Creative Commons photo by Vincent Diamante. Click to see the original.
When Shigeru Miyamoto was a child, he didn’t really have any toys, so he made his own, out of wood and string. He put on performances with homemade puppets and made cartoon flip-books. He pretended that there were magical realms hidden behind the sliding shoji screens in his family’s little house. There was no television. His parents were of modest means but hardly poor. This was in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, in the rural village of Sonobe, about thirty miles northwest of Kyoto, in a river valley surrounded by wooded mountains. As he got older, he wandered farther afield, on foot or by bike. He explored a bamboo forest behind the town’s ancient Shinto shrine and bushwhacked through the cedars and pines on a small mountain near the junior high school. One day, when he was seven or eight, he came across a hole in the ground. He peered inside and saw nothing but darkness. He came back the next day with a lantern and shimmied through the hole and found himself in a small cavern. He could see that passageways led to other chambers. Over the summer, he kept returning to the cave to marvel at the dance of the shadows on the walls.
Miyamoto has told variations on the cave story a few times over the years, in order to emphasize the extent to which he was surrounded by nature, as a child, and also to claim his youthful explorations as a source of his aptitude and enthusiasm for inventing and designing video games. The cave has become a misty but indispensable part of his legend, to Miyamoto what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs. It is also a prototype, an analogue, and an apology—an illuminating and propitious way to consider his games, or, for that matter, anyone else’s. It flatters a vacant-eyed kid with a joystick (to say nothing of the grownups who have bought it for him or sold it to him) to think of himself, spiritually, as an intrepid spelunker. The cave, certainly, is an occasion for easy irony: the man who has perhaps done more than any other person to entice generations of children to spend their playtime indoors, in front of a video screen, happened to develop his peculiar talent while playing outdoors, at whatever amusements or mischief he could muster. Of course, no one in the first wave of video-game designers could have learned the craft by playing video games, since video games didn’t exist until people like Miyamoto invented them. Still, there may be no starker example of the conversion of primitive improvisations into structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation than that of Miyamoto, the rural explorer turned ludic mastermind.