Reggie Fils-Aimé is a man both far more and far less interesting than you would think.
On paper, he should have a truly remarkable life. Born to the son of Haitian immigrants, growing up in the Bronx, working his way up and across various corporate ladders to become a transformative head of Nintendo of America — it’s a life story that should be — and is — immediately compelling. But to spin that life as an incredible journey of luck and effort punctuated by fond friendships is one thing; to frame it as a series of stoic business decisions is another. And Reggie, as always, seems inexorably torn between two pathways: one of warm humanity and one of stiff professionalism.
Disrupting the Game: From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo, Reggie’s account of his life and times, isn’t really a book made for me — or likely for you either. Rather than tool it as a personal memoir or some other pure recounting of his times at Nintendo and elsewhere, Reggie’s writing is geared towards a business audience, aimed less at raising spirits and more at raising your quarterly profits. The quotes on the back are all from business people (and Geoff Keighley, I guess) saying the book will teach you about leadership and drive. It’s a tome with moments of legitimate nuance, personality, and even heart, but those moments are filtered through a sort of pragmatic veneer, as if attempts to connect to other human beings are simply part of the toolset of being a businessman.
Reggie has always been like this, of course. While often unstated in hagiographies of him written by Nintendo fans that treat him like a parasocial friend, there’s always been a strange tension within his demeanor — colorful yet awkward, business-minded yet passionate. From the immortal “my body is ready” to “that’s all the time I’ve got. I’ve got to get back to Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my Nintendo 3DS” he’s been a figure where an inner fire leaks through his rigid language to create a peculiar charisma. He’s neither a natural smooth-talker nor a firebrand, yet he commands attention all the same, even if the words out of his mouth can sound downright robotic. I can’t think of another orator quite like him.
This plain, to-the-point style of speaking carries over into Reggie’s writing. There are no fancy metaphors, colorful words, or interesting syntax here. In fact, I’m not even sure how many complex sentences are within. Reggie’s words in print are as blunt and unglamorous in print as they are in speech — the platonic ideal of business writing, I suppose — so it relies on the underlying events to be interesting to draw interest. There are no new Reggieisms, no quirky off-the-cuff lines that sticks in the brain; you just get recollection in its most mechanical form. Even some of the quoted conversations feel like they were dictated by an AI. But it’s easy to read through, at least.
Part of what compounds these issues is “The So What,” the main stylistic flourish of the book — essentially boxes at the end of each passage that sum up what advice you can glean from what he just recounted. It fits the business sections well enough (even if it can end up repeating what’s already obvious) but after more personal stories it comes across a little alarming, even ghoulish. Something about an info box mechanically telling you that treating other people like human beings is important just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Like the purpose of human connections is just another business strategy. Eugh.
So what about the events themselves? Disrupting the Game is unevenly paced, taking almost half the book to get to Reggie’s time at Nintendo, and then allocating focus disproportionately from there. At a very brief 200 pages there are only a scant few time periods Reggie really digs deep into, and others he glosses over almost entirely. He spends a quarter of the book on the period around the DS and Wii launches, and only one short chapter on both the Wii U and Switch. I refuse to believe he didn’t have more to say about a tenure of his presidency that lasted almost a decade.
The book starts off on a strong enough foot at least — first with a chapter detailing his heartfelt last days with Iwata (which we’ll discuss in a bit) before rewinding back to his childhood in the Bronx and then Long Island. Reggie’s family history is legitimately fascinating — his grandparents had privileged positions in Haiti before a complicated web of political corruption ousted them and their children (Reggie’s parents) from the country. He grew up in a humble Bronx apartment (described as “lower-middle class”) at one point before moving to Long Island around his adolescence, where he preserved to eventually end up at Cornell. Reggie’s focus is less on his family and more on the options and difficulties before him, and some of the decisions he has to make — for example, regarding how he’s going to get a needed scholarship — are interesting. But it’s all preamble rather than something truly personal or revelatory. We get little insight into Reggie’s childhood family life or day to day existence, even as the occasional detail or anecdote (such as him and his brother being the only black kids at his Brentwood high school) provokes interest and makes the reader want more.
If the details of Reggie’s childhood were sparse but interesting, the account of his early career is almost the opposite. Reggie spends about a chapter at each company he tenured before Nintendo — P&G, Pizza Hut, Panda Express, VH1. It’s not completely devoid of interesting stories — such as him pushing hard for a new type of pizza to compete with Little Caesar’s only to have to argue against his own idea when it starts hurting reviews, or his account of working at VH1 during and after 9/11 — but a lot of it subsists of business jargon and basic lessons like “consider all options before making a decision” or “be friends with the people you work with.” To be fair, people in business school may need lessons on basic human empathy, but to somebody who couldn’t care even an iota less about how to make it big in the business world, it felt drawn out. About a third of the book is spent on all this, and I wish it was at least half that.
When Reggie finally does get to him taking an executive VP of marketing role at NOA, the book digs in a bit in its strongest portion. Reggie dives into the specific people he worked with and the projects he worked on with great care. His interactions with Iwata are especially evocative, starting from the moment Reggie boldly (and haughtily) demands to meet him before taking the job. He outlines the specific business strategies with a clarity and brevity that makes sense without feeling like he’s saying nothing at all. And the anecdote about how he ended up receiving the promotion to NOA president (after getting into a large disagreement with Iwata) is probably the book’s apex, the one where it strays most from being didactic and curt into more human language and storytelling.
And yet, the number of pages after Reggie becomes president (2006-2019) is roughly equivalent to the number from his EVP gig (2004-2006) — ~50 pages. In other words, the book spends just as much time on his head honcho role as his freshman years at the company. I can only think of partial explanations as to why. The DS and Wii were obviously great successes, and it’s hard to blame Reggie for talking more about them than the Wii U, but one would think he would be just as detailed about the success of the Nintendo Switch, unless he simply had little to say about it (which I once again refuse to believe). Even his account of specific games dwindles — he spends an entire paragraph detailing the process of adding Sudoku to Brain Age to make it appeal to the American market, and then spares no more than a sentence for any post-3DS game. Did he run out of time? Out of juice? Was his time at Panda Express really of more import and intrigue than the mixed message marketing of the Wii U? Is he trying to save face? I just don’t get it.
The chapter most emblematic of the whole thing — if not Reggie himself — is the first, about the last days of Satoru Iwata’s life and Reggie’s final goodbyes to him. It’s a naturally heartbreaking subject, and even through Reggie’s awkward professionalism you can sense his sorrow: there is a very real wistfulness you can feel as he describes Iwata’s daughter asking for a selfie and him struggling to fit in the frame. But more “The So What” boxes interrupt these tender moments, and even though Reggie sounds sincere in how much he cared for Iwata, I really wish he had let those human moments simply be as they are.
Reggie’s humanity, his goofiness, his candid nature that slips out on rare occasions — these are the qualities that make him stand out from any other given executive. It’s important to remember that Reggie isn’t a game developer, even if he provides adequate evidence for loving the medium in his youth — he’s a marketing guy. This even perceptive mixup even affected him — he had to workshop his now iconic opening lines at E3 2004 (“I’m about kicking ass and taking names, and we’re about making games”) because he originally said “I’m about making games,” a demonstrably false statement. He certainly helped usher Nintendo into a new globalist age, got NCL in Japan to pay more attention to the needs and markets of NOA, and established himself as a meme god. But he was never a developer.
Throughout the book, the current labor issues reported at Nintendo weighed heavily on my mind. Reggie is on the record saying that the reports don’t match his perception of the company he left behind, even though most accounts say around 2015-2016 is when things took a turn for the worse. In the book, Reggie seems very amicable with his peers and those immediately above and below him, but it’s hard to say what knowledge he had of contractors on the ground floor. And his relative sparseness with which he describes that era doesn’t instill much confidence. I want to believe he was doing his best to make Nintendo a good place to work — and it’d be impossible to blame him for the current state of things in whole — but I was left wondering all the same.
Disrupting the Game is full of empathetic moments — when Reggie’s son beats A Link to the Past on his dad’s file in his absence, when he’s backstage at E3 and mistaken for a security guard instead of an elite executive (one of several moments Reggie touches upon the issue of his race without going too deep into it), when he’s at a pub with Shigeru Miyamoto and the legendary developer asked intently for the story behind the many smoking pipes lining the ceiling. But those moments are fewer in number than Reggie talking about successfully initiating sales strategies and providing key assets for company performance going forward. Reggie Fils-Aimé as a man is compelling: a child of immigrants, a memorable speaker, and one of the few (if not the only) black men in the entire gaming industry you can name. But he’s also eternally wooden. A dichotomous figure who manages to produce endless entertainment even if he’s ultimately running a business first and foremost.
In that sense, he really was Mr. Nintendo.
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