Religion & Liberty Online

Nintendo, Economic Development, and Asceticism

Photography by Larry D. Moore

Today marks the 20th birthday of the Nintendo 64 (N64) gaming console. Don Reisinger offered a great tribute at Fortune:

On this day in Japan 20 years ago, Nintendo introduced the gaming system, among the first consoles to create realistic-looking 3D worlds filled with monsters, soldiers, and blood. It’s standard game design today, but at that point, it was new and exciting.

Before the Nintendo 64’s launch, gamers were largely forced into games with pixelated graphics and basic gameplay that required scrolling around a screen and solving basic puzzles. The Nintendo 64, which notched more than 30 million units sold over its lifetime, was a sign of bigger and better things to come.

Yet he notes that it wasn’t the most successful console at the time:

If sales are the sole guide of success, the Nintendo 64 was a middling performer. The nearly 33 million units it sold is notably lower than the 62 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems sold and the 49 million Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems the company sold.

While the Nintendo 64’s sales were more than the Sega Saturn, which could only muster 9 million unit sales over its lifetime, Sony sold 102.5 million PlayStation units while competing with the Nintendo 64.

There are a lot of things that Nintendo tried with the N64 that didn’t really work in their favor. But Nintendo’s willingness to take such risks, and their general product differentiation (for example, their massively successful Pokémon series debuted just one year earlier for Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld console, spawning a cartoon and a card game) make it an outstanding example in the long run … not only economically, but (metaphorically) spiritually as well.

In a paper I presented at a conference in Greece last year, I argued that the various economic practices needed for a company, market, or economy to thrive in a world of diversity, change, and death mirror those in Orthodox Christian asceticism. On the economic side, I singled out Nintendo and the video game and console markets as examples, drawing from this company timeline on Nintendo’s website. I wrote,

The factors that make for healthy businesses, markets, and economies … respond to the realities of change, death, and pluriformity with practices and policies akin to those that adorn the ascetic life. Like the memento mori, healthy companies must always be open to innovation and change, or they will be unprepared when it comes. If possible, a diversity of products is preferable, just as a redundancy of spiritual practices makes one robust to short periods of laxity. A great example of this would be the Japanese company Nintendo. Known today for video games and consoles, the company began in 1889 making Japanese playing cards. In 1959, they benefitted [sic] from the growing popularity of Disney by manufacturing the first cards to feature Disney characters, “opening up a new market in children’s playing cards and resulting in a boom in the card department.” In 1963 they expanded beyond cards to producing other games. In 1970 Nintendo “began selling the Beam Gun series … introducing electronic technology into the toy industry for the first time in Japan.” In 1973, the company developed “a laser clay shooting system.” It was not until 1975, nearly a century after its start and right at the dawn of the new industry, that Nintendo made its first videogame system. Not all of its video game systems have been a success. The Virtual Boy flopped, and the Wii U is in trouble. But Nintendo has been a strong company through diversifying its products as well as establishing staple franchises to fall back on, which enable it to take innovative risks. Mario, Pokémon, and Zelda are household names for many Gen-Xers and Millennials, and they and others will continue to profit the company through various venues, whether home or handheld systems or — continuing their past legacy in a very different form — card games. When times changed, Nintendo changed with them and more than once even acted as a catalyst for change. The video game market is very open, diverse, and competitive, and while the gaming system market has less diversity, it has proven open in the past to newcomers (e.g. Microsoft, Sony) as well as able to bear the losses of those who couldn’t compete (e.g. Sega, Atari). Nintendo may not last forever — it too is mortal — but it offers an excellent model for what an analogue to various ascetic practices in business looks like.

Nintendo is an example of capitalism at its best. And its success (and failures) ought to remind us of what the spiritual life requires of us. Praying a prayer every now and then or reading one’s Bible from time to time may be enough. But a plurality (to the point of redundancy) of spiritual practices makes a person far better prepared for the unpredictable challenges of real life.

By contrast, cronyistic and protectionist measures seek to preserve a company’s or market’s current state, rather than being open to development. It may work for a while, but eventually creative destruction will displace a company or industry ill-equipped to adapt. Similarly, an over-confident spirituality sets one up to fall into unexpected temptation or to be unable to bear unexpected tragedy.

That said, happy birthday N64! I encourage everyone who was a kid in the ’90s to celebrate today. I’d only add that, with a little spiritual reflection, the N64’s example can benefit us in even far deeper ways than all the fun of winning a Mario Kart Grand Prix.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.