Shigeru Miyamoto Wants to Create a Kinder World

In 1977, Shigeru Miyamoto joined Nintendo , a company then known for selling toys, playing cards, and trivial novelties. Miyamoto was twe...

In 1977, Shigeru Miyamoto joined Nintendo, a company then known for selling toys, playing cards, and trivial novelties. Miyamoto was twenty-four, fresh out of art school. His employer, inspired by the success of a California company named Atari, was hoping to expand into video games. Miyamoto began tinkering with a story about a carpenter, a damsel in distress, and a giant ape. The result, Donkey Kong, débuted in 1981. Four years later, Miyamoto had turned the carpenter into a plumber; Mario, and the Super Mario Bros. franchise, had arrived. But Miyamoto wanted more. Tired of linear, side-scrolling mechanics, he yearned to conjure the open world and carefree adventures of his childhood in Sonobe, a town just west of Kyoto. In 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda.

By 1993, when the journalist David Sheff published “Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children,” Miyamoto was widely considered the most important video-game designer in history. Although he benefits from the fact that most games are made by sprawling teams, which require a figurehead to whom players can attribute credit (or blame), he remains a nearly legendary figure. His games have sold hundreds of millions of copies; he played a major role in designing the Wii; he’s as much Nintendo’s mascot as the characters he’s created. (Rumors that he might retire have had an immediate effect on the company’s stock price.) But though he’s become famous, the idea that Miyamoto is doing much “zapping” is laughable. For one thing, he’s always shunned the shooting games that now dominate the medium. His aim, which he pursues with a strict, almost fanatical devotion, is to elicit joy.

Miyamoto turned sixty-eight in November. He’s been linked to Walt Disney since the early days of his career, and those comparisons are set to continue; Miyamoto is currently overseeing the design and installation of Super Nintendo World, a half-billion-dollar theme park at Universal Studios in Osaka. Because of his mystique, Nintendo tends to keep Miyamoto away from the media; as Nick Paumgarten wrote in his Profile, from 2010, securing an audience is “a little like trying to rescue Princess Toadstool.” But, a few days after Miyamoto’s birthday, I had a rare chance to speak to him at length, over Zoom—and he was willing to show more of the man behind the mascot than expected. In doing so, he revealed how deeply he has considered the discipline of game design and how much he has tried to move it forward. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I believe congratulations are in order. Happy birthday. Are you an easy person to buy gifts for?

I actually don’t buy a lot of gifts for other people, which means I find it hard to receive gifts. Maybe it’s difficult for people to choose things to give me. I received a birthday cake at Universal Studios when I was there this week, along with this T-shirt. [Points at his black shirt, emblazoned with the logo for Super Nintendo World.]

O.K. Whereabouts are you right now?

I’m in my house in Kyoto, not at Universal Studios, as the background suggests.

Kyoto has been home to Nintendo’s offices for more than a hundred years. It has become a site of pilgrimage for some people. In my mind, it has the aura of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: a secretive building full of marvellous inventors working on things that will delight us. Am I close here?

Once you get inside the building, it is a little like you’ve described. But on the outside, it’s very simple and clean, just a simple square building. Some people have even likened the reception area to a hospital waiting room. It’s kind of serene.

When you get past the reception area, does the environment help inspire the kind of creativity for which Nintendo is known?

Well, like I say, the building is simple. The staff can bring in any toys or action figures they like, but we have a system whereby designers switch desks according to whatever project they’re working on. Because there are no fixed placements, people don’t have that many personal belongings around them. I think, if a child were to visit and look at the space, it might seem a bit boring? The unique creative work takes place within each person. It doesn’t require a unique-looking environment. Obviously, we have all the equipment to do our work: motion-capture studios, sound studios. And we have a well-lit cafeteria, too, with good food.

You’ve been working at Nintendo for four decades now. What still excites you about going into the office?

It’s not the environment that makes me want to go so much as the fact that, over the weekend, I still spend a great deal of time thinking about games. By Monday, I’m usually excited to get back to work. To that end, I sometimes send e-mails over the weekend, which people don’t appreciate.

What was the last idea that made you feel that way?

Recently, I’ve been very involved with Universal Studios in Osaka, planning the attractions that are going to be there and putting the final touches on the rides. I’ve also been involved with making mobile games. Since I’m able to test and play these games easily at home, on the weekend, by Monday, I usually have a long list of things I want to try out and explore.

Super Mario Bros. is thirty-five years old this year. Half a lifetime. How does that make you feel?

Soon after Super Mario became famous, someone told me that I had reached the status of Walt Disney. I remember pointing out that, at the time, Mickey Mouse was more than fifty years old, while Mario had only been around for two or three years. So there was a lot to catch up on. I do believe that the quality of something hinges on whether or not it’s sought several decades after its creation. Walt Disney didn’t create everything that Disney put out, but the idea that a company could make these long-lasting symbols—that’s something I’ve admired. We’re finally at a point where people who played with Nintendo’s characters as children are playing with those same characters with their children. That longevity is special.

Do you have children or grandchildren?

Yes, I have two children and one grandchild.

I ask because, when I was growing up—and I think this was probably something that happened in a lot of schools—there was a kid who boasted that his dad worked for Nintendo, and nobody believed him. For your children, not only was it actually true, but they also shared their father with Super Mario. Did their friends ever doubt them?

I don’t think my children cared too much about my occupation, to be honest. Even with their friends, once in a while, a major fan comes to visit us, but most of the time we’ve been able to just hang out as a family. They’ve certainly never felt pressure to follow a certain path or to be a certain way. At home, I’m a normal dad. I don’t think that they have felt any undue burden because of who their father is.

In lockdown, millions of parents have been trying to insure that their kids maintain a healthy relationship to video games—not playing for too long, and so on. How did you negotiate these things with your own children?

Kids feeling like they can’t stop playing because the game is so fun—that’s something that I can understand and sympathize with. It’s important for parents to play the games, to understand why the child can’t quit until reaching the next save point, for example. In terms of my own kids, I’ve been fortunate in that they’ve always had a good relationship with video games. I’ve never had to restrict them or take games away from them.

It’s important to note that, in our household, all the video-game hardware belonged to me, and the children understood that they were borrowing these things. If they couldn’t follow the rules, then there was an understanding that I could just take the machine away from them. [Laughs.] When it was good weather outside, I would always encourage them to play outside. They played a lot of Sega games, too, by the way.

Really? Did you ever feel jealous about them playing a rival’s games?

[Laughs.] Not jealous so much as inspired to try harder, so that they preferred the ones I made.

Which Sega games did they enjoy?

They liked the driving games. Out Run. They also played a lot of Space Harrier.

Now, the other day, I had the chance to play with my grandchild. He was playing a Nintendo game called Captain Toad, and his eyes were shining; he was really into the experience. So I could see how a parent might be concerned about how immersed their child can become in a game. But, in my game design, I always want to encourage a relationship between a parent and child that is fundamentally nurturing. I was helping my grandchild navigate the 3-D world inside the game, and I could see the 3-D structure being built inside this five-year-old’s head. I thought, This could help his growth as well.

I believe in video games as a medium, and believe they can often tell us things about ourselves that are different from the insights offered by literature or film. There’s also a part of me that recognizes they can occupy a bit too much space in a person’s life. They are demanding and alluring; the obsession they inspire can squeeze out important things. Your job, usually, is to keep players engaged. Do you ever feel a tension between that role and the responsibility of putting things into the world that don’t diminish people?

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