In 1979, a game designer named Gunpei Yokoi was stuck on a bullet train to Kyoto. Growing weary and bored on the long ride, Yokoi looked around the train for some way to kill time and noticed a fellow passenger fiddling with an LCD watch. Clearly just as desperate for a distraction as Yokoi, the man was punching buttons at random. That need for portable entertainment gave the designer an idea: Couldn’t commuters play games using the same technology?
From Boredom to Behavior Change
Yokoi brought the idea to his employer, who agreed it had enormous potential. If they handled it right, they could give the average person a new, more purposeful way to interact with technology. But first, they had to consider the ways in which that person would behave when bored, and what it would take to capture — and maintain — the person’s attention. Whatever Yokoi created would have to be as user-friendly as his fellow passenger’s watch, but also offer an experience beyond mindlessly pressing buttons.
A year later his employer, a toy company named Nintendo, gave birth to the Game & Watch series, a collection of portable game consoles. At first glance, each one looked similar to the others: Most Game & Watches had roughly the same dimensions (rectangular, between two and four square inches), and all of them — perhaps unsurprisingly — doubled as digital clocks. But from there, the consoles diverged.
Each Game & Watch offered a different experience, ranging from simple memory games like Flagman to Manhole‘s high-speed multi-level climbing action. Some even featured dual screens (vertically to bust safes, horizontally to play as a pair of now-famous plumbers), and all of them offered a variety of control schemes. You only needed “left” and “right” to help the series mascot juggle, while playing tennis with Snoopy required directional buttons and a “hit” button. The controls were simple and effective. But as multi-directional gameplay grew more common, Yokoi sought a way to cut down on buttons, yet to allow for more complex gameplay. He found the perfect balance with Donkey Kong’s cross-shaped D-pad, a four-directional lever that let gamers move in all directions without lifting a finger (or rather, a thumb).
Variety: the Spice of Great Gaming
With their portability, variety, and ease of use, the Game & Watch series gave the world something it didn’t realize it needed. The 59 Game & Watches Nintendo released (plus a 60th only available to contest winners) sold by the millions. And no wonder: With Game & Watch, Yokoi hadn’t just created a novelty; he’d reshaped his audience’s expectations of what video games could be, and effectively changed gamers’ behavior. Experiences once restricted to arcades, bars, and home televisions were suddenly sitting in pockets all across the world, easily accessible at any time — even on the train. Knowing gamers wanted more, Yokoi kept on innovating, and in 1989 he and his team released another revolutionary product: the Game Boy.
It was an instant hit. Interchangeable game cartridges meant players didn’t need to carry multiple Game & Watches. The green-and-gray pixel graphics were light years beyond the static artwork on any given Game & Watch, but still consumed power slowly enough that players could spend plenty of time gaming with fewer batteries. Most of all, the interface kept things simple. Four buttons (A, B, Select, and Start) and a perfected D-pad made even complicated games intuitive to play. In the end, Nintendo sold at least 118 million Game Boys worldwide.