Martin Roth

Dr. Martin Roth is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences at Ritsumeikan University and a research fellow at Stuttgart Media University’s Institute of Applied Artificial Intelligence. He works on videogames, digital space and Japan. His first monograph, Thought-Provoking Play: Political Philosophies in Science Fictional Videogame Spaces from Japan, is available open access from ETC Press. For more information about Roth’s work, please visit here.

Contact information:
roth1003 at

Review: Who Are You? Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance Platform

by Martin Roth

Game consoles are more than just pieces of hardware. They change over time, are accompanied by a wide range of peripherals, are platforms for a wide range of software and “live” through the various practices of their players and others. Alex Custodio’s Who are you? exposes this life and the afterlife of one such console, Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance (henceforth, “GBA”). Throughout the book, Custodio displays impressive knowledge about all matters concerning the GBA, from hardware and software design to marketing and legal issues. Despite the intricacy of many of the relevant aspects, she succeeds in presenting an accessible and enjoyable account -- even to the layman I am.

The book is comprised of a total of 8 chapters, including the introduction and the conclusion. Custodio starts off by introducing the reader to the general context of her inquiry and the central ideas developed in the book. Most importantly, Who are you? considers the GBA as an “assemblage” that spans across diverse hardware and software objects and is related to a broader field of game industrial and game cultural contexts and practices. Doing so, the author claims, opens a perspective on the prevalence of lateral thinking -- a constant reworking and reusing of prior ideas -- in Nintendo’s design strategy. It also exposes the nostalgia at play in the player’s engagements with, and appropriations of, the platform.

Throughout the book, Custodio argues these points convincingly and with considerable finesse. In Chapter 1, she presents an in-depth discussion of the platform’s capabilities and its position in the context of prior and contemporary consoles. Custodio shows how the GBA introduces new processing and graphical affordances, but also how much the console relies on Nintendo’s practice of lateral design and its emphasis on ports as a way of maintaining and expanding the player base. In Chapter 2, she draws attention to the various versions in which the GBA unfolds over time, starting with its deployment of earlier design ideas and backward compatibility and ending on a note about the adaptation of its software to digital redistribution as part of the Nintendo 3DS Ambassador Program (pp. 83-85).

Chapter 3 rests on the proposal to take the player’s physical interaction with the game console -- and the game software -- seriously. According to Custodio, game consoles suggest affordances and material practices via their design. Doing so, they also document user engagement in their material wear, and through personal customizations like added stickers. In short, the chapter suggests that “embodied gaming is written in plastic” (p. 96). Chapter 4 explores how GBA playing experiences are both private and enmeshed in domestic and public spaces, offering a gateway to a wide range of social relations.

In chapter 5, Custodio explores the ways in which the GBA assemblage has been extended to other hardware via emulators. Last but not least, she turns back to the platform itself in Chapter 6, taking account of the playful acts of experimentation and repurposing by homebrewers, rom hackers and hardware modders, which have shaped the vivid afterlife of the GBA since Nintendo discontinued it in 2010, often against open resistance from Nintendo. In this context, Custodio also points to the effect rom hacking has had on distributing games beyond their intended markets and language spaces, thereby implicitly adding a geographical layer to the GBA assemblage.

Given my ignorance of game console hardware, the range and depth of information presented in the book is breathtaking and highly stimulating. Who are you? excels in the ways in which it narrates the larger story of the GBA. She does so by examining distinct hardware elements and a selection of outstanding games like Rizumu Tengoku, Bokura no Taiyō, or the Fire Emblem series, which make use of said hardware, in great detail.

The book succeeds in exposing the dimensions of the GBA assemblage, at the same time embedding it in a variety of technical, legal, historical, economic and social contexts. Time and again, Custodio shows how hardware and software are developed based on lateral thinking, weaving together various ideas that are realized sometimes many years after their original inception (Chapter 1), and how iterations of the GBA hardware are directly related to neighboring consoles like the GameCube, the DS or the Wii (Chapter 2). The player and hobbyist engagements discussed in the latter part of the book seem to mirror this engagement, as they both display various forms of nostalgia and spawn a wide range of innovations that extend the GBA assemblage.

These perspectives converge in the second half of the book. In Chapters 5 and 6, Custodio shows how sanctioned and unsanctioned emulators extend the GBA assemblage to later platforms, and how creative players remix and extend Nintendo’s hard- and software -- most often against the will of Nintendo, who go to great lengths to keep control over the platform (pp. 160-166). The book contributes to this discussion by highlighting the many ways in which player and hobbyist engagements with the GBA have added novel, unpredicted aspects to the GBA assemblage and game culture more generally. Speedrunning and the randomizer community are but two of the cases Custodio cites to this extent (p. 167).

By exploring these various pathways, the book makes good on its promise to map out the GBA assemblage in the broadest sense of the word. As such, it provides a foil for future inquiries into game consoles and, potentially, computer hardware more generally. In my opinion, Custodio’s analysis is at its best where it relates the different dimensions, thus exposing some of the structural constraints and the logic guiding the life of the GBA assemblage. One example of this is her discussion of the Virtual Console in Chapter 4. Drawing on the in-depth discussion of console architecture and respective limitations presented in chapter 2, Custodio is able to identify some of the reasons for Nintendo’s decision to re-release GBA games only on the WiiU, and not on the mobile 3DS console, as being rooted in hardware limitations, as well as business rationale (p. 153). While sometimes demanding with regards to the level of detail offered, such connections make the book a pleasurable, rewarding read.

A second contribution of Who are you? lies in its emphasis on the psychological and social dimensions of playing and engaging with consoles like the GBA. As the title suggests, the book places the platform at the center of a wide range of identity projects, from that of the avid Pokémon player to the speedrunner to the homebrew developer -- not failing to mention that these identity projects have been much more readily accessible to male players and male hobbyists (i.e., p. 21, p. 182, p. 211).

More importantly, Custodio insists on the social dimension of almost any engagement with the GBA platform. While not explicitly theorized, the GBA is coherently presented as a social assemblage: social not only because playing games is a social activity (chapter 4), but because design, emulation, hacking and other related practices are rooted in and depend on interaction, cooperation, competition and cocreation (Chapters 5 and 6).

The afterword provides an important contrast to the virtuous, if not enthusiast, tone of the earlier chapters. By focusing on the ecological and human exploitation involved in the production of game consoles, and the waste they produce, Custodio reminds us what console game entertainment is built on. Doing so, the book also exposes a central dilemma many critical game researchers are facing between curiosity and joy on the one hand, and knowing about such implications. Contrasting ignorance and negligence of these issues on Nintendo’s part against the concerns of sustainability displayed by retro modding actors (p. 220), she acknowledges the reflexivity and consciousness about the effects of game consoles nurtured among game cultural actors.

The substantial contribution the book makes notwithstanding, the afterword is also one of several moments in which I would have hoped for a more involved theoretical discussion. The contrast between Nintendo and the hobbyists appears a bit too simple and forecloses a more nuanced discussion about our daily engagement with entertainment culture, including the player’s -- and the researcher’s -- position. How complicit are we? Is the option to simply turn away from the platform in the face of all its problematic aspects not on the table at all?

Another example for a premature section is the ambitious claim about materiality in chapter 3. While Custodio presents the necessary ingredients for a discussion of the relation between body and game, much of the chapter limits itself to an account of particular titles that explicitly emphasize physical aspects of gameplay, such as the rhythm game Rizumu Tengoku. It would have been interesting to take a step back and explore the questions pertaining to materiality with a set of less obvious titles. Custodio’s claim that resisting the urge of bodily reactions to the movement on the screen “reduce the pleasure of play” (p. 105) is equally provocative, albeit not intuitive. Consider how many action-oriented games reward the lack of bodily reactions with a gain in precision. Exploring materiality, bodily engagement and pleasure in the case of the GBA might have facilitated a discussion of the relation between hardware affordances and particular types of games or genres -- to which the author comes back when considering the button ergonomy of the Android emulation MyBoy! (pp. 158-160). As it is, such claims about materiality remain interesting considerations to be explored in the future at best.

Likewise, the author’s emphasis of Nintendo’s lateral hardware design principle as non-linear (p. 18, p. 65) would also have benefited from a more rigorous discussion. While she convincingly shows how the company recycles and reappropriates (“reterritorializes”) earlier ideas, this does not strike me as necessarily contradictory to linear narratives of progress, but rather emphasizes such narratives. On the contrary, the fact that “each console engages in conversation with the company’s corporate and technological history” (p. 18) speaks to said linearity and continuity: the new is never entirely new.

A similar point could be raised about Custodio’s considerations regarding the absence of paratexts from digital versions of console game titles. While manuals and game magazines are certainly not available today in the same way they were in the early 2000s, one could easily argue that it was never easier to obtain paratexts, including video walkthroughs, for almost any game. In this case, it seems to be the author who displays nostalgia. Granted that the approach to the games and the excitement of discovery has changed substantially precisely because paratexts are readily at hand today, Custodio could have explored this difference in more detail instead of simply stopping halfway.

In the face of the wide range of topics the book covers elegantly, these points of critique are hardly major flaws. If anything, the fact that the book stimulates such trains of thought speaks to the depth of Custodio’s project and underlines the important contribution the book makes to platform studies and console game research. In my perception, this contribution is only obfuscated by the fact that the author does not address her own regional limitations more explicitly. While Custodio occasionally touches upon differences in regional game distribution and reception, these claims often remain vague and lack adequate proof. Granted that access to Japanese language documents on the games market may be asking too much, I would have preferred it if the author had disclosed the regional and language-related boundaries of her analytic scope more explicitly. In the absence of such transparency, the book makes universal arguments about “the GBA assemblage,” even though much of the text is grounded in English and French language sources. In my opinion, this negligence does considerable damage to the otherwise thorough analysis. Instead of pretending to speak for “the GBA community,” a clearer positioning and transparency with regards to the cultural and geographical areas covered by the arguments developed in the book would have added substantial weight to the book.

Putting aside this necessary addition, Custodio succeeds in presenting a detailed but equally engaging map of the GBA assemblage, which suggests a model for researching game platforms and, more generally, media platforms.

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