Game Studies - The Vitruvian Thumb: Embodied Branding and Lateral Thinking with the Nintendo Game Boy (2022)

by Daniel Reynolds

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Nintendo, Game Boy, embodiment, branding, platform, cognitive extension

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Abstract

The Nintendo Game Boy, the first widely popular handheld gaming console, was shaped by a confluence of forces including industrial branding, technological constraint, and the structures of embodied interaction. The design philosophy of the unit’s principal developer, Gunpei Yokoi, emphasizes using “withered technology” in new and novel articulations. This essay proposes that Yokoi’s model of thinking with technology applies not only to media technologists but to users of media as well. It posits the Game Boy as exemplary of how videogame hardware--both in its design and in its use--is a form of thinking with and through technology. Through a review of the history of Nintendo’s patents up to and including that for the Game Boy, a reading of the release title Tetris as an indicator of Nintendo’s priorities for its new console, and a discussion of Nintendo’s ongoing emphasis on novel control schemes and new forms of embodied interaction with media, this essay argues that study of media platforms should always look to the material contexts of those platforms--in both their design and creation and the variety of uses to which they are put--in order to think about the relationships between media technologies and media texts.

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Short description

Describes a confluence of forces that shaped the development of the Nintendo Game Boy. Argues that the Game Boy exemplifies a relationship between technologists, media technology, and users. Encourages theorists to consider the bodily and other material constraints that inform the development of media platforms.

Introduction

As the 1980s drew to a close, the dominant videogame manufacturer of the decade sought to extend its reach beyond the living room and into the hands of its users, wherever they happened to be. The Nintendo Game Boy portable console was released in the United States and Japan in 1989. In its various iterations before its replacement by the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and then the Nintendo DS in 2005, the Game Boy would sell nearly 120 million hardware units. (Nintendo, “Consolidated”) Beyond its market success, the Game Boy represented a turning point in how Nintendo conceived of itself, its users, and the intimate relationship between bodies and technologies that characterizes videogame play.

The artwork for the Game Boy’s packaging depicts a pair of black-and-neon-blue hands, reminiscent of the embodied computer programs in the film Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), holding a similarly stylized Game Boy in front of a wireframe background. On the unit’s screen, a game of Tetris (Bullet-Proof Software and Nintendo, 1989) is in progress, its player poised for a successful next move.

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Figure 1. Game Boy box art

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This packaging visualizes a pivotal moment in the development of Nintendo’s corporate identity as a videogame publisher and console manufacturer. From the 1950s onward, Nintendo had sought to become a global corporation with a stable of transmedia properties, taking its initial cues from the Walt Disney Company. (Ryan 2012, p.12) Building upon Disney’s focus on iconic characters and consistency of style and tone, Nintendo strove also toward an ecosystem of readily identifiable and distinctive configurations of interactive media technology.

Nintendo’s, we might say, is an embodied brand. The (virtual) materiality of its characters and the ways that users feel themselves present in, and present to, Nintendo’s virtual worlds, are as important as the often minimal and repetitive stories that Nintendo tells in its games. Nintendo’s priority is not so much conventional narrative world-building as establishing and maintaining an impression of embodied engagement with virtual spaces and characters. In the terms of embodied cognitive science, this bodily engagement is necessarily extended engagement, in that it incorporates not only the mind and the body, but also the devices and the game structures with which players interact. (Chemero 2009, pp. 31-32) While Nintendo, especially in the case of the Game Boy, exemplifies a particular kind of corporate intuition about the evocative power of this relationship, the relationship itself pertains to all videogame play and indeed to experience beyond games and media.

In my view, the experience of gameplay does not occur in the mind or on the screen, but across the dynamic between body, hardware, and game. The embodied mind must always be understood as extended across and embedded in its environment. (Hutto and McGivern 2015) The mind, understood in this way, is nonrepresentational in that it functions by way of action in the world rather than by internal abstractions. (Chemero 2009) This perspective troubles the idea that our relationships with videogames are based on cognitive modeling or imaginative projection of ourselves into game world, as proposed by James Paul Gee. (2008) Cognitive modeling effectively renders the mind virtual to the world and the world (including games) virtual to the mind. I would argue that the relationship between players and games is better understood as a form of physiological presence, and that in the Game Boy--its hardware, its games, and its branding--we find Nintendo thinking its way toward a new corporate conception of gameplay as a mode of embodied and extended being in the world. In this sense, the Game Boy anticipates later Nintendo products like the Wii, which foregrounds “the kinesthetic dimension of all gaming” (Simon 2009, 12) as well as “the physical space…between the player and the display.” (Jones and Thiruvathakul 2012, 91)

The promotional image on the Game Boy’s packaging at once implies technological immersion, as the world of the game becomes the world of the player, and perfectible bodily extension, as the intention of the player becomes melded with his or her ability to act on (and thus to act as within) the world of the game. This image of melding implies a promise of the spatial and kinesthetic relationship to games that Gordon Calleja has called incorporation. (2011, pp. 167 ff.) Incorporation, to Calleja, can only occur once players have learned how to navigate a game, at which point they can explore freely without being overly conscious of their mode of engagement with the game’s world. Rune Klevjer proposes the alternative concept of “prosthetic telepresence,” in which a player’s self-awareness is projected into the world of third-person games via control both of the player character and of the game’s camera. (2012). These theories of immersion, like Gee’s, are predicated on an essential divide between player and game world that must be sufficiently overcome in order for the special perceptual relationship called immersion to occur. Whether or not this captures the true nature of immersion (or whether immersion simply is the task of overcoming such a divide), the Game Boy’s packaging presents the device both as a tool for bodily and perceptual experience and as a way to transform one’s relationship to the wider world, outside of the game. In this respect, the immersion it implies is not so much the penetration of a virtual world of perception and action, as in Calleja and Klevjer, as it is a mutual constitution of experience, shared between player and technology.

According to Lisa Zunshine, depictions of gestures, actions, and expressions provide “fantasies of access” to the mental states of characters in literature, cinema, and television. Users are “lured in” by implied promises of “embodied transparency--by the promise of perfect access to [characters’] feelings,” which Zunshine takes to be a central appeal of fiction. (2012, p.118) Videogames, especially narrative-focused games, draw upon this appeal while simultaneously inverting it, so that many of the relevant gestures and actions become those of the player, and the fantasies facilitated through gameplay are less about access to the subjective mental states of non-player characters than they are about embodied relationships to game worlds. But these relationships are bidirectional. We do not perform these gestures merely to immerse, incorporate, project, or reach into game worlds. It is just as well to sat that we perform these gestures to allow them--games, game worlds, game technologies--access to us.

As does any media platform, the Game Boy came into being at a nexus of preexisting technologies, corporate history and identity, financial pressures, and the particularities of the human body. Nintendo’s negotiation of this complex of constraints is instructive in understanding the emergence of media platforms in terms of their societal, industrial, and physiological contexts. For these reasons, the case of the Game Boy foregrounds the connections between bodies and media platforms, indicating that platform studies, as an endeavor and as a discipline, would do well always to consider the roles that bodies play in shaping technological platforms. The particularities of human bodies (and especially of how we imagine the human body) are manifested in the forms that platforms take. At the same time, gameplay on the Game Boy requires both a body and a console, so we can say that the platform is incomplete without those hands and the body that they belong to. When we speak in this way, we speak of particular hands and particular bodies, not of idealized abstractions--and, for that matter, we speak of a particular Game Boy, in a particular context. This is ultimately a relationship of mutual constraint. Bodies, real and imagined, constrain platforms, and platforms constrain bodies.

Lateral thinking

While most portable gaming devices prior to the Game Boy’s release could run one game apiece, the Game Boy is capable of playing games stored on interchangeable read-only memory (ROM) cartridges. The device draws on design lessons that Nintendo learned in the development of its NES home console and the single-game handhelds in its Game & Watch series, and in its earlier incarnation as a toy and playing card company. The release of the Game Boy revitalized the videogame industry, provoking first cultural anxiety and then a new era of acceptance as the console reached players who might not have previously found themselves playing videogames. It anticipated the smartphone-driven “casual games” movement by two decades, and the constraints of the unit’s low processing power and low-resolution greyscale LCD display led to innovations in game design that reverberate to the present day. As the first pervasively popular handheld console, it changed users’ bodily and psychological relationships to gameplay.

While the Game Boy remains influential, and while it has played a key role in the societal legitimation of the videogame medium, the console is also a reminder that innovation, whether incremental or radical, is always characterized by technological, cultural, and industrial continuity. The Game Boy’s lead developer, Gunpei Yokoi, had decades of experience with videogame and analog game technology, as well as a deep understanding of Nintendo’s corporate culture and a hard-won intuition for the relationships between technological platforms, media content, and human bodies. Yokoi developed a design philosophy called “Game Studies - The Vitruvian Thumb: Embodied Branding and Lateral Thinking with the Nintendo Game Boy (2) ,” usually translated as “lateral thinking of withered technology,” which espouses the use of older technological components in new, creative articulations. (Yokoi and Takefumi 1997, p.77) Lara Crigger describes it as privileging the use of

mature technology in novel or radical applications. At the time of the invention of the Game & Watch, LCD technology was everywhere…because prices for individual components had dropped so much, integrating LCD into a product was relatively inexpensive. Some people wanted to use fancier technology in the Game & Watch…but Yokoi insisted that affordability was key and that the player cared more about fun gameplay over fancy technology. (“Retroinspection”, 46)

Yokoi’s philosophy guided the development of the Game Boy and it continues to inform Nintendo’s current consoles, the Wii U and the handheld 3DS, nearly two decades after Yokoi’s 1997 death. The noun modifier “の” is also a possessive marker, so “Game Studies - The Vitruvian Thumb: Embodied Branding and Lateral Thinking with the Nintendo Game Boy (3) ” can also be read as “withered technology’s lateral thinking,” a reading that underscores a key aspect of the relationship between media platforms and their designers. Technologies such as game consoles or film projectors create complex relationships between media content, media technology, and human bodies. Thinking about technology does not occur just within the human “thinker,” whether an individual, a design team, or a corporation, but rather in the dynamic relationship between technologists and technologies. Likewise, videogame players think not only with their brains, but also with their eyes, ears, and hands, and with the consoles and the games themselves. (Grodal 2009)

This relationship occurs at the confluence of three seemingly distinct lines of inquiry, namely the philosophy of extended cognition, the exploratory nature of technological innovation, and the scholarly field of platform studies. Extended cognition argues that cognitive processes do not occur only in the brain, but that they “leak” out, in Andy Clark’s terms, into the environment. “We are ‘soft selves,’” writes Clark, “continuously open to change and driven to leak through the confines of skin and skull, annexing more and more nonbiological elements as aspects of the machinery of the mind itself.” (Clark 2004, p.137) We use the affordances of our surroundings in order to work through the challenges presented by those very surroundings. Different approaches to extended cognition conceive of this relationship in a variety of ways, but they have in common the position that not all cognitive processes are entirely “in the mind” or “in the brain.” Rather, they extend into the world in one way or another, largely through physical manipulation of tools and other objects. The nonrepresentational variety of extended cognition that I favor sees embodied experience as always extended. It is important to note that this approach to cognition necessarily blurs the line between “outer” and “inner” with regard to where experience takes place. In this respect, it follows both phenomenological and pragmatic approaches to experience, such as those proposed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey. (Johnson 2007) When James Paul Gee proposes that a “projective stance” (2008, p. 260) is one of the key sources of pleasure in videogame play, his perspective is grounded in a representationalist understanding of embodied cognition. In my view, we do not “project” ourselves into games and into the world via acts of imagination, but we rather participate directly in games and the world. This bodily engagement is the source, not the object, of the mind. Objects in the world, including videogames, thus participate in the constitution of minds.

Technological innovation is by nature exploratory and contingent. As Gilles Deleuze writes, artists, scientists, and philosophers are all inventors by nature. (1998) To Deleuze, filmmakers “have ideas in cinema” by employing cinematic technology to create filmic blocks of movement and duration. Engineers like those at Nintendo, I would argue, are similarly engaged in the creation of new functions. Engaging in Yokoi’s “lateral thinking,” they have ideas in the technology itself. That is, they create and alter the structure of the technology as an idea. Early videogame developers worked at the nexus between media forms and platforms, as their games were hard-wired into machinery, not stored on removable media. For consoles such as the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, the hardware engineers were also the game designers. The roles were indistinguishable; to change the game was to change the physical constitution of the console. Hardware developer Ralph Baer calls a hockey game a “‘de/dt’ (the derivative of voyage vs time) game, because the puck’s velocity was the derivative of the voltage generated by the joystick controlling the hockey puck’s motion.” (Baer 2012, p.229) From the designer’s perspective, the game’s genre is defined in terms of the operation of the underlying platform rather than the depictive content of the game itself.

The case of the Game Boy illustrates how the field of platform studies, which investigates how the technological underpinnings of media constrain and facilitate media form, would benefit from further consideration of how human bodies engage and shape technological form. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost define a platform as “the hardware and software design of interactive computing systems,” that is, as necessarily computational. (2009, p.2) Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal situate computational platforms within a broader category that includes, for example, the printing press as a “platform for producing and disseminating texts.” They suggest that platform studies ought to consider how “culture (or social context) pervades” platforms. (2012, p.9-10) We might take this to its next step and say that culture does not only pervade platforms; platforms pervade culture. Among the ways they participate in, and are reliant upon, their material contexts, is by way of the bodily activities of the people that produce them, manipulate them, and think with them.

Media platforms function by way of their relationships with the bodies of their users, and the configurations of media technologies are shaped by how technologists conceive of those bodies. Much as Nintendo thinks with “withered technology” in its development of new consoles, anybody who picks up a Game Boy thinks with the technology and thereby enters into a matrix of technological, cultural, and cognitive relations that continues to evolve a quarter-century after the system’s release. If the Game Boy was designed for its theoretical players’ hands, eyes, ears, and minds, each of these was necessarily an abstraction, an idealization of structure and process. But no body is an abstraction.

Platforms and Bodies

As embodied beings, we negotiate an environment characterized by its perceptual structures and variations, opportunities and challenges, affordances and constraints. Whether in a forest or an urban environment, we constantly perceive, assess, predict, and plan for the contingencies of the world around us. As psychologist James J. Gibson writes,

Animals seem not only to recognize constant objects, but to orient themselves to a constant environment…territorial behavior also suggests that [they] can respond, in some sense, to the habitat as a whole; and exploratory behavior suggests a kind of striving to extend the boundaries of this whole. (2009, pp.268-269)

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This exploratory behavior is achieved not only with our brains but with our whole bodies, in ongoing use of the affordances of our surroundings. We merge with the tools that we employ in order to do work, whether we are using a hand tool to manipulate physical material or easing our mental work or “cognitive load” by “[leaving] information in the world,” as Clark puts it. (2008, p.69)

Media technologies, especially computational platforms that facilitate algorithmic responses to input from an “external” world that is causally intertwined with the internal workings of the device, participate in this relationship in ways structured by their industrial and sociocultural contexts. As Deleuze writes, “the limit common to [invention] is space-time.” (1998, p.16) In other words, the limit is material constraint. Countless technological, financial, and legal constraints bear on what console designers can bring to market. As tools, these technologies are also constrained by the particularities of the human bodies that use them. The illustration below, from the United States patent for the Game Boy, idealizes the relationship between the handheld and the hands and thumbs of a hypothetical user--Vitruvian thumbs, one might say, whose size and range of motion align perfectly with the configuration of the device. For the ancient architect Vitruvius, the human body was designed by nature “so that its members are duly proportional to the frame as a whole,” and it is important that built structures maintain similar principles of symmetry and proportion. (1914, p.73) Centuries later, Leonardo Da Vinci would model his Vitruvian Man (c. 1490) on Vitruvius’s description of anatomic proportion. The Game Boy patent illustration conceives of the hands of the player in perfect harmony with the dimensions of the Game Boy unit, echoing both Da Vinci’s drawing and the image from the Game Boy’s packaging.

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Figure 2. Vitruvian thumbs (Okada and Kojo, 1992)

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Figure 3. Vitruvian Man

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In the patent illustration, as on the box, the Game Boy and the hands are shown in harmony, tool and user as one. Videogame play is a variety of tool use one of whose challenges is to divine the structures, dynamics, and rules of the tool itself. This might be achieved through exploration of game space, experimentation with control schemes, or probing of a game’s narrative possibilities. A similar challenge confronts game designers when they develop games for a platform. During the lifecycle of a console, the idiosyncrasies of the platform become increasingly clear, so that games developed later in the cycle achieve effects that seemed impossible earlier in the life of the console. Montfort and Bogost point out that the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), introduced in the late 1970s, was a remarkably flexible platform for game design because “the few things it could do well…could be put together in a wide variety of ways to achieve surprising results.” (2009, p.15)

The longevity of a platform relies on designers’ ability to exploit its idiosyncrasies. This ability requires a kind of aesthetic-technological research into the representational and expressive contours of the systems. Again, the limit is space-time. “By the early 1980s,” write Montfort and Bogost, “VCS programmers had…grown more fluent in the platform, and they began to push it in new ways with their growing expertise.” (104)

Handheld consoles confront further physical constraints. If a device is too heavy or too large, or if its dimensions are awkward, it will be difficult to carry or to hold in one’s hands for an extended time. A home console has the luxury of outputting its video and audio signals to a TV, and of outsourcing its input to a controller and its power supply to an electrical outlet. A handheld must house all of these components, as well as a microprocessor and any necessary memory units, within a self-contained and durable chassis. Furthermore, this chassis must make ergonomic sense as something to be held, looked at, and manipulated. These constraints are evident in concessions that designers inevitably make in the computational capacities of the hardware, which in turn become visible in the textures and details of the games that the consoles run.

As a result of such considerations, the Game Boy imposes a number of qualities on its games. Their graphics must be legible on a four-tone greyscale display. They must employ, at most, four channels of sound. They must be navigable via an eight-direction joypad and four-button input scheme. Over time, designers found a wide range of representational and expressive options within these constraints. Even a decade after the system was released, they were discovering new ways to push the system’s capacities.

The blending of user, platform, and game is especially evident when a player holds an entire gaming device, from power supply to processor to software to display, in the palms of her or his hands. For this reason, handheld consoles like the Game Boy can help in thinking about how home consoles work for their players, and, more importantly, what videogame play, in a more general sense, does for players. Cognitive extension is by nature pragmatic, continuous, and transitive. In its development of subsequent consoles such as the Wii and the 3DS, Nintendo has maintained a corporate tradition of producing devices rhetorically tied into the embodied intentions of their users. With their emphasis on motion control, multimodal input, and binocular 3D vision, these devices point up the fact that people using media technologies are always blended, in body and in mind, with the structures of those technologies.

Much as people strive to make practical use of their surroundings in order complete tasks, Nintendo, under the continued influence of Yokoi’s philosophy, often seeks to marshal its financial and technological resources to prioritize using already-available components in new ways. The design of the Game Boy represents the confluence of over a decade of technological experimentation. Its image and sound technology were oriented toward their potential for future development and experimentation, even as Nintendo’s patent history lays bare the Game Boy’s continuity with the past.

Technological Articulations

Weighing around 400 grams and measuring nearly 15 centimeters in length, the Game Boy is only marginally portable by today’s standards, but for its time it was a highly efficient use of material resources that managed to encapsulate essential characteristics of a home videogame console. As originally released in the US, the device consists of a four-shade LCD screen with a resolution of 160 by 144 pixels and a refresh rate of approximately 60 frames per second, a mono audio speaker and stereo headphone jack, an 8-bit processor running at 4.19 MHz with 8k of internal RAM and 8k of dedicated video RAM, and a four-button controller with an 8-direction joypad, housed in a hard plastic shell and powered by four AA batteries or an optional A/C adapter. It features analog dial-controlled contrast and volume levels, a hard on-off switch, and an “ext. connector” port through which it can be connected to up to three other Game Boys for competitive or collaborative gameplay.

No component of the Game Boy was particularly new or innovative. The unit as a whole, however, articulates its components in a way that embodies Yokoi’s philosophy of lateral thinking. The resulting system is robust and versatile. In the 12 years before its replacement the Game Boy Advance, the Game Boy saw a number of hardware expansions and enhancements, and its programmers found creative ways of working with and within its affordances and constraints. The versatility of the system is attested by its ongoing popularity in the present day, with contemporary programmers independently producing homebrew games and musicians using the system’s sound-synthesizing capability in the chiptune music movement.

The Game Boy’s CPU, the Sharp LR35902, is derived from the Intel 8080 chip and the Zilog Z80. (Fayzullin el al. 1998) The Z80 first went to market in 1976. Among its many commercial and industrial applications, it was the basis of the Pac-Man (Midway, 1980) arcade cabinet. (“Midway’s Pac-Man,” 35-37) In videogame cabinets and consoles, the Z80 was used alongside other chips and dedicated ROM modules to create the complex multi-color graphics familiar from eye-catching arcade games like Pac-Man. When paired with the Game Boy’s less-demanding LCD screen, the LR35902 can smoothly handle the relationships between multiple moving objects and environmental structures. This can be observed in games available at the system’s launch such as Super Mario Land (Nintendo R&D1, 1989) and in more elaborate form in later games like Donkey Kong Land (Rare, 1995).

The Game Boy’s LCD screen has a slight green tint. Lighter pixels appear barely colored while darker pixels have an olive hue, an effect similar to color toning of black and white film. This coloration is at once distinctive to the Game Boy and effectively transparent in any particular game, as it is shared by all games on the system. The display area of 160x144 pixels is a relatively small portion of a 256x256 screen buffer that facilitates a smoothly scrolling onscreen background by loading off-screen objects into the system’s visual memory before they are displayed onscreen. (DP, n.d.) With the RAM at their disposal, Game Boy programmers have the capacity to compose vibrant and complex game worlds.

While Game Boy programmers developed powerful tools for optimizing the display’s capacity, the unit’s limitations are highlighted by attempts to represent three-dimensional game spaces and in its use as a display for the Game Boy Camera peripheral. 3D graphics suffer from the screen’s pixelated images and its lack of shading subtlety, which make shifting and scrolling diagonal lines difficult to render. Games including Faceball 2000 (Xanth, 1991) and X (Nintendo EAD, 1992), attempt to work around the system’s constraints to create three-dimensional environments, but with little success. Photographic images from the Game Boy Camera are highly pixelated, with a low-contrast look that appears either washed out or darkly shadowed.

The screen’s low contrast and its lack of a backlight can make details difficult to see in low or high lighting conditions. The contrast dial provides some adaptability, as players can darken or lighten the image to suit the ambient light, but the unit’s promise of portable play is curtailed by the absence of internal illumination. When playing in motion, say while on a bus or while walking (the latter is not recommended), changes in ambient lighting conditions can introduce an extradiegetic element to the challenge of gameplay. In this respect, the portability of the system itself entails new challenges for players and designers alike.

The Game Boy’s audio synthesizer can produce up to four sounds at once via two square wave patterns, a “wave channel” for more complex sounds, and a white-noise generator, which is often used to create percussive sounds such as drums or impact noises. Each of these four sounds can be subjected to effects such as envelope filters. The resulting sounds are mixed and directed to either or both of the stereo channels. (Nintendo 1999, p.17) The system is thereby capable of mixing diegetic sound and ambient noise with diegetic and non-diegetic music.

The plastic body of the unit is the same light gray color as the NES console casing. Its controller is modeled on the NES controller, with its red B and A buttons, “Start” and “Select” buttons, and a black 8-direction joypad in the shape of a cross. This visual association with the Nintendo hardware brand is extended by the system’s in-game use of iconic Nintendo characters such as Mario and Luigi, Link and Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Samus. Game Boy titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo EAD, 1993) and Metroid II: Return of Samus (Nintendo R&D1, 1991) are canonical entries in their respective ongoing transmedia franchises. By playing similarly branded games through a similar control interface, Game Boy players participate in corporate branding on two levels. Despite the limitations of the screen, and despite the constraints of the portable format, players both see and feel that they are engaging with a Nintendo product.

The promise of portable game technology is also a promise of ubiquitous, embodied brand identification. It is an apt site for the kinds of continuous participation in fictions that characterize transmedia properties. “Transmedia storytelling,” writes Henry Jenkins, “is the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels.” (Jenkins 2001, p.21) Nintendo practices a character-centered variety of transmedia storytelling, with characters who appear repeatedly (and often incoherently) across games, shows, and licensed products, with more emphasis on recognizability than on a consistent, ongoing story. This world-building emphasis on what might be thought of as lateral familiarity over linear development echoes Nintendo’s approach to gaming technologies. The technological innovation reflected in Nintendo’s patent activity in the decades around the Game Boy’s release reveals a company thinking though possible relationships between bodies and technologies, a preoccupation with the roles that interactivity could have in the lives of users.

A Family of Technologies

The Game Boy is protected by a US patent describing it as a “Compact Hand-Held Videogame System,” (Okada and Kojo 1992) and by complementary patents such as “Electronic Gaming Device with Pseudo-Stereophonic Sound Generating Capabilities.” (Okada and Tanka 1990) The Game Boy is distinguished from Nintendo’s Game & Watch handhelds, which ran from 1980 to 1991, by the possibility of switching out one game for another in a single hardware unit. While the Game Boy was the first successful cartridge-based handheld, it was beaten to market by over a decade by the Milton Bradley Microvision, developed by Smith Engineering. Smith’s 1978 patent for that device proposes an ontological difference between cartridge-based systems and self-contained units, the representational capacities of which are tailored to single games:

[In single-game handhelds, the] driver circuitry transmits signals to the display which are subjectively determined by a player within the preset confines of the game…Characteristic of each of these games is the fact that a predetermined movable and moving symbol, as for example a ball or a racing car appears on the display unit and undergoes a predetermined path of motion which can be altered by a player by manipulating the control elements. (Smith, Karr, and Jones 1978)

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This description classes prior handhelds, with their predetermined symbols and paths of motion, with physical manipulation games in which material objects are moved through a path, devices such as Nintendo’s “Ten Billion Barrel,” designed by Yokoi and released in 1980. The “Ten Billion Barrel” is a derivative of the Rubik’s Cube in which players move “rotary indicators” and “shunting bodies” in order to organize the balls within by color. (Yokoi 1980a) Single-game handhelds are in many ways closer to physical toys than to modern handhelds. Nintendo cannily drew upon this association by bundling the game Tetris (original version Alexiy Pajitnov, 1984; Game Boy version Bullet-Proof Software and Nintendo, 1989) with the Game Boy for its US release. Seeking broad appeal, Nintendo eschewed its established character-driven branding and opted for a more toy-like game as the flagship title for its handheld.

Smith’s patent for a replaceable-cartridge handheld is careful to class the new unit with existing home consoles. At the time, the Atari VCS was the best-known of these and the NES was still seven years from release in the US. Atari had come to dominate the home console market with the VCS, which offers more versatility than consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey, Atari’s own Home Pong (released in 1974), and Nintendo’s Japan-only Color TV-Game (1977). Those systems allow players to choose among only a few hardwired gameplay variables. Smith seeks to realign handheld gaming with the cartridge console market:

For the present, handheld electronic game devices are capable of playing only one game. Only large console devices that need to be connected to television sets have the capability of providing at least a limited selection of games to the user. (Smith, Karr, and Jones 1978)

While opening a unit up to exchangeable cartridges increases its versatility, it also fundamentally divides the gaming hardware. As the game information is contained on ROM cartridges, the hardware is in a sense incomplete without a cartridge inserted. While contemporary consoles read game information from optical media like disks or from their internal hard drives, or stream game data over the internet, a cartridge-based console can be seen as most of a game machine, with some of the hardware left out.

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Figure 4. “Predetermined paths of motion” in Ball. (Yokoi 1980b)

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In Gunpei Yokoi’s first digital media patent in the US, the Game & Watch mechanism is described as a “Timepiece apparatus having a game function.” (Yokoi 1980b) Figure 2 illustrates the graphical possibilities of Ball (Nintendo 1980), the first of the Game & Watch series, in an image that again echoes Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Interestingly, the patent describes the device as a timepiece first, identifying its gaming capacity as a secondary function. The highly successful Game & Watch line would eventually include dozens of units, released over a twelve-year period.

Since the launch of the NES, Nintendo has steadfastly protected both its technological innovations and its brand identity, often devising innovative ways to do both at once. The NES features the 10NES chip, a “lock device” that required game publishers to license a “key device” from Nintendo for inclusion on their cartridges. (Nakagawa 1985) This compelled publishers and developers to clear potential NES games with Nintendo or be locked out of developing for the system. The chip also functions as a form of brand protection, allowing Nintendo to regulate the tone and content of games developed by third parties. (McGill 1989a) Patent protection of a console technology is thus extended to protection of Nintendo’s brand.

This relationship is even tighter in the Game Boy, which features a novel initiation device that requires games to display the Nintendo logo as a condition of the system booting. The Nintendo logo is encoded on the Game Boy’s internal memory and the device is directed to look for a corresponding logo in the ROM cartridge memory. If the two images match, the unit boots, displays the Nintendo logo, and runs the game. However, “if the…character data are not coincident with each other, the LCD panel is wholly turned on or off or flashed, whereby the operator or user is notified that the external ROM cartridge…is not an authorized one.” (Okada and Tanaka 1990) Bootleggers who circumvent this authorization check by encoding the Nintendo logo in their ROM cartridge memories thereby expose themselves to claims not only of patent infringement, but also of trademark infringement for using the Nintendo logo. Through this elegant mechanism, Nintendo’s logo and its technological protection of its brand become one and the same.

As the Game Boy hardware aged, Nintendo continued to develop and introduce new accessories to the basic unit, as well as a number of incremental enhancements and cosmetic changes to the unit itself. A line of Game Boys with colored cases was introduced in 1995, though this did little to quell growing dissatisfaction with the device. Some had begun to call it the “Dim Boy” due to its increasingly antiquated lack of a backlight, which competing systems like the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx offered. (Burrill 1995) At the time, Nintendo was focusing on the Virtual Boy, a headset-based platform that displays games in stereoscopic 3D. The Virtual Boy was a flop that temporarily derailed Nintendo’s corporate fortunes and likely contributed to Yokoi’s departure from the company. (Whymant 1996)

Beginning in 1996, a series of more significant changes to the Game Boy were introduced, starting with a smaller model called the Game Boy Pocket, which features a slightly larger true grayscale screen, no longer green in hue. The Game Boy Color, which has the ability to play new color games and to colorize existing Game Boy games, followed in 1998. In 2001, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance, with a faster processor and a redesigned chassis. Two variants, the foldable Game Boy Advance SP and the very small Game Boy Micro, released in 2003 and 2005, were the final releases in the Game Boy line. Nintendo’s subsequent handhelds have been in the DS/3DS line of dual-screen devices, which draw on design innovations from some of the Game & Watch devices from the 1980s. Beginning with 1982’s Oil Panic, various Game & Watch units featured folding chassis with upper and lower screens. 1989’s Zelda, for instance, uses one screen for action and the other for a map and inventory, anticipating the dual-screen format of games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, released in 2013 for the 3DS handeld.

The Game Boy Camera, from 1998, was among the earliest affordable digital cameras to go to market. (Miles 1998) The pixelated, low-resolution greyscale image produced by the Game Boy Camera, as well as the game-like software interface of the unit, characterize it as more of a toy than a serious camera, but the device indicates Nintendo’s desire to position the Game Boy as a potential multifunction tool. It also hints at ambitions finally realized in the more versatile DS and 3DS units, with their built-in cameras and networking capacities. The lens can be rotated 180 degrees, so that users can take either forward-facing or self-facing pictures, anticipating the “selfie” cameras of later cell phones. Images can be printed on another peripheral, the Game Boy Printer, which uses a spool of thermal paper. The printer can also be used with some games. True to Nintendo tradition, this functionality is closely tied to branding efforts. Game-related uses include printing out images of and information about Nintendo properties like Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pokémon characters.

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Tetris

Less true to Nintendo’s tradition of character-driven branding was the company’s selection of a launch title to be included with the purchase of a Game Boy. In the US, Nintendo opted to package the game with Tetris, a port of a then-five-year-old game designed by Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov, rather than with a recognizable Nintendo product. This proved to be a wise move, and one sensitive to the particularities of playing on a portable device. Relative to the representational worlds of Zelda and Mario games, Tetris is set in a more abstract space. The complexity of its gameplay arises from variations on simple spatial manipulations rather than on narrative developments or complex spectacle. Shapes composed of four square bricks in various configurations fall from the top of a vertical corridor. Players can move the shapes left and right and rotate them clockwise and counterclockwise, attempting to complete horizontal lines that fill the breadth of the corridor. When such a line is completed, it disappears and the lines above drop into its place. The game is over when the stack of bricks reaches the top of the screen, and the challenge to the player is to hold off the (inevitable) end of the game for as long as possible. The Game Boy version of Tetris also has a “Mode B” setting, in which the game ends after 25 lines are completed and the player is rated based on his or her score at that point.

Game Studies - The Vitruvian Thumb: Embodied Branding and Lateral Thinking with the Nintendo Game Boy (7)

Figure 5. Tetris on the Game Boy

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Though it debuted as a game for personal computers, Tetris is particularly well suited to portable play. Games can be long or short, and they always start from the same point, so there is little pressure on a player to continue with a given game. The repetitiveness of the gameplay promotes practice and expertise in a simple task rather than the tracking of a narrative or the memorization of the challenges and obstacles of a large game world. At the same time, the game does not require expertise. It can be picked up and played at any time, and players are free to play it for as long as they can, or for as long as they want to. In this way, Tetris anticipates the “casual revolution” in videogames that arrived decades later, driven by simple games on desktops and mobile devices. Indeed, Nintendo hoped from the beginning that the Game Boy would make gameplay ubiquitous. The company sought to

make [it] a mainstream addiction, doing for games and puzzles what the Sony Walkman did for music…“The guy out fishing, the businessman on the airplane, the kid on the schoolbus, we think they'll all like it,” said Peter Main, vice president for marketing at Nintendo. ''We think the handhelds have broad appeal.” (McGill 1989b)

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The casual feel of games like Tetris complements the portability of the hardware. Such games are accessible to, and can be appealing to, both casual and more hardcore players, in ways that more complex games cannot. As Jesper Juul writes,

where a casual game is flexible toward different types of players and uses, a hardcore game makes inflexible and unconditional demands on the skill and commitment of a player…a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment. (Juul 2010, p.10)

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The selection of Tetris for inclusion with the original Game Boy release encourages players to identify the system with this kind of pick-up-and-play attitude toward gaming, in which it is possible for anyone to play just a little, or a lot, of a game. Furthermore, Tetris suits the Game Boy in that the formal properties of the game are especially appropriate to the control apparatus, screen, and processor of the Game Boy unit. The game’s five basic commands move the current block to the left or right, accelerate its fall, and rotate it in either direction. These actions map geometrically onto the game’s joypad, with its right-angle lines, and onto its two control buttons, which rotate the block in either direction. The game thereby achieves an uncommon degree of indexicality in its control scheme. Rather than abstracting actions like running, jumping, or shooting onto its buttons, Tetris requires players to undertake actions physiologically similar to their corresponding in-game effects, encouraging players to feel more as though they are acting directly upon the falling blocks.

This mode of interaction with in-game objects can make Tetris on a Game Boy feel more physical than virtual, an object to be directly manipulated rather than a media device depicting a fictional world. In this way, it recalls physical manipulation games like the Ten Billion Barrel, as well as the single-game handhelds with which many players in the late 1980s would be familiar. The importance of this effect for the Game Boy’s popularity should not be underestimated. As a device that crossed age and gender boundaries in ways that previous videogames and consoles rarely had, the Game Boy, and Tetris in particular, appealed to the embodied knowledge of its users, opening gaming up to potential players who might have been put off by learning seemingly arbitrary control schemes. To hold a Game Boy in one’s hands, to feel its weight, is to interact with a felt object in a way fundamentally different from the relationship that a user has with a home console and a TV, in which the weight of the controller is perceptually distant from the virtual world on the screen.

Graphically, the game is so well-suited to the particularities of the Game Boy’s LCD screen that one might read it as a kind of allegory for the tasks the Game Boy performs as a display device. The game space is a tall rectangle, with right angles that line up to the right angles of the display screen. The action of the game takes place in two-dimensional space and its main challenges are in tracking and manipulating spatial and directional relationships between moving collections of squares. The LCD screen of the Game Boy unit is itself composed of smaller squares, the pixels that the unit’s processor activates and deactivates, and the relationships between which it monitors. The unit can display up to 40 objects simultaneously, up to ten per horizontal line, tracking their coordinates and determining whether they overlap. (Nintendo 1999, 58-64) Tetris becomes a kind of graphical and processing tech demo, which, rather than showcasing the most complex or impressive things that the Game Boy can do, rather lays bare the fundamental operations of the device. Tetris looks great on the Game Boy because the Game Boy is especially well-suited for handling the processes that underlie Tetris.

Tetris on the Game Boy exhibits an unusually clear through-line between player, play, and platform, one that heralded a quarter-century-and-running lineage of casual and hardcore gameplay. Its introduction marked a pivotal moment in media technology, which is never just about the consoles or the platforms, but also about the media forms, social formations, and forms of bodily engagement that they make possible. It was also a key moment in Nintendo’s corporate history, one that continues to influence the company’s priorities for the current generation’s Wii U console and 3DS handheld system.

Conclusion

The developers of the Game Boy hardware, and of software and accessories for the unit, explored the interface between technological innovation, corporate and brand identity, and embodied engagement. The Game Boy is a testament to the fundamental incompleteness of theories of media apparatuses that do not take into consideration the roles of the users of those apparatuses. As the field of platform studies continues to investigate how the various levels of a platform interact, from hardware to software to culture, I hope that it will also consider how a technological platform, in contact with a human user, becomes a higher-level platform still: a platform for meaningful experience.

I have suggested that, from a disciplinary perspective, this relationship occurs at the confluence of extended cognition, theories of technological innovation, and platform studies. The Game Boy calls out for a transdisciplinary approach, but my aim has not been to isolate the Game Boy as unique in this regard. To the contrary, due to its position in the history of video game technology, its role in Nintendo’s evolving brand identity, and its relationship to embodied gameplay practices, the Game Boy is especially well-positioned to exemplify qualities that are in fact general to videogames.

As the technologists at Nintendo illustrate through the form of the Game Boy hardware, technological experimentation is a variety of embodied and extended thinking. Technology does not change instantaneously, but incrementally, just as do evolving bodies and evolving ideas. Technology, further, always evolves relative to how technologists conceive of bodies. The Vitruvian thumb persists, even as no such actual thumb exits. When we think of video game technologies as platforms, we would do well to think not only of the affordances and constraints that they impose upon the games that they make possible, but also of the idealized bodies that they imply, as well as the mutual relationships between game technologies and the actual bodies of the people who use them. And when we think of the human mind, we should always think of it not as an interior, discrete realm of abstraction, but as the product of physical action in the world, of the relationship between parts that include a body, an environment, and objects--sometimes game consoles--working in concert with one another. That is to say, when we think of the mind, we think of a platform.

References

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©2001 - 2016 Game Studies Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the journal, except for the right to republish in printed paper publications, which belongs to the authors, but with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.

FAQs

How much memory did the Game Boy have? ›

Technical specifications. 64 KB address space including: 8 KB of built-in working RAM. Up to sixteen 8 KB switchable working RAM pages (in the game cartridge) for a maximum of 128 KB of external RAM (which may be battery-backed to hold save games)

What was the Nintendo Game Boy used for? ›

It was a handheld video game console that combined aspects of Nintendos successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) television video game console with their earlier handheld electronic games marketed under the name "Game & Watch." It contained an 8-bit Z80 processor with a monochrome LCD display and 4-channel stereo ...

What inspired the Game Boy? ›

The handheld gaming system was invented by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi, who also created the Metroid video-game series. He got the idea for a portable gaming system after watching a bored businessman playing with an LCD calculator.

What replaced the Nintendo Game Boy? ›

In fact, Nintendo didn't unveil a “true” Game Boy successor until they finally released the Game Boy Advance in 2001.

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