The Curious Tragedy of Satoru Iwata

(written at five in the morning because some people are more important than sleep)

A few hours ago, Japanese gaming company Nintendo released the news that legendary game developer, and company CEO, Satoru Iwata, had passed away from bile duct cancer. He was 55 years old.

Obviously, this is a tragedy, but as with the deaths of all living creatures, there are multiple levels to this sadness. There is a clear personal tragedy, that a human being with friends and family members has died, and a cynic would point out the economic tragedy of all this that Nintendo shares have fallen 0.7% this morning as a result of this news according to this particularly macabre BBC footnote. But the most wide-ranging form of tragedy here is a cultural one: gaming culture has not only lost the visionary who lived, worked and died as a gamer before anything else, but the man who gave up half of his salary in atonement for his company’s poor recent sales record. In a very similar way to the death of Nelson Mandela apparently robbing the world of likeable, genuinely altruistic political figures, this tragedy has left the gaming community staring over the precipice of half-finished games padded with DLC to squeeze money from consumers, technology that is more invasive and obstructive than entertaining, and endless identical Assassin’s Creed sequels.

But to draw away from an emotive response to this death for a second, this event has placed the gaming community at a relatively new crossroads: namely that gaming culture has not existed in its current form for long enough for such passings to be expected, and there isn’t really an obvious response as a result. The art of writing, for instance, has existed for thousands of years, and modern literary criticism deals almost exclusively with the dead, seeing them as contributors towards historical-cultural periods, and is rather comfortable analysing writers as artists, as opposed to people; literary criticism is an exercise in looking backwards, and looking at the products of people’s lives. Yet gaming culture is not so historically advanced; this is a culture saturated with relentless innovation, from double-screened consoles to ones activated by voice. Gaming isn’t a thing to be reviewed from an armchair with a book in one hand an an In Our Time podcast gently playing in the background, it’s a thing to be lived, to experience now, and to contribute towards ourselves, rather than limit ourselves to looking back on the work of our ancestors.

Yet Iwata’s death will undoubtedly lead to a lot of back-looking from the gaming community; media outlets will release an obituary in their gaming sections as opposed to rumours of a new Nintendo handheld, gamers will chat nostalgically about the exploits of this great man, instead of speculating on the new Smash Bros. DLC characters. Already the hashtags #RIPIwata and #ThankYouIwata are filling up Twitter feeds.

For the first time in its short existence, gaming culture has come to the definitive end of an era. Other prominent figures have died in the past, and prominent consoles and series have risen and fallen, but there has never been a single event in the gaming world to stun the entire culture to its core. And now, the most futureproof, forward-looking cultural movement on the planet has had to slam its brakes and check the rear-view mirror. And it’s seeing sadness. Lots of nostalgia. A bit of anger at the brutality of mortality and the fragility of humanity. But there’s a lot of shock, a stunned, near-denial of the fact that the man who presided over platformers built on the basis of infinite lives won’t live forever himself.

This is a turning point, not just for Nintendo but for all of gaming culture, as we move towards an existence as a storied, established form of art as opposed to the new kids on the block with our fast blue hedgehogs and turtle-crushing plumbers. And it’s appropriate that this turnaround comes from the man who, despite his own modesty, became more than a gamer; he was a legend and a figurehead for a hobby that became a movement that became a culture.

Thank you, Iwata.

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2 thoughts on “The Curious Tragedy of Satoru Iwata

  1. I haven’t been gaming for quite some time–it isn’t that much of a hobby to begin with, but games were still a big part of my childhood. And it’s amazing how many people around the world has been influenced by what he created.

    I still like my turtle-crushing plumbers, though.

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