On the very first page of his new book, when describing his attendance at a funeral in Japan, former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé places emphasis on one detail: He is a “Black American,” and as a result, will often stand out.
Even outside his race, Fils-Aimé seems to enter several companies (Pizza Hut, VH1, Procter & Gamble) as an outsider, new to the industries he’s entering and often joining at a time when the companies themselves are undergoing seismic changes. In his book, which publishes Tuesday, he writes that he hopes to inspire anyone navigating unfamiliar corporate and workplace territory, in part by recalling and retelling the lessons he learned in his career.
“In my work as an executive and the work I do today, it’s somewhat taken at face value that I am a Black man,” Fils-Aimé said in an interview with The Post. He was the first Black executive at Nintendo. “It’s very important to put those markers out there because again, part of what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to inspire that next generation. It’s why I continue to spend time going back to the Bronx today and to have very direct conversations with young people that I am them 50, 60 years ago, and that they can be me as they apply themselves, as they focus on their education, as they build out their skills and capabilities.”
Nintendo fans familiar with Fils-Aimé’s presentation style will find his writing familiar and comforting, as it reflects his ability to communicate in a confident and clear tone. Fils-Aimé made his video game industry debut at the E3 show in 2004, when he appeared onstage as Nintendo’s senior vice president of marketing, and declared, “My name is Reggie, I’m about kicking ass, taking names, and we’re about making games.” It was a historical change of tone for the famously conservative entertainment company, which then was on shaky footing fending off industry upstarts Sony and Microsoft.
This change of tone was consequential. Many industry observers said this was the attitude Nintendo needed for the 21st century. Iwata, as Fils-Aimé writes in his book, agreed. The company felt it was simply not getting enough global credit for its technological innovations. Fils-Aimé still believes today it’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of the company. Nintendo is, after all, the first company to implement touch screen user interfaces for video games and a variety of other software programs with its Nintendo DS, something game developers on smartphones would continue when the iPhone was introduced in 2007.
“The fact is that the company just wants to be thoughtful and to do things differently to make sure that they are bringing their own unique twist and perspective versus just doing the same old [thing] as everyone else,” he said.
“Tone” is another recurring theme in Fils-Aimé’s journey. At Nintendo, when discussing how he would debut at E3, Fils-Aimé recalls Iwata’s translator asking him bluntly, “Why are you so angry?” The stereotype of the “angry Black man” loomed over Fils-Aimé; he had to explain he wasn’t angry, just that he strongly believed in his vision of a confident Nintendo. He would learn to gently push back.
“When you’re a junior executive, you know, you’re paid to be aggressive, to push ideas forward, to be the person who is bringing new ideas and making them happen,” Fils-Aimé said. “As you mature in your role, the requirements shift and now, you know, you’re evaluating talent, you’re developing others to do the role. You’re less of a coach and more of a mentor in helping people move forward. And then lastly, as the senior-most executive, your job is to encourage all of the other perspectives to come forward and to leverage all of that information to get to the very best decision possible.”
A section called “The So What” punctuates nearly every chapter of his book. After detailing certain encounters, like when he disagreed with Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto about giving “Wii Sports” away free as a pack-in game for the Nintendo Wii console, Fils-Aimé always breaks down the business lesson in short, succinct paragraphs to outline key takeaways.
Fils-Aimé hopes his book, which is targeted toward anyone with a keen interest in business management and upward corporate mobility, finds readers outside of Nintendo fans. The lessons of Nintendo as a business reach far: the company is one of a vanishingly small class that has been able to not just adapt, but scale the business and its industry’s audience. Nintendo’s Wii and DS consoles are often credited with opening the gates to casual players, launching a new wave of software aimed at audiences unfamiliar with video game genre tropes and mechanics.
Fils-Aimé believes that if a company wants to develop a larger audience, the most important question to ask is what’s inhibiting the business today. The video games industry in the early 2000s scaled up primarily through intellectual property, producing sequels to popular games. Audiences only cared about the next Madden football game or Grand Theft Auto title.
“Nintendo saw the problem as too many sequels, having the controller getting too complicated. And so the answer was in driving gameplay innovation, making sure controllers were more accessible,” Fils-Aimé said, saying that question of inhibiting audiences can be applied to many industries. “What is keeping our audience from being more fully engaged? What’s keeping people from participating and paying for our content?”
Fils-Aimé said to reach new audiences, companies and executives need to ask themselves what the right approach would be to break down that barrier and turn an unengaged consumer into a loyal fan.
“What’s going to be that angle in getting them to want to participate in whatever the industry is? And then [it’s about] being maniacally focused on addressing that issue and not being enamored about other elements or other issues,” Fils-Aimé said. “Focus in on the problem, focus in on the core benefits that are going to deliver the solutions that you want.”
It’s also key for executives to engage in their products and the audiences they hope to reach. Fils-Aimé may have been an outsider to Nintendo, but he was no stranger to playing video games. Even today, he insists on keeping his finger on the pulse. Right now, he’s making his way through 2022′s best-selling game, “Elden Ring.”
Fils-Aimé was a constant presence at Nintendo’s most public events, playing games with fans, making guest appearances on YouTube shows by independent content creators, making remarkably self-aware jokes that poked fun at Nintendo or himself, all the while engaging in the same activities as anyone in the modern games space.
“I worked hard to understand the audience,” Fils-Aimé said. “I would even do things where I would be in an airport and I would see a kid playing one of Nintendo’s products. I would first go to the parents and I tell them I work for Nintendo, can I ask you or your kids some questions? I was always constantly curious, this insatiable curiosity of trying to learn why people are doing what they what they do.”
Fils-Aimé’s book is just another step, another way for him to reach out.
“I would be thrilled to meet someone a year from now who says, you know, Reggie, I read your book and I took these handful of lessons and I applied them and here were the result. And, you know, thank you for that,” Fils-Aimé said. “That would be just so meaningful to me.”