Reggie Fils-Aimé is an iconic figurehead of 21st Century Nintendo, arriving in the public eye at a pivotal moment of the company’s history as it underwent a Satoru Iwata-led revolution. After the GameCube’s challenging generation in the face of new competition from Microsoft’s Xbox and the all-conquering Sony PlayStation 2, Fils-Aimé famously appeared on stage at E3 2004, introduced himself with a bold line about kicking ass and taking names, and later plucked a DS from his pocket. Undoubtedly, he was immediately a key face of Nintendo with gamers in the Americas and Europe, in particular.
While much of his image and known history among fans relates to meme-worthy E3 moments or his prominent role in Nintendo, his broader story is less familiar. With his new book, ‘Disrupting the Game, From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo’, we do get to learn more about Fils-Aimé’s background and pre-Nintendo career, but any interested readers should know upfront this is not a traditional autobiography. It occasionally strays towards that territory, but primarily this is a business book, the type that outlines how boldness, ideas and determination can see anyone rise and meet their goals. One for the ‘Leadership’ category in the book store.
any interested readers should know upfront this is not a traditional autobiography, but primarily a business book, one for the ‘Leadership’ category in the book store
Yet still, the early chapters do give very welcome insight into a couple of things — Fils-Aimé’s family and upbringing, and his relationship with Satoru Iwata. Iwata-san is discussed early in the book, and it’s clear that he was both a friend and mentor. There’s a touching story of asking to visit Iwata-san in hospital when he was first ill, and an insight into the Nintendo president’s approach to addressing the return of his cancer and his late work in the company.
We also learn more about Fils-Aimé’s Haitian background and family, which is fascinating. Senior members of the family were high-flyers in a pre-dictatorship Haiti, yet their resilience in the face of imprisonment and other punishments clearly influenced him as a young boy. That tough upbringing in the New York’s Bronx is also touched upon, before a move to the suburbs courtesy of his father working two jobs, six days a week. The pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps legacy is clearly a fundamental part of his early life, and his journey through high school and a determination to ‘make it work’ are admirable.
After these early reflections on growing up we have around a third of the book focused on Fils-Aimé’s early career, following a savvy route through Cornell University courtesy of scholarships and funding. The book quickly slides into its rhythm as a business leadership book, focused on key themes, lessons and tenets of the industry. Essentially, straight from college there began a varied career in marketing and sales, eventually elevating up to executive positions. The book gives some interesting views of corporate America — the relentless drive for growth, monetising customers and marketing strategy arguments aplenty.
A lot of the expected leadership lessons are shared across these pages — be bold, be ready to push your view, own your mistakes, and so on. It’s a career with a lot of success, so it commands respect and those working within corporate business, or perhaps seeking some lessons for life in general, may enjoy a lot of the insights. It feels relatively standard fare in these sections, however, if you’ve read business-focused books of this nature in the past.
For those that are mostly interested in the Nintendo years, that does command the second half of the book. There are some fascinating insights on NCL, Nintendo’s Kyoto-based HQ and upper management, perspective that Fils-Aimé brings as a Western executive that led the company’s biggest subsidiary. We see how conventions of Japanese business could clash or cause problems for Nintendo of America, and a sense is given of Satoru Iwata both leading a modernisation of the business as president while cajoling and negotiating with those that had been with Nintendo for decades. This section also highlights how Iwata’s leadership helped to evolve that of Fils-Aimé — one segment explains that Iwata-san counselled more listening, more understanding, not just brash confidence and forthright views.
It’s clear that Fils-Aimé has great respect not only for Iwata-san, but also for Shigeru Miyamoto and a number of Nintendo’s Japanese leadership. Yet the confidence and positivity necessary for a high level executive career, while admirable, does strip the overall book of some qualities. As a ‘Leadership’ book, it’s all about learnings and examples, yet sometimes it slides into congratulatory biography, so the tone can get slightly muddled.
We see how conventions of Japanese business could clash or cause problems for NoA, and a sense is given of Satoru Iwata both leading a modernisation of the business as president while cajoling and negotiating with those that had been with Nintendo for decades
A book heavy on success and examples of things working brilliantly, it also tends to skip away from notable failures, much like a prospective employee in an interview. Examples of struggles are given mainly when there’s an obvious turnaround or redeeming response that salvages the situation, but it lacks more useful lessons, such as why some failures happened and were not salvaged. The Wii U is the crux of this, as despite some analysis of why it struggled there’s little detail or assessment of how it happened. It doesn’t offer enough insight into mistakes leading up to the launch of the product, design or — tellingly — the marketing. Fils-Aime is only too happy to emphasize his expertise as a marketer and leader in success stories like Wii and DS, but doesn’t address and confront failings with the Wii U with quite the same vigour, which feels like a learning opportunity missed in this book.
To be clear, though, the book addresses that failures happen in business, and shares some lessons in responding to problems in the right way. Examples are given of tough decisions, too, such as letting someone go in a case where they were technically proficient but had awful people management skills. Though there are plenty of buzzwords kicking around in the book, it seems evident that Fils-Aimé has a key strength in managing people, as the internal promotions over the past 15 years of the company attest. He also cites methodology that helped turn NoA towards excellence in all things; when you look at how far the subsidiary’s marketing and performance has come in the last 20 years, it’s hard to argue with the results.
What’s clear in the book is that the relentless corporate business outlook of Reggie Fils-Aimé — that swagger and push for ever bigger profits in all aspects of the business — is what Nintendo needed in the Americas in the early 2000s. For the calm and quiet leadership of Satoru Iwata at the top of the company, a bold and ambitious Fils-Aimé was a strong counterfoil that helped Nintendo shift the message ‘in the West’, giving the company a more ambitious edge in marketing and a more confident, industry-leading image.
Though this book is primarily about that very American approach to boardroom business, in which Fils-Aimé built an extremely successful career, it touches on areas that will likely be explored further in an eventual autobiography. There’s an interesting backstage story from that famous E3 2004; having removed his credentials before going on stage, a worker offered him his badge as a form of cover. Fils-Aimé contemplates “what it said about the video game industry that a Black man in a suit was mistaken for security versus an executive”. He never lingers on issues like these, but their occasional mentions reinforce that he often had to brush past assumptions made of him, powering through them with a singular purpose.
By the end of the book, when discussing retirement and his new path of supporting non-profits and contributing to boardrooms, there’s an interesting split that very much summarises his approach to work and life. On the one hand he writes movingly about addressing an organisation supporting minority and low income kids seeking a better life, with an excellent line that “I was you, and you can be me”. In almost the same breath there’s a section that basically says GameStop pushed him and others out despite a plan to revive the business, a little poke to say he was right but they blew their chance; the competitiveness, and the belief in being right most of the time, still comes through.
As for whether Nintendo fans will be interested in this book? Perhaps, as it gives interesting insight into Nintendo of America, and its evolving relationship with the Japanese HQ; some of these details are quite unique. Be aware, though, that it’s wrapped in a motivational business leadership book, and Ask Iwata is a far breezier motivational read. If you’re okay with an extended executive career lecture getting in the way of your snippets of Nintendo and Fils-Aimé history, then it’s worth a look.
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