How The Philosophy Of Nintendo’s Game Boy Inventor Is Ripe For These Times

2020 was a record-breaking sales year for video-game makers as people turned to tech-fueled diversions during COVID-19 lockdowns.  Video game industry revenues in 2020 are estimated to exceed both sports and film combined, with experts forecasting strong growth well into 2021 fueled by new games and consoles, and an anticipated rush of gaming IPOs, such as Roblox. With the focus on shiny new releases and game changing technology, one might forget that one of the most popular and best-selling game consoles-the Nintendo Game Boy- was designed based on an entirely different philosophy: lateral thinking with withered technologies.  

Espoused by Nintendo game designer Gunpei Yokoi (no relation to author), the concept is to use cheap and readily available (withered) technology and combine it with creative (lateral) thinking to come up with innovative ways to engage users.  The Game Boy was considered an innovative product, but the LCD screens used were affordable and already widely prevalent. Instead of seeking out cutting-edge hardware features, the philosophy was to focus on novel game play using cheap and readily available technology. Yokoi’s philosophy is widely credited in guiding the development of Nintendo’s Game Boy, and informing the development of the Wii U and 3DS.

The philosophy of lateral thinking with withered technology is particularly relevant in these disruptive times which require rapid innovation and a sensitivity to sustainability. 

The philosophy is similar in spirit with the Maker Movement-an umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkers, that has grown into a worldwide phenomenon in the past ten years. Makers tap into the spirit of self-reliance and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) to experiment and innovate using widespread technologies such as open-source software, 3D printing and robotics.  

The activities of the Maker community in response to COVID-19 demonstrates the potential of lateral thinking with withered technologies. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Makers mobilized to find various solutions ranging from face shields  to emergency ventilators by applying and combining existing technology in new ways, leveraging rapid prototyping and an agile manufacturing approach. Some observers consider this activity as a type of frugal innovation which could fill voids in fast and targeted ways to disrupt current incumbents. It could result in outcomes that are intrinsically sustainable due to the minimization of costs and resources.

But perhaps this philosophy and its potential uptake points to something deeper. 

Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss used the word bricolage to describe a way of acting interacting with the environment as “doing things with whatever is at hand.”  Bricolage  was leveraged by organizational theorist, Karl Weick, in his analysis of the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster as a source of  resilience. Weick puts forth the idea that people who are skilled in improvisation and bricolage remain creative under pressure, because they’re accustomed to working in conditions where objectives and structures are unclear. Those who bricolage often work with whatever is at hand and can form them into new combinations and solutions.

This philosophy and its embodiment in the Maker Movement  could be a manifestation of our deeper desire for resilience. This way of using nonlinear, unplanned and indirect ways of thinking gives us confidence that we might be able act when faced with an unanticipated event. As Dave Dougherty, founder of the Maker Movement describes in an interview with pri.org, “It’s not about how good you are. It’s about the sense of control and the sense of purpose and of setting your own direction.”


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