Gaming Literacy: Nintendo marketing and how games became toys

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures. 

Long time gamers know that the gaming community has long warred with a certain social stigma surrounding video games. For the longest time, games were considered toys, the playthings of children. It was hard to accept them as serious art or sport because it was assumed that you would someday “grow out” of video games. But what if I told you it wasn’t always this way. What if I told you this entire stigma was the result of one company’s marketing strategy?

A Volatile Time In Gaming History

Back in the early days of gaming, video games weren’t considered toys at all. In fact, they were considered to be quite complicated. They were a product of the booming computer industry, and few computers were made to be accessible to children. Almost every user was some variety of power user, and understanding the inner workings of your computer was essentially a requirement to operate them at all. It was hard to market a video game as a toy when you had to remember the exact DOS prompt needed to run the thing. This was already too complicated for much of a younger audience. Type in the wrong prompt and you risk screwing up the entire computer. Sure, DOS and similar operating systems don’t seem that complex now, but it was certainly complex enough to avoid the stigma of a child’s plaything.

There was another reason why video games were considered a sophisticated adult purchase: price. Home computers were expensive, so expensive that the thought of buying one specifically so a child could play games was ludicrous unless you had quite the money to spare. Games were something you had on your home computer as a bonus, not something you specifically purchased a computer for.

That’s not to say there weren’t dedicated gaming consoles. In fact, the market was saturated with home consoles, with the Atari 2600 leading the pack. Then you had the ColecoVision, the Intellivision, and the Magnavox Odyssey 2, as well as a handful of “clone” systems, like the Tandyvision, which were literally just repackaged and rebranded versions. In fact, there were far too many consoles on the market, so much so that it was difficult for any one console to take hold.

This oversaturation was one of the factors that contributed to the video game crash of 1983. Electronics stores were absolutely flooded by consoles, and these consoles were flooded by cheaply produced and poorly regulated software. Not to mention, the price of the home PC was dropping by the year. It seemed foolish to purchase a dedicated video game console when you could purchase a PC for a similar price. With arcades simultaneously failing, it appeared as if the public’s interest in in video games was fading away.

The crash itself came as a natural result of economic forces on electronics stores. So many new producers were coming out that stores struggled to sell them all. There was no possible way for stores to get rid of all their stock of every game for every console, and so many tried to return their unsold stock to publishers. Unfortunately, these publishers could not give these stores refunds, and so stores began selling their overstock at severely reduced bargain prices.

This created something of an avalanche effect. As long as stores had issues moving their stock of video games, they wouldn’t order more from publishers. As a result, publishers were making less money, which meant they would have to spend less money on developing games. Thus, publishers scaled back their development efforts creating more and more shovelware in the hopes of making a quick buck. When this shovelware eventually did hit store shelves, stores had an even harder time selling it because of its poor quality, which once again lead to bargain bin discounts, reduced orders from publishers, and so on. This cycle continued until electronics stores just stopped selling games as a major product. Many publishers went out of business and the sales of video games dropped by an estimated 97 percent, a huge loss for a budding industry.

The Most Advanced New Toy On The Market

A little Japanese company called Nintendo was unfortunate enough to get into the industry right when the crash hit. This would make it hard to market their family computer, or “Famicom,” to American markets. Americans already had a ton of “family computers” to choose from, and entering a new one into an already flooded market was just a recipe for disaster.

So Nintendo had a brilliant idea. Instead of marketing Famicom as a piece of consumer electronics, they would market it as something else: a toy. They wanted to distance themselves from the current image of video games as a high-end electronic luxury as much as possible.

First, they changed the entire design of their system. They made it look less like top loading cartridge systems like the Atari 2600, and made it look more like a Video Cassette player by loading its games from the front. They also took out “computer” from its name, and instead called it the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES. This made the NES feel like an add-on for your TV, rather than a standalone computing device. Interactive video cassettes did exist at the time, even if they weren’t super common.

Second, they added a lot of plastic add-ons to the system to make it seem like it was a toy set. The NES Zapper, R.O.B. the Robotic Operating Buddy, and the Power Pad were all part of this marketing scheme. Contrary to popular belief, this had nothing to do with public image and everything to do with market control. At that time, Nintendo wasn’t super concerned with being family friendly, but they were concerned with finding people who would buy their product. The consumer electronics crowd had been tapped out and electronics stores wouldn’t even stock the NES. So, instead, Nintendo turned to toy stores. This turned the NES from a relative newcomer in an oversaturated electronics market to the most advanced toy on the market.

And this strategy worked. Toy stores everywhere rushed to stock the NES and its “game paks” on their shelves. Even better, these toy stores weren’t stocking other competing devices. The NES was in a market all of its own.

Video Games All Grown Up

This is largely why video games have been considered toys for so many years. In a way, the original video-game market did die. Video games stopped being sold at computer and consumer electronics stores and started to be sold at toy stores. Video game developers now had to adjust to this new market. They made each system newer and flashier, and made their commercials edgy and appealing to children, rather than parents. Headlining games were created to bring in the younger audience. Games with a more serious or adult tone became trapped in the PC gaming sphere.

This, too, became a self-perpetuating avalanche of economy and culture. The more games were marketed as toys, the better they sold. The better they sold, the more game companies needed to compete by making their products better toys. This continued until we ended up with the "just a toy" stigma that the gaming community has been fighting against for the past few decades.

But this stigma has weakened in the last few years, because we are seeing the same process happen in reverse. Around the time of the PlayStation, Sony started marketing their consoles with extra functionality. You could play music CDs, DVDs, and eventually stream media and browse the internet with the PS3. Meanwhile, Nintendo found themselves lagging behind when they developed game consoles that could only do one thing, play games. Consoles became marketed not just as toys, but as multimedia devices, something for a more adult crowd. Thus, games became more and more adult oriented. Now Nintendo is basically the only company holding on to the family friendly image, while Sony, Microsoft, and many third party developers are once again marketing to adults.

Is this a good thing? Have we finally destroyed the idea that video games are toys? Are video games better off when they aren’t seen as such? The answers to these questions change with the times. Back in the early eighties, video games needed to be toys in order to survive. In fact, if it weren’t for their identity as toys, we wouldn’t have introduced a younger generation to games, the same generation that grew up to be the game developers of today. Maybe one day, games will need to become toys again, or maybe they will always be the domain of an older market. Only time will tell.