Reggie Fils-Aimé doesn’t want to be asked about the same things he always gets asked about in advance of his SXSW Keynote session: “The Next Level: How Video Games Help You Succeed.” As the recently-retired former president and chief operating officer (COO) of Nintendo of America, Fils-Aimé has talked about those things a lot — the memes that were made after he introduced himself to Nintendo fans as the new boss at the 2004 E3 video game conference (Fils-Aimé said, “I’m about kickin’ ass, I’m about takin’ names, and we’re about makin’ games,” leading the internet to nickname him “The Regginator”), or his willingness to put himself out as a public figure (he introduced the Nintendo Wii Balance Board by making the instantly meme-able declaration “My body is ready,” then repeated the line on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon). But there’s more to Fils-Aimé than just a higher-profile-than-your-average-video-game-company executive.
During his time at Nintendo, he oversaw a boom that came after a years-long slump during which the company was considered a stale brand, overshadowed by the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. When Fils-Aimé talks about his early years at Nintendo, it’s easy to connect the outsized personality to the philosophy that helped him steer the brand forward.
“The challenge is understanding ‘cool’ as a currency, and understanding what drives that currency,” he says. “What I saw were foundational experiences, and equities that mean something to consumers — so Mario has currency. Link, from The Legend of Zelda, has currency. And if you’re able to create new experiences, you can take that currency and make it relevant. The essence of ‘cool’ is having something that is foundationally true, and then making it incredibly relevant in the moment — so I believed when I took the job at Nintendo, we could create cool things, and surprise the consumer in unexpected ways that would bring back the cool factor, bring back the swagger, and help drive the company forward.”
“The essence of ‘cool’ is having something that is foundationally true, and then making it incredibly relevant in the moment...”
That’s exactly what Fils-Aimé helped oversee at his time with Nintendo of America — and it’s the sort of thing he’s eager to talk about as he moves on to the next chapter of his life, which includes a position as a Leader in Residence at his alma mater, Cornell University. The role video games play in the entertainment landscape is vast — Fils-Aimé calls it “the biggest force in entertainment” — which means that understanding the industry necessarily means understanding the appeal of the medium itself.
“My perspective is that, given the breadth and variety, you can learn things from playing video games that you can apply to your everyday life,” Fils-Aimé explains. “Whether that’s creativity, a sense of competition, or problem solving, and looking for solutions through uncommon means or in uncommon areas.”
Those are ways of looking at the world — and at the entertainment landscape — that are relevant to more than just gamers, and Fils-Aimé is excited to share what he’s learned. When Fils-Aimé started at Nintendo, one of his primary jobs was to sell consoles to people who might otherwise be playing PlayStation or Xbox. But rather than focus solely on that mission, Nintendo also saw its future in expanding what a gamer was — something that emerging technologies like the iPhone made a whole lot easier.
Between innovations early in Fils-Aimé’s tenure — from the handheld Nintendo DS’s Brain Age, which found an audience among older adults, and devices like the Wii Fit, to the advent of smartphones that turned anyone who plays Words with Friends into a gamer — the market has ballooned. At the time he took the job, Fils-Aimé notes that video games were played by one out of every three people in the U.S. Now, consistent with his mission at Nintendo, the market for video games counts eight out of ten adults as players.
The ubiquity of games means that today, Nintendo is competing with everyone for the attention of its audience, rather than focusing on a core, dedicated group. And that’s something that Fils-Aimé thinks other players in the entertainment industry are doing as well.
“Minute-by-minute, second-by-second, every day, you’re competing with all other forms of entertainment for time. We all have 1,440 minutes a day. We eat, we sleep, some of us go to work and some of us go to school,” he says. “All of the rest of the time is entertainment time, whether you’re in video games, or streaming—whether you’re Nintendo or Netflix or Disney+—you’re all fighting, minute-by-minute, for that time.”
Fils-Aimé is confident that, like Link unlocking the weapon he needs to clear a dungeon in The Legend of Zelda, one of the places people are looking to answer questions about how to compete in an aggressive media landscape is in video games. There are answers to be found in the problem-solving skills that games teach, and also in the lessons of a company that, over his 15 years leading its American operations, returned to heights once thought unattainable.
“Video games have been the most experimental and most provocative form of entertainment — AR, VR, games as a form of exercise — and I fully expect that to continue. I think the pace of innovation in the space is unparalleled,” he says. “And the challenge of a leader is to create new targets, set new bars, and to reframe what success looks like.” With that perspective, Reggie Fils-Aimé is ready to help anyone who wants to be a player figure out the game.
Reggie Fils-Aimé will be a Convergence Keynote Speaker at SXSW 2020.