developers saying that he was the only person who treated them nicely, or how he signed something for them. He seemed like an all-around nice man, and one who was truly dedicated to the fun of gaming.

I don’t have any anecdotes. I never met him, I never even got close to him that I know of. But somehow, seeing him in his wonderfully quirky Nintendo Direct presentations, the Iwata Asks series, or as a guest on GameCenter CX, he became a sort of icon to me. Several years ago, he was under a lot of fire from fans for some of the decisions Nintendo made and their performance, but I always supported him in conversation. Not because I thought he was always right or that Nintendo always made great decisions. I supported Iwata because it was clear that he cared about fun more than anything else.

E3 Nintendo Digital Event

That’s why I can’t write the three-part article right now. Maybe someday soon I will come back to it—when the sadness is lighter and my heart is ready to cry out for change. But right now, my heart is just crying. I believe wholeheartedly in the quest for more inclusion and less discrimination in games, but beyond all that, what I truly care about is fun. I’ve worried for a long time that overzealous fans—fighting against inclusion, fighting for inclusion, or just fighting—would destroy the current gaming industry. But when you really get down to it, none of that should matter.

To me, in a way, it never truly did. As games advanced, stories and characters became more of a focus, and gaming became a social question. Iwata, however, wasn’t that kind of gamer. When you look at the kind of projects he worked on, from Balloon Fight to Kirby, it’s clear that he cared about games being fun. The focus wasn’t the stories, it wasn’t the limits it pushed, or the amount of violence—it was just how to enjoy something simple and cute. In my childhood, games were often just that: simple, cute, and fun ways for me to escape the pain around me. In the darkest times in my life, Nintendo gave me little tiny glimpses of hope, a little cuteness to make me smile or the courage to battle my nightmares.

I long for those days again—when games are fun because they’re fun, not just because of how they handle social issues. There’s always work to be done, and nobody’s perfect, but it’s important not to lose sight of why we fell in love with gaming in the first place. For me, I will remember Iwata as I play a Mario-themed review game with my students in my next class. Seeing Nintendo’s characters help Japanese children enjoy learning English is a wonderful legacy that I think Iwata would be proud of. Let’s take a moment, in our own ways, to remember the fun Iwata gave us all. That’s what really matters.

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