Nintendo's CEO, Satoru Iwata, has passed away. Photo: Getty Images
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Satoru Iwata: an innovator and true gamer

Satoru Iwata wasn't your run-of-the-mill CEO: he was an innovator and a true gamer, says Tom Watson MP. He'll be sorely missed.

The very best games makers have curious, playful minds. That's why Nintendo President and CEO Saturo Iwata will be so badly missed. 

Iwata, who led one of the most creative video games manufacturers on the planet, was an enthusiast for video games who had a playful mind and an affinity with gamers that will be hard for his successor to replicate. That’s why he was so often included in lists of the world’s top CEOs. “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But, in my heart, I am a gamer.” he said in 2005.

It took a curious mind like Iwata’s to understand that the video games market could expand only by extending its reach into new sectors by crossing generations. The industry’s inability to appeal to consumers beyond the youthful demographic it had always appealed to was a problem waiting to be solved. Iwata cracked it.

Satoru bought intergenerational joy to Christmas days in 2006 and 2007 with Nintendo’s Wii console. You need to have witnessed a grandparent waving a Wii remote wildly through the confined space of a living room stuffed with half opened presents and half drunk glasses of sherry to truly appreciate his genius. For a grandchild to bond with a grandparent over a video game was revolutionary - and extremely commercially successful for Nintendo. The company has sold over 100 million consoles since the Wii hit the market less than ten years ago. It’s little wonder it had the working title “Revolution” before it’s launch.

Sarturo was a games maker from childhood - he created games out of calculators for his friends at school. So he was destined for a career in the video games industry from an early age. As a graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he understood the minds of developers better than most executives. It was a quality that set him apart from his peers and it served him well when he took over as Nintendo President in 2002 from Hiroshi Yamauchi – a man who had been at the helm of the company for over half a century. Iwata quickly softened Nintendo’s corporate by making it less hierarchical, spending time on the shop floor and enjoying the company of designers and developers. 

Before he was elevated to executive level he worked as a developer on a raft of successful games, including the Legend of Zelda series that occupied far too much of my time in the late 1990s. Zelda was rich in playful ideas, even introducing night and day game time in Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 1998. "Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone”, he once said. To him, games did not have to be complex to be enjoyable. In 2006 he joked that if Tetris had been launched back then it would have needed better graphics and a film spin-off in order to be deemed commercially feasible. Iwata understood that simplicity has its own beauty.

Tetris was the game everyone played on the Nintendo Game Boy, the handheld device that belong to a previous generation. But Iwata pioneered a new approach to gaming with the introduction of the Nintendo DS. Almost overnight, the strange-looking device with two screens and a plastic stylus fascinated people who weren’t supposed to play video games. Doctor Kawashima’s Brain Training became a huge hit amongst the over 40s, selling gaming to older generations whose only previous experience of gaming was limited to changing the batteries in the consoles that belonged to their children or grandchildren. It was a typically far-sighted move from a man who can accurately be described as a game-changer. Iwata was once asked what it is like to be a corporate leader.

He replied: “Time passes very quickly, and if you are complacent, you'll be too late.” 

Iwata Sarturo was never complacent but time passed too quickly for this titan of the video games industry. 

 

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.