Reggie Fils-Aimé is an iconic figurehead of 21st century Nintendo, coming into the public eye at a pivotal moment in the company’s history as it underwent a revolution led by Satoru Iwata. After the GameCube’s difficult build against new competition from Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s all-conquering PlayStation 2, Fils-Aimé appeared on stage at E3 2004, showed up with a bold line about kicking ass and taking names, and later plucked a DS from his pocket. Without a doubt, 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 memorable E3 moments or his prominent role at Nintendo, his larger story is less familiar. With his new book, “Disrupting the Game, From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo,” we learn more about Fils-Aimé’s background and his pre-Nintendo career, but all interested readers should know up front that it is not a traditional autobiography. . It strays into that territory at times, but it’s mostly a business book, the type that describes how boldness, ideas and determination can see anyone rise up and achieve their goals. . One for the “Leadership” category in the bookstore.
all interested readers should know from the outset that this is not a traditional autobiography, but primarily a business book, one for the “Leadership” category in the bookstore
Still, the early chapters give a very welcome glimpse of a few things – Fils-Aimé’s family and upbringing, and his relationship with Satoru Iwata. Iwata-san is mentioned at the beginning of the book, and it’s clear that he was both a friend and a mentor. There’s a touching story of asking to visit Iwata-san in the hospital when he was first sick, and insight into the Nintendo president’s approach to dealing with the return of his cancer and of his late work in the company.
We also learn more about Fils-Aimé’s Haitian origins and family, which is fascinating. The senior members of the family were high-flyers in pre-dictatorship Haiti, but their resilience in the face of imprisonment and other punishments clearly influenced him as a young boy. This difficult upbringing in the Bronx of New York is also mentioned, before moving to the suburbs thanks to his father who had two jobs, six days a week. The legacy of pulling by the bootstraps is clearly a fundamental part of his youth, and his high school journey and determination to “make it work” is admirable.
After these early thoughts on growing up, we have about a third of the book focused on Fils-Aimé’s early career, following a savvy journey through Cornell University through scholarships and funding. The book quickly slips into its stride as a business leadership book, focusing on key industry themes, lessons, and principles. Essentially, as early as college, he began a varied career in marketing and sales, eventually rising to management positions. The book gives some interesting insights into American business – the relentless drive for growth, customer monetization, and the many arguments of marketing strategy.
Many expected leadership lessons are shared on these pages – be bold, be willing to push your point, own up to your mistakes, etc. It’s a very successful career, so it commands respect and those working in business, or perhaps looking for life lessons in general, can take advantage of a lot of insights. It seems relatively standard in these sections, however, if you’ve read business-oriented books of this nature in the past.
For those primarily interested in the Nintendo years, that commands the second half of the book. There’s fascinating insight into NCL, Nintendo’s Kyoto-based headquarters and senior management, a perspective that Fils-Aimé brings as a Western executive who ran the company’s largest subsidiary. We see how Japanese business conventions could clash or cause problems for Nintendo of America, and it feels like Satoru Iwata is both leading a modernization of the company as president while cajoling and negotiating with those who have been with Nintendo for decades. This section also highlights how Iwata’s leadership helped evolve Fils-Aimé’s – one segment explains that Iwata-san advised more listening, more understanding, not just brash confidence and outspoken opinions.
It’s clear that Fils-Aimé has great respect not only for Iwata-san, but also for Shigeru Miyamoto and a number of Japanese Nintendo executives. Yet the confidence and positivity necessary for a high-level executive career, while admirable, robs the whole of certain qualities. As a “Leadership” book, it’s all about learnings and examples, but it sometimes slips into a congratulatory biography, so the tone can get a little confusing.
We see how Japanese corporate conventions could clash or cause problems for NoA, and an idea is given of Satoru Iwata both leading a modernization of the company as chairman while cajoling and negotiating with those who had been with Nintendo for decades.
A book loaded with successes and examples of things that work brilliantly, it also tends to avoid notable failures, much like a potential employee in an interview. Examples of struggles are given primarily when there is an obvious turnaround or a redemptive response that saves the day, but more useful lessons are missed, such as why certain failures happened and were not recovered. The Wii U is at the heart of this, as despite an analysis of why it struggled, there are few details or assessment of how it happened. It doesn’t offer enough information about the errors that led to product launch, design or, tellingly, marketing. Fils-Aime is only too happy to highlight his expertise as a marketer and leader in success stories like the Wii and DS, but doesn’t approach and confront the failures of the Wii U with the same vigor. , which feels like a missed learning opportunity in this book.
To be clear, however, the book explains that failures happen in business and shares some lessons for responding to problems the right way. Examples are also given of tough decisions, such as letting someone go in a case where they were technically competent but had terrible people management skills. While there are a lot of buzzwords in the book, it seems obvious that Fils-Aimé has a key strength in people management, as evidenced by internal promotions over the past 15 years of the company. He also cites the methodology that helped steer NoA towards excellence in all things; when you look at how far affiliate marketing and performance have come over the past 20 years, it’s hard to argue with the results.
What’s clear in the book is that Reggie Fils-Aimé’s relentless business outlook – bragging and pushing for ever-bigger profits in every aspect of the business – is what Nintendo needed in the Americas in the early 2000s. For Satoru Iwata’s calm and quiet leadership at the helm of the company, a bold and ambitious Fils-Aimé was a solid buttress that helped Nintendo spread the message “in the West”, giving the company a more ambitious marketing advantage and a more confident and industry-leading image.
Although this book is primarily about that very American approach to boardroom business, in which Fils-Aimé built a hugely successful career, it touches on areas that will likely be explored further in an eventual autobiography. There is an interesting story behind the scenes of this famous E3 2004; having removed his credentials before going on stage, a worker offered him his badge as a cover. Fils-Aimé contemplates “what he said about the video game industry that a black man in a suit was mistaken for security versus an executive.” He never dwells on questions like these, but their occasional mentions reinforce the fact that he’s often had to ignore assumptions made about him, fueling them with a singular purpose.
At the end of the book, when he talks about retirement and his new path of supporting nonprofits and contributing to boardrooms, there’s an interesting split that pretty much sums up his approach to work and of life. On the one hand, he writes movingly about addressing an organization supporting minority and low-income children seeking a better life, with a great line “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 despite having a plan to revive the company, a little nudge to say he was right but they missed their luck; competitiveness and the conviction of being right most of the time always manifest themselves.
As to whether Nintendo fans will be interested in this book? Perhaps, as it provides an interesting insight into Nintendo of America and its evolving relationship with the Japanese headquarters; some of these details are quite unique. Know, however, that it’s wrapped up in a motivational business leadership book, and Ask Iwata is a much simpler motivational read. If you’re okay with a lengthy 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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