Satoru Iwata’s sudden passing affected me more than I expected. As a kid from the suburbs, my attachment to Nintendo began early but never veered into obsession; as a thirty-something freelance writer, videogames and Nintendo’s in particular have been my beat for the past five or so years. But my day job is teaching. Normally I stand in front of college freshman. This summer, I’m working at an academic camp outside Metro Atlanta where my charges are ten- and eleven-year-olds. To them, Iwata has been president of Nintendo for their entire lives.
I wondered: How would they react to the news? Do they care about Nintendo at all? So I decided to ask them. (Note: For what it’s worth, this is a school for Korean-American students.)
The plan fit right into the day’s lesson; I was to read them a passage from our book and then facilitate discussion. The idea was to practice careful listening, respecting others while they talk, and conveying your ideas verbally. The original topic was pesticides; I scrapped that and instead read an article from NPR.org announcing Iwata’s death.
The class numbered a dozen students; the table on the left was all boys, the table on the right all girls. I introduced the name of the article. At the mention of “Nintendo,” one student called out “Pokémon!” I continued.
“Satoru Iwata,” I read aloud, “the president and CEO of Nintendo for more than a decade, has died at the age of 55.”
“Good,” Maggie, age ten, says. “Nobody likes Nintendo.” [Permit me an unnecessary aside: Maggie is kind of a jerk.]
I share the rest of the article, my students listening intently. After, I ask them to jot down some notes and share their reactions with the class. Kristen, ten, begins: “My notes are, he died July 11th, he ran for over ten years, and he missed the Electronic Expo.”
Okay, I say. I ask for another response, and her classmate repeats a similar summary of the obit. I haven’t explained myself well, and they’re taking the assignment as a note-taking exercise. I try to deflect them from simply repeating information from the article and encourage a more personal reaction. Kenneth, eleven, raises his hand.
“He was the creator of Kirby, he also helped out with many games like Balloon Tower Defense.”
Slight progress, but clearly my intentions are murky. I jettison the article altogether and ask a simple question: “Does anybody have any Nintendo devices?”
Nearly every hand in the room shoots up.
“Me, I have a DS.”
“I don’t play Nintendo.”
“Used to have a DSi and I have a Wii.”
Kenneth pipes in. “I have a DSi, DSiXL, and a DSi Original.”
“You’re so rich!”
Alice, eight, raises her hand and quietly adds her haul. “I have a Nintendo 3DS and a Wii.”
Dana, eleven, says, “I have a Nintendo, just a regular one, the old kind. And a DS, like, the 3D one. And a bunch of games.”
I keep the simple questions coming. “What are your favorite Nintendo games?” I ask.
“Super Smash Bros. for 3DS!” Kenneth says. I take a moment to explain the story of Iwata, while at HAL Laboratory, coding the original prototype that would go on to convince Nintendo to create Smash Bros., but they don’t care.
“Pokemon SoulSilver!” Alice says. A discussion breaks out; Brandon, ten, says he can’t get past the man in Mahogony Town. “And he’s like, don’t make me upset you after eating that rage candy bar!” Alice admits she’s stuck on beating Red. Kenneth adds: “I traded one of the Legendaries for two of the starters and I’m really sad.”
“I flushed mine down the toilet,” Maggie says. What did you flush? I ask. “The game thing.” Oh the cartridge? “No, the little chip,” she explains, until clarifying, “I actually gave it to my cousin Matthew.”
I asked if they had any other favorite games.
“Kirby!” says Brandon. “Mario!” says Ian, age 11. Brandon adds Kart to the answer, but clarifies that, “They spell ‘cart’ wrong, though.” Someone says Zelda. I ask what the last Zelda game they played was. Brandon yells out, “Mystery Legends!” The answer goes unchallenged. “Spirit Tracks,” Ian says, adding, “That’s very old.” To affirm this, Dana tells a story about being in Kindergarten and selling her DS for $1400. “It was popular at the time,” she says.
I try to steer conversation back to Iwata. “If the President died,” I say, “what happens next?” Brandon answers succinctly: “No more Barack Obama.”
Okay, let’s bring it back to games. Specifically, the games they play every day during break-time.
“I see a lot of you with phones and tablets.” That’s Steve Jobs, Ian says. “I know the two most famous games in the world right now,” says Brandon. “Minecraft, which is boring, and League of Legends, which is fun.” Dana mentions TF2, then adds, for me, “Team Fortress 2,” and a cacophony of rebuttals arise from the boy’s table. “No one plays TF2!” “TF2 is dumb!” Dana maintains there’s nothing wrong with TF2.
Will, who says he’s four-years-old (he’s eleven), turns the tables on me. “Mr. Jon, do you know what GTA is?”
Ian is terrified he asked me this, yelling out “Nooo!” Brandon explains: “It’s a gangster thing.” Alice has her own assessment: “It’s a mature game.” One of the boys gives some gameplay details: “You pull over people’s cars, then you throw them around, and you steal their car.”
Things were getting a little rowdy. I ask Kristen if she plays videogames. She says no. One of the boys says that she does. It’s a tablet-game called Papa’s Freezeria. Oh yeah! She didn’t think of that as a videogame. Alice says her first ever game was an educational Elmo game. A boy chimes in, “That’s not a game!” Definitions remain malleable to both old and young.
Someone mentions Vainglory. “That’s the most famous game in the App Store right now,” Brandon says.
Kenneth, a stickler for rules, wants to return the conversation to Nintendo. He mentions one of the first games he played was a Wii game called Donkey Kong Returns. “I know a famous Wii game,” Ian says. “Mario Party or whatever.”
Do you guys play Mario Party? I ask. A few say they used to.
“Maggie,” I say, “you seemed pretty negative earlier. What do you play instead of Nintendo?”
“Instagram,” she says.
Dana raises her hand. “One day I was playing LOL,” she says, looking at me and adding, “League of Legends...” and there’s another kerfuffle from the boy’s table: “What!” “Whoa, you play League?” She says she was playing with her cousins, who were all boys, and it took three hours to finish one game. I ask them why they like LOL so much.
Will: “It’s addicting.”
Kenneth: “It’s basically Vain.”
The general rat-a-tat of claims, questions and answers continues. Crystal, laughing, says how when she was little she was obsessed with computers [laughs] and she loved computer cooking games [laughs]. Kenneth asks me what my very first game was. I answer BurgerTime for Intellivision, and there’s murmurs of confusion and understanding, and Kenneth says below the din, “The time where everyone went fat.”
Then I say how my brother got an NES and I loved Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. (Brandon says out of nowhere, “Photo Dojo!” which is an amazing one-on-one fighting game for DSiWare that has you photograph yourself and friends to create characters. My respect grows.)
Kenneth: “Did you use the PowerGlove?”
Me: Maybe once, I don’t know.
Kenneth: “Was it amazing?”
Me: How do you even know about the PowerGlove? That was a long time ago.
Kenneth: “I research.”
Me: Research is good.
I return the favor and ask them what their first game was. One of Dana’s was Cooking Mama for DS. “I was going through a phase of, like, cooking,” she says. Kenneth’s was Super Mario Bros. ”Not the first first one, but kinda like the first one…” I ask if it was New Super Mario Bros.. “Yeah, that’s it. And I also played the Kirby series, but I forget the one it was.”
“Kirby is really old,” says Ian.
Vanessa, age ten, used to play videogames but she doesn’t anymore. Her first game was Dora’s Color Kingdom. Will says he used to play Dora games, too.
Kenneth then asks me what the most recent game I played was. I begin, “The most recent game I played was yesterday…” and the kids exclaim in a harmony of Whoa’s. Maggie wants to know if I played by myself, and I ignore her, but she asks again, Mr. Jon, did you play it by yourself?, and for some reason I lie and say no, my wife was in the room, but I did play by myself, and I don’t know why this ten-year-old girl wields power over me, but she does, and I feel a modicum of shame.
They totally freak out when I say I’m thirty-four.
Alice has a question. “How often and how long do you play games? My answer is four times a week, and one to three hours per time.” She covers her mouth with her hands and her eyes widen.
I say that I play a little bit every day. But an hour at once is about my limit.
Kenneth: “I play until my eyes bleed and it’s like, ‘This is worth it.’”
We need to wrap things up. I ask if there are any more reactions to Nintendo’s president passing away, or your own experiences with Nintendo or games in general.
Alice raises her hand. She looks down at her notes, the ones she took after hearing me read Iwata’s obituary.
“I love videogames and all,” she reads. “But I’m very sad to hear that he died pretty young. My expression when I heard this is, ‘My life is over.’”
What I don’t say then, but am thinking now, is that for you, Alice, and my other students, and for Nintendo in the wake of losing a president and mentor and friend: Your life is just beginning.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.