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We Need To Change How We Talk About Nintendo

Fans need to put aside their wholesome feelings about the publisher, in the wake of harassment reports.

Nintendo has long cultivated a corporate image of wholesomeness and ubiquitous franchises and mascots, beloved the world over. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the walls of Nintendo are high, and how they make their games are shrouded in secrecy — often to an even greater degree than other AAA developers and publishers. Still, no matter how much Nintendo curates its depiction as a high-walled castle that churns out dreams and cherished memories, it is still a company with employees, deadlines, and scandals.

In the last several months, news of alleged labor harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination among Nintendo employees and testers have surfaced, following reports of unrest earlier this year. Impeding employees’ ability to organize, overworking them, and allowing a company culture of harassment to take root are all reprehensible. These issues come to light following a near industry-wide culture of toxic work environments at companies big and small, including Activision Blizzard, Rockstar, Riot, and Funomena, to name a few.

Despite the sense of wonder and nostalgic allure of its properties, Nintendo is, much like any other game company, riddled with the industry’s exploitative ways. But that’s a reality its fans struggle to face.

The larger gaming space, after all, still speaks of Nintendo in a more forgiving light — even amidst these allegations. With companies like Activision or Riot, who have had people in power publicly demonstrating their moral depravity like Bobby Kotick, the temperature is consistently brittle. For Nintendo, however, these scandals and reports are treated as missteps, outliers that shouldn’t be held against the Nintendo body as a whole. By being the nice, quiet worker who rarely makes a fuss out loud, Nintendo has netted itself a reputation that, up until now, has protected it from accumulating bad press.

It’s not like no one online is complaining about Nintendo, though. When players do voice their complaints, whether in forums or comments sections, it’s at the product Nintendo makes. You’ll more often find comments begging for a Switch Pro and more powerful, competitive hardware than comments inquiring into systemic change that benefits the employees.

This is likely by design – Nintendo keeps such a tight lid on its development process that the popular discourse around it tends to skew toward how the sausage is made behind those closed doors, and not on who is making the sausage or how they’re cared for while they do so.

The Nintendo Gigaleak in 2020, which consisted of a series data leaks by hackers, was so momentous precisely because it provided a then-unprecedented glimpse into decades of development on all manner of Nintendo titles — the revelation of concept art, drafts of character models, unvarnished audio et al. felt like some incredible glimpse inside the masters’ workshops. While Nintendo would surely have preferred the Gigaleak not happen, it’s hard to really spin it as bad press — we saw elements of the video game making process that often get papered over in order to serve Nintendo’s narrative of simply “working its magic.”

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That “magic” is key to how this company that was founded to manufacture Hanafuda cards in the 19th century tries to shape its narrative. The tribulations of testers at Nintendo are treated as outliers, but only because so little of the process is known and can be used for comparison.

When we talk about Nintendo, we can fall into the trap of viewing a corporation as a single structure, a single entity. Despite our government’s assurance to the contrary, corporations are in fact not people. While the human beings who work at Nintendo, and at any game company, deserve privacy and personal space, giving the same to the company itself provides a festering ground for dangerous work culture.

Video game companies all have a siren song that lures potential employees, promising that they get to work on their favorite games and be part of that secretive creative process behind closed doors. When people feel like they have a rare chance to fulfill that dream, they may overlook red flags for a perceived one-in-a-million opportunity. By reinforcing the idea that these employees are breathing in rarified air and should be thankful for the privilege, companies discourage any attempts at critique. Employees don’t want to seem ungrateful, but are also bound by strict non-disclosure agreements, and often stay quiet out of fear of endangering career prospects or receiving legal ramifications.

Like Disney, Nintendo seems to have successfully galvanized a fanbase that view the company as inextricable from their nostalgic upbringing. Nintendo’s wholesome image, the company that puts smiles on faces no matter what, acts as a sort of teflon that keeps its place in pop culture protected. They’re the Animal Crossing company, the line of thinking goes, so how bad could it be?

Beyond fans looking the other way on Nintendo’s transgressions, the conversations that do happen around Nintendo occur in a different tenor than the controversies of other game companies. Reports about Nintendo’s labor exploitation are accompanied not with photos of people in charge, but of Mario, as though the fictional cartoon plumber was the one instituting crunch or promoting unsafe work environments.

In February, when pirate Gary W. Bowser was arrested and charged with three years in prison for pirating Nintendo Switch games, news outlets could not resist pointing out the whimsy in how the defendant shared a name with King Koopa (or the current President of Nintendo of America, Doug Bowser, for that matter). Photos of Bowser (the character) near-unanimously accompanied articles about Bowser (the pirate) and his extreme punishment.

Gary Bowser served as a very public example for Nintendo, who possess a particularly draconian attitude toward piracy and fan works. But his case is unique only in its severity. Nintendo is consistently aggressive in shutting down fan games, even sending cease & desist orders to nonprofit fan ventures. What’s telling with these copyright strikes is how they demonstrate that Nintendo does have the momentum to strike out and put their collective force into something when they want to – and the cause they choose to be extra judicious about is fan-made projects.  Nintendo’s IP, their brand image, is of the utmost importance to them, clearly more important than the safety of its workers and its developers.

How to make a more humane video game industry is a difficult question to answer. Often it requires a shake-up in upper management, collective action from workers such as the freedom to form unions, and a company culture change where toxic attitudes and behaviors are no longer present. But how do you solve Nintendo, specifically? That’s much harder to discern.

Breath of the Wild

Does it begin with dismantling the monolithic cult of personality that makes Nintendo feel para-socially linked to us from childhood, where our uncles definitely worked to give us the lowdown on how to find Mew under a truck? Does it begin with fans, and pop-culture writ large, learning to disentangle the positive memories from the negative present, and accept that the circumstances of production, and the people who make the games we enjoy, are worth more than the final product? No game is worth the blood and tears of real human beings, and that goes for Nintendo as much as anyone else.

That last one is a tricky proposition, though on paper it shouldn’t be. I want to believe in a world where Nintendo’s squeaky-clean image is actually true, where this seemingly immaculate dream factory actually does right by its employees and isn’t harboring deep systemic rot at its roots. It’s a tall order, and likely impossible, but we won’t get there without holding those responsible accountable.

Consumers can always boycott, or be more vocal in calling out toxic business practices on social media. Some may want to claim separating the art from the artist, as in the case of problematic musicians or transphobic children’s lit authors. The problem there is, the accompanying artists making these games, the testers and programmers, are the ones being hurt. Separating them from their art is severing them from an outcome of their abuse.

I think the first step is admitting the problem and noting how we talk about Nintendo: drop the pomp and protection — stop treating them as the house where our friend Mario lives, and stop treating their news stories with whimsy (no matter how serendipitous the names of those involved might be). Nintendo has profited and prospered due to its image as a mysterious locked box that produces magic, but there are people inside that box, people who work hard for less than their fair share. We need to open the box, and we need to see the people inside. Otherwise, nothing changes.

About the Author

Ryan Stevens