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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue