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.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder