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A Virtual Failure: Evaluating the Success of Nintendo's Virtual Boy

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 64, Fall 2009
pp. 23-33 | 10.1353/vlt.0.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On 15 November 1994 Nintendo unveiled its newest video game console at the annual Shoshinkai Show. The Virtual Boy sported 3-D graphics in a unique tripod-mounted unit that required gamers to immerse themselves in the dual-screen display. While Nintendo hoped that this system would be the next big thing in the gaming world, initial response was notably underwhelming, with reviewers noting a number of glaring problems inherent in the console's design (Semrad). Despite an extravagant advertising campaign and revolutionary partnership deals, the system failed to take off with the general public. Games announced for the system at the May 1996 Electronic Entertainment Expo less than a year after the console's launch were never released, with Nintendo quietly allowing the system to disappear without any formal announcement.

Historical accounts of the Virtual Boy are even shorter than Nintendo's support of the system, concisely dismissing it as a failure because of its lack of sales, which is generally attributed to problems of technical implementation and Nintendo's preoccupation with the impending Nintendo 64 system. Regardless of the reason, the consensus among critics is that the system was an undeniable failure. Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln put it simply: "[I]t just failed" (qtd. in Sheff 450). However, the technological and ideological goals of the system, to create a new immersive gaming platform with the utopian aspirations of virtual reality, have lived on far beyond the console's mainstream presence. This attempt still resonates with diehard fans and collectors, who continue to flock to the system over a decade after its release, suggesting a cultural significance much larger than that implied by critics.

These contradictory readings of the Virtual Boy suggest that the significance of technological "failures" and, even more broadly, the definition of failure itself are characterized by a negotiable fluidity that accommodates a variety of influences. All cultural objects are necessarily overdetermined and, especially in the case of those intended for mass consumption, received by a disparate audience of individuals composed of contradictory and competing subjectivities. In the case of the Virtual Boy the disconnect between critics and niche fans brings up issues of discursive power, questioning who has the authority to make declarations of failure and the circulation to solidify these declarations in wider discourse. Furthermore, the inability of market performance to adequately explain the console's position in Nintendo's wider development and marketing strategies or its connection to media audiences' fantasies of technology underscores the necessity for a multifaceted approach to culture. Rather than signaling the endpoint for a technology, the label of "failure" indicates an opportunity to glean further insight concerning these interconnected industrial and consumer ambiguities, which, emphasized by this specific moment of conflict, provide the broader context within which the Virtual Boy exists.

As Kenneth Lipartito suggests, narratives of technological change ought not confine themselves to individual instances of change but rather take into consideration sociocultural and historical factors in order to place an instance of technological innovation into a contextual framework (76–77). Failed technologies in this view "persist well beyond their material life," as new inventions come into being as projected ideas rather than functional objects, playing a significant role in how society comprehends the "open-ended technological world" that surpasses the utilitarian evolutionary models (Lipartito 57). By viewing the Virtual Boy as part of an expansive technological narrative, the device transcends the image of the isolated miscalculation to become an intersection of societal desires, expectations, and anxieties concerning technological change that resonate far beyond any individual innovation.

These societal forces implicate both the industrial circumstances responsible for physically creating the new piece of technology as well as the cultural contribution and response to the new development. Thus, neither a top-down view determined by market response nor a solely bottom-up, socially constructed depiction of the Virtual Boy can sufficiently account for the interplay of forces involved in its development within a technological narrative. With regard to interactive media, Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter's "three circuits of interactivity" model extracts technology, marketing, and culture from the more general "circuit of culture" model as the three major areas of significance for a gaming...