Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Had the NES really been sold in the boys section of the toy aisle?


In December, I released a little video called “Who ruins the ruiner?”. I can honestly say that I was quite proud of that video, despite the spotty nature of the sound quality and the fact that at the time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

With that being said, there is still one tiny little loose end, One niggling issue that has been nagging at me since the video's release.... 

The dreaded “Nintendo sold their console in the boy's section of the toy aisle” argument. My version of the dreaded “Wage gap Myth”. In fact this statement has been nagging at me for months now for two major reasons:

One – Many of us who grew up in the 80's can easily call bullshit. 

B – Through the miracle of memory retention, I had been able to easily recall something I had read that debunks this claim outright. 

Above: The Nintendo bible

David Sheff published a book in 1999, a biography about the history of Nintendo. Granted the book itself comes off as rather dramatic at times, but it's been the most extensive look into the company that I myself have read, and I often find myself coming back to read the book periodically since 2003 out of sheer interest, and fascination of the business sense and strategies made during the rise of the NES. 

One particular chapter entitled “Enter the Dragon” , talks about how Bruce Donaldson, NoA's former Executive vice president of sales had hired John A. Sakaley III, (now former NoA VP of Merchandising) at the behest of Sales and marketing VP Peter Main to create a greater in-store presence for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Here's an excerpt from the book about that.
Peter Main wanted an even greater in-store presence. To get it, he decided to bring in a professional merchandiser, John Sakaley who knew the toy business inside and out. Sakaley had begun his career as a carpet buyer, then changed to become a toy buyer. He ended up working for Kenner, under Bernie Loomis, the company's well-known and respected president. Under Loomis, Sakaley formed Kenner's first merchandising department and introduced a series of innovations, including an approach begun by Mattel: Stores with stores devoted to a single product (There was a Star Wars store in toy departments, with action figures, space vehicles, posters and the like).

Eventually Sakaley left Kenner to become the group director of the retail sales force for the toy division at General Mills. Then Bruce Donaldson, the vice president of sales for NOA, hired him. When Sakaley was hired, he focused on developing a merchandising force that was headed into the trenches and called on stores to make certain that the NES was prominently displayed. Eventually, Toys R Us would feature full rows of Nintendo Merchandise, and Macy's would incorporate NOA's ambitious store-within-a-store, The World of Nintendo.

To get Stores to invest in the huge Nintendo displays, Sakaley initiated the “merchandise-accrual fund” for each piece of Nintendo Hardware or software purchased, the retailer was credited with a specific amount in a fund – a quarter for an NES system, a dime for a game- that was used to purchase displays Sakaley's staff created. Retailer's credits towards their merchandising-accrual funds doubled when they agreed to have a World of Nintendo. Of course this benefited Nintendo at least as much as the stores.
Eventually, 10,000 retail outlets had Worlds of Nintendo, where they showcased a growing cornucopia, of products, all of which carried the Nintendo Seal of Quality, an idea Ron Judy had come up with. Nintendo displays were elaborate. At some locations, Laser-light beams shot through the air. Silver-metallic and fluorescent-yellow pipes and tubes snaked over and around girders. It was if you were inside a Nintendo game. The displays won awards from the point of purchase advertising institute (POPAI) several years in a row.

Above: Old store banner from the 80's
The interesting thing about Toys R Us at the time was the fact that it was pretty much like how Home Depot is, today. Large areas of various toys separated mostly by brands. There were toys specifically for boys and girls, but at the time you would see aisles that were one side dolls and the other Tonka Trucks. Video games themselves were relegated to electronics sections, since they had been around since the mid 70s. This picture is from the electronics department from a old Child World toy store. It looks to be right at the height of the second console generation before the crash. 

Plaid Stallions actually has a ton of vintage images like this. Check them out!

Nintendo with the help of Sakaley created a store-within-a-store format in various toy and department stores, the stores themselves were rewarded with incentives for ordering World of Nintendo setups, thus keeping the product prominently visible to customers. But before we get too deep into discussing that, I would like to figure out where exactly this claim is coming from... Which means we're going to have to take a trip back to Adam's sources..

Searching through the links provided in the “summer fun” section, led me to a long form article by Tracy Lien called “No girls allowed” hosted on , you guessed it. Polygon!

The link lead me down a windy road of subjectivity and presumption. This entire article starts on an series of arguments based on a video of a little girl who goes on a rant in a toy store.


Yes, Girls and boys can play with superheroes, that's why you have the choice to purchase whatever you like. Marketing exists to basically give you an idea of what new thing is being sold on the market and to entice you to purchase those things by making them look fun and interesting. The choice will always be yours in whether you want to spend your money or try to coax your parents out of their money to purchase those things for you. So go ahead and buy those superheroes, no one will judge you... 

Okay, your friends will judge you.

Getting back to Lain's article, she doesn't waste any time diving face first into her per-conceived biases, I'm going to read snippets from the article, to basically give you an idea of what we're dealing with, here. If you want to read the entire article, I have the archive available.
A few aisles over, in the video game section, there is a similar marketing story that Maida has yet to learn. Unlike in the toy aisles, she won't find an expansive selection of video games for boys and an equally expansive selection for girls. Most "girls' sections," if they exist, are lined with fitness titles and Ubisoft's simplified career simulation series, Imagine, which lets players pretend they're doctors, teachers, gymnasts and babysitters.

As for the boys section — there isn't one. Everything else is for boys.
If the selection at the average retailer is anything to go by, girls don't play video games. If cultural stereotypes are anything to go by, video games are for males. They're the makers, the buyers and the players.
There is often truth to stereotypes. But whatever truth there may be, the stereotype does not show the long and complicated path taken to formulate it, spread it and have it come back to shape societal views.
The stereotype, for example, does not explain why "girls don't play video games." It does not reveal who or what is responsible for it. It does not explain how an industry that started with games like Pong (1972) or the first computer version of Tic-Tac-Toe (1959) came to be responsible for a medium that, for most of its history, hasn't had even an aisle's worth of games for Maida.

Following this line of logic, it seems that Lain believes that The Sims, Professor Layton, Brain Age, Dr Kawashima's Brain training, Ace Attorney series, or any other games for that matter are not girls games, and are thus labeled strictly for boys due to having males adorning the game's cover art. Thus, she goes on to literally judge a book by it's cover.

Lain eventually goes into explaining how marketing plays a large part in your selection of a product, often going so far into the weeds to explain how a group of “Crafty people” are leading you to buying male-oriented merchandise much like Pavlov's dog salivating over a bell ring. However, her assertions barely make any headway past such surface observations like “it makes sense from a marketing perspective for the video game industry to have perused a male audience”.

The more I read through this, the more this article seemed less of an interesting thesis, and more of an exercise in navel gazing and smelling smoke where there isn't any fire. It was at this point where I think I found our Helen of Troy, or the fabled quote that launched a thousand misinterpretations.
“According to Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology as well as game designer and author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games, Nintendo re-established the favor of the toy business by presenting its Nintendo Entertainment System as more of a toy and less as a game. In the mind of the retailers, nobody was buying video games anymore, but people were still buying toys. "That shift to toy culture in the mid-'80s with the NES and its followers, and then the shift to what we now call 'dude-bro' games happening in the early '90s — I think those are the two most important marketing moments, and I think they're different from one another," Bogost says. The marketing of video games and consoles as toys was a way of saving the industry at retail. Once video games were back in toy stores, the industry had a chance at making money again. It couldn't repeat the past. There could be no more Wild West.”
Going off of the “Who Ruins the Ruiner” video, people were still buying video games, They just wanted nothing to do with home gaming consoles, at the time. Even after the crash there was still a home computer market, and PC Gamers were still playing games, proving that a market still existed, albeit a smaller one than before. Atari, who had ventured into the home computer market as well, was still creating home consoles post crash. The Atari 7800 pro system, or the Atari 7800 as it was commonly called, was poised to enter the market in 1984, but shelved due to the company being sold between Warner communications and the Tramiels. The system was eventually relaunched in 1987, but due to the dominance of the NES in North America, the console couldn't get the foothold it needed to thrive in the marketplace.

The statement about people wanting toys over games is misguided as well. The reason why Nintendo wanted to push so hard to get the Famicom over to North America, was because in Japan people were buying video games, in great quantities, and Hiroshi Yamauchi felt that American markets aren't that different from Japanese markets. The NES wasn't marketed so much as a toy rather than an “entertainment device” much like a VCR or a Stereo system, and NoA did their damnedest to not only distance itself from Atari and it's stained legacy, but also to convince retailers that they wouldn't make the same mistakes as their predecessor.

"Knowing that you have limited funding, you can't just market shotgun. You can't just go after anybody," says Rodger Roeser. "You need to have a very clearly differentiated and specific brand because that's going to play into where you're running your ads and what kind of ads you run. That niche-ing, that targeting makes it easier for marketers to have a very succinct conversation with their target without overspending and trying to reach everybody."

Of course this statement is current day logic that's being applied to a market that had yet to be built from the ground up. Going back to David Sheff's book, the goal of selling the NES had very little to do with focusing on just boys or girls, the goal was to ultimately get the NES in as many hands as possible to generate traction and reignite the home console market.

The following is from page183 of Game Over..

At the June 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, Nintendo 
debuted what Arakawa had renamed the Nintendo Entertainment 
System, or the NES. The operative word was entertainment. Ev- 
erything Nintendo would do to sell the machine would emphasize 

The reaction at the new show was somewhat better. Buyers liked 
ROB. Still, they were reluctant to place orders. 

Arakawa stubbornly ignored the reaction. He said that the peo- 
ple in the industry were jaded. Kids would love it, he believed. To 
prove it, he commissioned focus-group studies in New Jersey. 
From behind a one-way mirror, he watched a random sampling of 
young boys play the NES and heard them say how much they hated 
it. typical was the comment of an eight-year-old: "This is shit!" 

Depressed, Arakawa wondered if he should give up, and in a 
conversation with Hiroshi Yamauchi, he said as much. Yamauchi 
denounced such fatalism. The market in America wasn't that dif- 
ferent from the Japanese market, he said. "But the tests 
show . . ." Yamauchi interrupted him. "Ignore them," he said. 
"Try to sell the system in one American city. Then, if it fails, it fails. 
But we must get it into the hands of the customer. That is the only 
test that matters." 
After the conversation with Yamauchi, Arakawa chose New York City as their testing ground, Eventually the NES gained success, despite the results of the focus group stating otherwise. The success was attributed to a marketing blitz of commercials, and merciless street level advertising and eventually, the toy stores were the first to fully adopt the console into their retail space. Department stores, however took a bit more convincing, due to being burned by the 1983 crash, but soon they realized that the NES and it's game paks were catching on with consumer interest, the company was in great financial standing, with healthy budgets being given to them by NCL and they had a means of controlling the quality of the NES's content through the use of the console's lockout chip.

But before we get too caught up in a book printed in the late 90's that actually explains the reasons for Nintendo's meteoric rise to popularity, let's get back to Lain's article, to hear what people from 2015 claim to know about what went on in 1985.
"The industry did the math. Companies like Nintendo aggressively sought out people who played their games. It began publishing its own video game magazine, Nintendo Power, which had enormous outreach and allowed the company to communicate with its customers. Publishers traveled to cities, held tournaments and got to see firsthand who was playing their games. "That was probably the first age of game demographic enlightenment," says Mika. The numbers were in: More boys were playing video games than girls. Video games were about to be reinvented.”

Oh dear....
"The Nintendo Entertainment System was targeted toward boys under 10. If you look at the Super NES five years later, it starts targeting boys ages 10-15," says Jesse Divnich, vice president of insights and analysis for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR). "So we're seeing this natural progression of the idea of once you're a gamer, you're always a gamer."

“The video game industry created something of a chicken-and-egg situation. When it conducted market research during the '80s and '90s, it found that more boys than girls played video games. Boys were more likely to be involved with new technology, more willing to be early adopters and more encouraged by their teachers and families to pursue science, technology, engineering and math in school. Girls have always played video games, but they weren't the majority. In wake of the video game crash, the game industry's pursuit of a safe and reliable market led to it homing in on the young male. And so the advertising campaigns began. Video games were heavily marketed as products for men, and the message was clear: No girls allowed. ”

Or perhaps maybe boys and some girls had a curious interest in technology and found video games to be fascinating enough to enjoy as a hobby? I never understood this logic that we have to have a forced 50/50 split of interest in everything. People are going to find interest in differing things. If there's a higher number of boys playing video games over girls, Then the question asked, then should be “what those girls were interested in besides video games” These are factors needed to paint a better picture of the interests of children of the time. Instead of taking a portion of data and drawing conclusions without outliers.

Also with this great lack of citations and evidence, we're now leading the audience to believe that there's some strange daisy chain of boys gathering around a NES and Television in an effort to keep those cootie infested girls away from their video games..

A lack of citations makes anything possible.

According to Simeon Spearman, a senior innovation strategist at marketing agency Engauge, this kind of marketing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If you look at the advertisements for games in the 1980s, you not only had an obvious assumption on the part of the marketers that video games were going to resonate more with young men, you also had them casting young men in the lead roles. They're cast in a way that perpetuates that stereotype of the belief that young men are the audience."
The ads made no distinction between different genres of games being for different people. Even nonviolent games like Tetris were painted with the same masculine brush when they appeared in ads for the Game Boy. It was, after all, the Game Boy, not the Game Girl.”

 And Sony's portable stereo was called the Walkman, but of course at the peak of it's popularity, there were just as many women using them as there were men. 

Above:  Suspicious photo of Women enjoying Male named products.
Even more hilarious is the fact that we have evidence that these games were played by different types of people. Through both print ads and actual commercials like this one.

What is that young lady doing in this commercial for this game that has these two manly men on the cover? Well if we're to use common sense, here it would be implied that this young lady had played the video game Super Contra, and had lost to the vile Red Falcon. But, of course according to this written piece of misinformed gender zealotry propaganda, these types of games are clearly just for boys and would deter anyone without a penis from playing them, because something something confirmation bias.

This would be the same logic that would lead the writer to believe that a robot in a post apocalyptic environment playing Tetris against a teenage boy would prevent women from playing the Gameboy, but according to a newspaper clipping from the January 15th1995 edition of the Gainsville Sun, it was estimated that 46% of females had owned and played a Gameboy. 29% had owned and played NES consoles, and 14% owned and played an SNES. 

full view the image to see how much facts don't real..

In fact, David Geary, Associate professor of Psychology at University of Missouri-Columbia goes on to state in the article that “girls are more inclined to cooperation and verbal activities. Games that involved analytic abilities, including mysteries and puzzles are particularly popular with girls” which was the reason why the Gameboy which included one of the most popular puzzle games of the 90's was a favorite among them. 

There's so much more in this article, that I can tear apart just with a series of cursory google searches, but I feel like that should be something that needs to be done in another video altogether. As for the claim that “Nintendo had to make a choice between boy or girl in the toy asile”, this statement seems like a rather lazy paraphrasing from information that was based on interpretation rather than actual facts. When statements like this are often parroted around by supposed figures of authority it gains traction, despite the lack of factual evidence, and is often repeated ad nauseum until the public begins to parrot this misinformation as fact. This practice was coined by Beverly Houghton 1979 as the “Woozle effect”, or evidence presented that is based on a weak or non existent citation.

We know that video games In the late 70s and early 80s, were sold in specialty stores (just as they are, now) as well as department and toy stores, but in areas of the store that would eventually become the electronics section. This was often done to keep the merchandise in areas that are more secure like glass cases and only accessible to sales associates for security reasons. In toy stores like Toys “R” Us and Kay Bee, during the early to late 90's, the video game section consisted of tags displaying the front and back of black and white or color versions of the game covers. This was for the consumer to check out the store's selection of games, and . If they wanted to purchase those games they would likely just grab a tag showing the bar code and price, and take the tags to an associate for purchase. This is something that even Cinemassacre's Mike Mattei talked about in a podcast, and has actually been shown in You Tube videos.  

So with the World of Nintendo displays of the mid 80's and the eventual card style set up, in the mid to late 90's We have a more clearer picture of how those games were presented during those days. As far as the statement about having to choose between boy or girl, thanks to having extensive knowledge about the situation I still say with the utmost confidence that that this was indeed a fabrication and a blatant lie.

I would also gladly suggest reading David Sheff's book, Game Over: press start to continue. It's a really interesting read, and despite the heavily romanticized style retelling, it's a nice insider tale about how things went down during the rise of the NES and the SNES and even covers the Virtual Boy woes, and the rise of the Playstation. I'm going to actually order some more books when I get the chance, maybe I'll cover them in reviews at a later time. But for now.....

- I'll see you next Bossfight.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and informative blog and about the Nintendo Merchandise and I must appreciate your work well done keep it up.
    Nintendo Merchandise