“My name is Reggie. I’m about kicking ass, I’m about taking names, and we’re about making games.”
Reggie Fils-Aimé’s unforgettable introduction at Nintendo’s E3 2004 showcase marked a turning point for the famed console maker. At the time, we simply saw a bold and brash new attitude from the traditionally reserved company. But as Disrupting the Game: From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo, his new book, reveals, the conscious construction of that line came to reflect the rebirth that was at hand under the former Nintendo of America president’s leadership.
Like Fils-Aimé himself, whose public persona of ebullient, meme-worthy pitchman often belied his sales and marketing business strengths, the book has two speeds. The primary autobiographical layer runs through the “Bronx to the top of Nintendo” story, including Fils-Aimé’s New York childhood, schooling, notable roles at companies, and the work that’s filled his days since he left the Japanese publisher in 2019.
“Nintendo never planned for me to do all of those fun things and to be part of all those fun videos.”
On the other side, Disrupting the Game also offers practical advice for business-minded folk who’d like to learn from Fils-Aimé’s success story. These macro moments, which are peppered throughout the book, contextualize the thinking that shaped pivotal career moments and, in the process, help us better understand the perspective and worldview that fueled Fils-Aimé’s success.
There are plenty of great Nintendo stories, to be sure. You’ll learn how Fils-Aimé’s iconic Nintendo introduction at E3 2004 came together, and hear about the moment his professional relationship with the late Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata turned into a genuine friendship. But you also get to see how Fils-Aimé spearheaded ideas at Pizza Hut that became widely popular, and how, as a VH1 executive in New York, he reacted to 9/11 in the moment.
On the eve of Disrupting the Game‘s May 3 release, Fils-Aimé spent an hour chatting with Mashable on a range of topics, including the unusual experience of watching himself become a meme, his post-retirement philanthropy, the true meaning of “diversity” in a business context, and even Elden Ring. All throughout, an affable-yet-measured Fils-Aimé demonstrated, once again, why his words and ideas have so often made headlines and attracted a legion of fans on the internet.
Midway through the book, Fils-Aimé describes the events that led to his unforgettable first major public appearance as a Nintendo executive at the annual E3 trade show in 2004. With a blockbuster showcase that included reveals for what were then upcoming Metroid and Zelda games, as well as a first look at the Nintendo DS handheld, Fils-Aimé kicked things off with his famous declaration.
“It was clear from the day that I was hired that my marketing capability, my communications capability, [and] my strategic and critical thinking capability were not only critically needed by the company, but that we would deploy these to the very best of our collective abilities,” Fils-Aimé said, referring to the cult of personality that seemed to spring up around him in an instant. So when he took to the E3 stage and the internet reacted with the first “Reggie memes” — as his then-13-year-old son shared in an excited call that very day — it was clear some kind of lightning had struck.
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“Nintendo never planned for me to do all of those fun things and to be part of all those fun videos,” Fils-Aimé continued. “It all came about because [I had] the right skills, the right capability, the right messaging. All of those came together in a way that created magic, and we ourselves never thought how big these moments could be.”
There may be no better example of this than “My body is ready,” a legendary and widely memed Fils-Aimé quote from Nintendo’s E3 showcase in 2007. That line came from a first look at the Wii Fit exercise game, which included a “Balance Board” peripheral that offered unique player interactions.
When Fils-Aimé was invited to the stage to demonstrate the game’s “body check” feature with Shigeru Miyamoto, the prolific creator of Mario and Zelda (among others), he walked out and playfully responded with the now-iconic line. It was a scripted moment, but one that emerged organically during the rehearsal process.
“It just gets wearing,” Fils-Aimé said of the work that goes into E3 prep. “So you’re trying to have fun, and my sole purpose was to try to make Mr. Miyamoto laugh when I stepped on that Balance Board. In rehearsals, that line [made him laugh], and that’s why I said it on the stage.”
While Fils-Aimé was aware that his innate charm and charisma delighted Nintendo’s fans, the execution wasn’t as calculated as it often seemed. That’s true even for more carefully scripted moments, such as a pre-E3 video in 2014 wherein Fils-Aimé — dubbed “Fils-A-Mech” in the trailer — memorably disintegrated a doubting Nintendo exec with his eye lasers.
“[It] was born from the art that my son found from my very first E3 where laser beams were coming out of my eyes,” Fils-Aimé said with a chuckle. “One to blow up [the PlayStation 2] and the other to blow up the original Xbox. These were all fun moments that, in time, became bigger than the event itself. But it was always done with purpose. It was always done with tongue firmly held in cheek. And it was always gratifying that the broad internet community…ran with it.”
An unlikely perfect fit
The cult of personality that formed all funnels back to Fils-Aimé’s first blockbuster moment on that E3 2004 stage and — to borrow from his book’s title — the disruption his arrival brought to Nintendo.
“What we all learned through the process [of E3 2004] was that I could be incredibly quick on my feet in communicating what makes Nintendo different,” Fils-Aimé explained. “That I related not only with the Nintendo fan base, but the broad industry that arguably, with the exception of maybe Shigeru Miyamoto, the company wasn’t able to connect with in that broad way.”
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Fils-Aimé’s kinship with gaming culture is rooted in his own enduring appreciation for video games, first as a youth who spent time haunting arcades and hanging out with console-owning friends, and later as a young adult with enough disposable income to purchase a Super NES of his own. He talks in the book about spending dozens of hours playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and the fire it lit within him that still burns today.
As a high-level newcomer at Nintendo, a company where most employees tend to rise through the ranks internally after sticking around for a long time, Fils-Aimé’s appreciation for the medium became an instant asset. He could speak to the community on their level because he’d felt their pains and reveled in their highs.
“I understood the historical difference between SNES versus Sega,” he said, referring to a period of intense competition during the ’90s when the term “console war” was born. “I understood the history of the relationship between Sony and Nintendo, and how that fractured and…gave birth to the PlayStation. I understood what Microsoft was trying to do as they entered the marketplace.”
That understanding comes from his firsthand experience as an engaged gamer in the early aughts, a period of time which was challenging for Nintendo. When Fils-Aimé joined the company in 2003 as executive vice president of sales and marketing, his gaming setup at home reflected Nintendo’s struggles in the console war of that moment: There was an original Xbox and a PlayStation 2, but no GameCube.
Earning the trust of Iwata and Miyamoto — perhaps the two most significant stakeholders at Nintendo back then, and really across the company’s history — was critical, of course, and Fils-Aimé explores those relationship-shifting moments in the book. It’s clear he has great admiration for both men, and he still credits them for supporting his tenure as an unlikely figurehead for Nintendo’s North American operations.
Unlikely not just in the sense of being an experienced outsider who joined Nintendo’s ranks at a top executive level despite having no prior history there, but also as the child of Haitian immigrants in a U.S. tech and entertainment industry where most of the leaders were white. “It took a big step for a Kyoto-based company to enable a Black American to play that role for the company,” he said.
Lifting up the next generation
Fils-Aimé’s focus these days is fixed on philanthropy and paying forward the lessons learned from a long career filled with hard-earned successes.
He was named a “Leader in Residence” in 2019 by his alma mater Cornell University, a role that allowed him to engage directly with students and mentor them toward success. He’s also, in his capacity as a board member of the New York Video Game Critics Circle (NYVGCC), provided guidance and mentorship to pre-college students as part of a gaming initiative led by DreamYard Project, just a few miles from his childhood home in the Bronx.
Disrupting the Game is yet another manifestation of Fils-Aimé’s true post-Nintendo goal. “What I am doing today is investing my time, my effort and energy, into shaping the next generation…of people who are going to make a difference, whether it’s in video games or something else,” Fils-Aimé said.
“Doing things the same old way is not going to solve some of the most daunting challenges that we’re facing today.”
Credit: Harold Goldberg
Fils-Aimé wants to remind the young people he works with that change starts at the top, and aiming high can make an actual difference. “Leaders across the industry really need to be intentional around setting positive cultures, positive workplaces,” he said. “A corollary to that is really making a commitment to drive a much greater level of diversity than exists today.”
A whole section of the book is in fact devoted to a discussion of diversity and how Fils-Aimé, in particular, defines it in the context of his work.
“I’m not just talking about racial diversity. I’m not talking about sexual orientation diversity. I’m talking all of it. Really honoring the variety of different backgrounds, perspectives, [and] life experiences and leveraging that to its fullest has got to be the number one agenda for leaders in our industry,” he said.
It’s not enough to just add more perspectives to the mix, however. Fils-Aimé also believes it’s vitally important that the video game industry continues to innovate, both in terms of breaking out of a lemmings-like cycle of copying the latest, greatest hit — “Consumers don’t want just another FPS [or] some derivative of Elden Ring,” he said. — and also in terms of not being fearful of new technologies.
“I’ve been quite clear that I think blockchain as a technology can be incredibly interesting,” Fils-Aimé said. “But it always has to be approached from the perspective of ‘what’s going to make my gaming experience better, more interesting, more compelling, more fun.’ It has to be approached through that lens.”
There’s a case to be made that a push for continued innovation is at its strongest when it’s being shaped by the widest range of perspectives possible. But Fils-Aimé doesn’t want people to look at diversity as a necessary step toward innovation, primarily because of the dispiriting current environment and what the immediate road ahead looks like.
“Consumers don’t want just another FPS or some derivative of ‘Elden Ring.'”
“I really hope that it’s not going to take movement in diversity to address [stifled innovation],” he said. “Because you really need to be committed to it in order to make change. And I have to say, I don’t see a lot of commitment to it today.”
Fils-Aimé acknowledged that there are encouraging examples in the industry even now who want to embrace progress. He’s forged a close relationship over the years with Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of Xbox, and sees Spencer as someone who “does believe it.” But Fils-Aimé quickly added that, in their private moments together, he’s more than willing to “tweak” Spencer in a way that keeps him mindful.
“Don’t show me your leadership team that reports to you, show me heads of your development studios and what their leadership teams look like,” Fils-Aimé said in reference to the kinds of things he might say to Spencer privately. “If we’re going to do this, then let’s do it in total and force this through as much of the organization as possible versus, necessarily, just your leadership team.”
Today’s struggles and diversions
Of course, it’s difficult to discuss a more evolved video game industry with the former Nintendo of America president without digging into the upsetting allegations facing his former employer right now. In late April, an Axios report (further corroborated by Kotaku) highlighted a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board in which former Nintendo contractors — the company calls them “associates” — level allegations of unfair labor practices.
The complaint and subsequent reporting describes a workplace where on-contract associates exist apart from staffers in what is effectively a different social class: They receive lower pay for their work relative to the wider industry; they’re subject to stricter rules and more surveillance; and they’re actively discouraged from speaking out about their concerns. When they do, they allegedly face retaliation.
That last item is especially noteworthy in the context of Disrupting the Game, which leans heavily on the title’s “disrupt” premise in advising readers to actively work toward the change they want to see. But Fils-Aimé contends that such a dynamic can only flourish when the surrounding culture allows for it.
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“I believe in the power of creating a positive culture within an organization,” he explained. “Positive cultures come about not just because everyone agrees, and not just because everyone has the same point of view. I believe positive cultures come about when individuals are recognized for their unique contributions, their unique points of view.”
One of the book’s more surprising recollections reveals that Fils-Aimé had a moment of doubt as Nintendo courted him for his first role there. A conversation with the head of the company’s human resources department left him feeling, as he said during our interview, “that they didn’t believe in the value of learning and development, and…investing in their people.”
“It made me pause and wonder if this was truly a company for me,” Fils-Aimé said. It wasn’t until he talked to some of his other future Nintendo colleagues and developed a better understanding of the job that he came to see a deeper truth.
“I saw for myself that I had the power to shape culture; that I had the power to utilize everyone in the company’s uniqueness to drive positive results. So when I read that story [about the labor complaint], it doesn’t sound like the Nintendo I knew and the Nintendo I left three years ago.”
From Fils-Aimé’s perspective during his time at the company, Nintendo’s associates were fully integrated with the rest of the team. “We invited our associates to a wide range of different activities. They really were part of the organization.”
“It made me pause and wonder if this was truly a company for me.”
He can’t speak to the situation as it exists now and didn’t want to say more on the current workplace reality at Nintendo. But Fils-Aimé did share his post-retirement perspective on the video game industry, noting how vital it is for leaders and observers both to forge ahead through these difficult moments with both eyes open.
“In my retirement, I’ve spent time with senior leaders in the gaming space and I’ve given them my perspective on how to shape culture; how to take positive elements of your organization’s history and leverage them for the future; and how to be aggressive in attacking negative elements of your culture as you look to move forward,” he explained.
“I am hopeful, given the range of these conversations, that it’s a topic that the industry is taking very seriously, and that there will be continued positive movement [in terms of] how organizations are shaping positive cultures in, what is today, the largest form of entertainment in the world.”
Even in his post-Nintendo life, it’s clear that Fils-Aimé’s still possessed of a deep and abiding love for video games and the industry that creates them. He’s still advising and investing, as exemplified by his work with Rogue Games. He’s got a documentary project in the works focused broadly on games that’s enlisted participation from Ryan Silbert, an Academy Award-winning writer and producer, and NYVGCC founder Harold Goldberg. More details than that are only a handful of months away, Fils-Aimé hopes.
And yes, he’s still playing games. Of course. Fils-Aimé is hesitant to list any of the indie titles he’s playing given his ongoing work in that space, but he did name-drop one recent fave.
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“So like seemingly every other gamer, I had to play a little Elden Ring. And it’s interesting because, historically, I haven’t enjoyed [From Software’s] ‘Souls’-type games. They go against my style of play: I like to be overpowered when I take on bosses; I like to win. I don’t like it when my character dies.” Here, Fils-Aimé proudly points to his full playthrough of the Switch fave, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, noting that Link, the game’s star, “died just a handful of times.”
In contrast, Elden Ring — and From games in general — are built on a foundation of learning through failure. You’re meant to die repeatedly in any From game and then carry the lessons of that death into each subsequent life.
That approach “historically has not been a lot of fun [for me],” Fils-Aimé explained. “But I enjoyed Elden Ring. I didn’t play to completion, but I enjoyed the experience and learned from it.”
It’s the indie titles he won’t name that really excite Fils-Aimé these days, however, and not just because he’s plugged into some of their work on the business side of things. It’s also the space as a whole, and how it gets at one of those key markers of progress he’d like to see pushing the medium, and the industry as a whole, forward.
“I believe that the indie community right now is taking on much more of the risk. They are the ones who are pushing the envelope a bit more aggressively,” he said. “I like that. I like that sense of innovation and where it’s coming from.”