RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

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Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

Robin Williams, And Why We Need To Talk About Depression

When I started writing this, I was going to focus on the death of Robin Williams. But looking over all the coverage in the last 48 hours, I’ve realized that such an article would just be repeating the same stories already out there. I could talk about watching Mork & Mindy reruns on Nick at Nite as a kid, or how I saw Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire enough times to memorize every line. I could talk about how legitimately creepy I found him in One Hour Photo and Law and Order SVU. I could talk about how the phrase, “It’s not your fault” still makes me tear up. But you’ve read – and likely experienced – all of that already. It’s amazing how one man can bring together millions of strangers with a common experience of laughter. I wish I had a better story to tell you, that I was trapped in an elevator with him for an hour, or that he held a door open for me one time. But I don’t. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but I never met him.

And now I never will.

If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it’s that more people are talking about depression and suicide. It needs to be discussed. Our culture has many proverbial elephants in the room, but depression is one of the biggest and deadliest. Psychology has developed leaps and bounds over the last century, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Lobotomies aren’t a form of treatment anymore, though all the medications and their innumerable side effects aren’t much better. Most folks haven’t bothered to learn anything about depression; if something’s uncomfortable, it’s much easier to sweep it under the rug. There’s an unspoken stigma – especially for men – about mental health. Oh sure, we all know it’s there, but who wants to think about that? It’s so much easier going about your daily life, catching a movie, playing a video game…whatever it takes to keep you distracted from the darker, lesser-known aspects of our existence. Because there’s no way anything like that could happen to you, right?

I know better.

I know what it’s like having that little twinge of doubt consuming your every action and decision. It builds with each passing day, filling and weighing your down like molten lead. I know the burn of stigma and shame, that sense of worthlessness and isolation. That no one could possibly understand. That you’re different, broken, maybe a lost cause. That you shouldn’t bother asking for help, because it’s nothing, it’s all your fault, and no one would want to help you anyway. That you have to pretend and put on a smile, and how exhausting it is. That you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because your brain is spinning like a tire stuck in mud. That you occasionally dread getting up in the morning because it’s yet another day bereft of meaning. That every aspect of your life is conspiring to make you more miserable. That things are so bad now, and the future is a terrifying prospect.

Look, I know you’re out there. You’re sitting in front a screen somewhere, and you’re feeling trapped and alone. I don’t know you, your background, age, sex, gender, ethnicity, circumstances, none of the above. I’m not going to pretend that I get everything about what you’re going through, but I know enough. Depression isn’t just a habit you can kick; it’s there, and it’s a serious, potentially deadly problem. It doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. But leaving it untreated is like putting a rock in your shoe and running a marathon. So, let me ask (and you don’t have to answer, but just think about it): What’s stopping you from getting help? Is it fear of rejection? Insurance coverage costs? Guilt? Whatever it is, are there ways around it? Also, let’s make one thing clear:

There is nothing, nothing wrong with asking for help.

I’m not going to romanticize therapy, either; it’s difficult in ways you’d never expect. It makes you take a long, hard look at yourself, and there’s no instant cure. For some, a couple of pills a day isn’t going to solve your problems. But if you’re going to do anything, then at least talk about it. If you can get therapy, go for it. If not, talk to your trusted family and friends. If not them, support groups and hotlines. Possibly all of the above. If you need to call someone, there are plenty waiting to listen. People can and will help you, but they’re never going to know unless you tell them. And for those of you who know someone in need, be there for them. It’s not about politics, taboos, or whatever else; someone you care about needs your help. I don’t think you’re going to leave them hanging. If you want to learn more about depression and suicide, there are several resources online. Try starting with the entries on WebMD, Wikipedia, and TV Tropes.

I don’t know if this post is going to make any difference. If it helps someone struggling out there, then I’d consider it a success. I’m typically reserved and quiet, so all of this preaching about seeking help from others and whatnot might sound hypocritical. Despite that, I am living proof of my argument; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’m not an optimist, but I’d rather fill an empty life than throw it away. Look, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we can change everything about depression overnight; despite all our advancements, we’re barely scratching the surface. But the first step is talking about it. Too many people have lost their lives in the silence already.

I’ve been on the soapbox long enough. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on a Robin Williams movie binge.