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Nintendo's former 'Fun Club President' wants you to Know-It-All

Nintendo's former bow tie-adorned spokesman and "Gamemaster" Howard Phillips is back in the spotlight after twenty years, with a mobile game that he hopes will change the way games help us learn forever.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

September 24, 2012

11 Min Read

When you make Super Mario jump over a pit, what are you thinking about? Unless it's your first time playing, it's not very likely that you're thinking about the logistics behind the jump itself: holding the B button to run, pressing right on the D-pad to continue your momentum, pressing then holding down the A button for the precise amount of time needed, maybe even letting go of the D-pad then re-applying pressure to correct yourself mid-air. No, these things just come to you naturally while you think about higher function things, like "I need to find a power-up soon" or "better avoid that bad guy up ahead." Step back and think about it objectively, and you'll realize that making Mario jump is a fairly complex process. But how did you learn to do it? More likely than not, you didn't memorize the procedure in the traditional way: studying it, mapping it out, memorizing the steps in order by reciting them to yourself until they stuck. If you're like most, you mastered Mario's jump because you weren't consciously thinking about it at all. It turns out that there are two ways of memorizing things. One way is the traditional, effortful method: using mnemonics, making connections and forcefully burning things into your memory. But cognitive scientists now realize there's a second, more automated method, where your brain learns in your peripheral through repetition without you realizing it. It's the same kind of learning method that ensures that once you learn how, you never forget how to ride a bicycle. But can you tap into that function at will? Can you memorize concepts without even trying by employing this method, foregoing boring studying in favor of something a little more automatic? Can you "trick" your brain into remembering things without having studied them? At least one game developer thinks so, and he's even developed a methodology: a simple but unique puzzle game that is kind of like a combination of Tetris and flash cards. He wants to turn this into a product, and on Monday he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Who is this man? If you're an American of a certain age, the answer may surprise you: it's Howard Phillips, formerly of Nintendo. Yes, the same Howard that acted as the Gallant to Nester's Goofus every month in the "Howard & Nester" comic strip in Nintendo Power magazine, the same friendly, boyish face with red hair and freckles and a bow tie that appeared on every news segment in the late '80s and early '90s about whether Nintendo games were ruining your mind, or in countless newspaper articles giving spotlight to "the man who is paid to play video games." And no, he's not the former senior vice president and general counsel of Nintendo and current CEO of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. As Phillips is quick to point out, that's the other Howard, Howard Lincoln. It's a common mistake.

The Nintendo days

For most, the last time we saw Howard Phillips was in 1991, in the final Howard & Nester comic strip, literally riding off into the sunset after handing Nester his bow tie. But unless you'd had the chance to work with him, you probably don't realize that he's been actively producing games these last twenty years. And that's on purpose. "I've enjoyed my privacy since leaving Nintendo," he tells us over the phone. Phillips wore many hats in his ten years at Nintendo. He shipped arcade cabinets. He managed the warehouse. He established and ran the Game Counselors department that serviced people calling in for help on their games. He was the co-editor of Nintendo Power, and before that, the first (and only) president of Nintendo's "Fun Club." He was at the head of Nintendo of America's internal game evaluation department, literally playing through every game submitted to the company (affording him the official title of Gamemaster). He even produced games, working with outside developers like Rare on games with titles like RC Pro-Am and Snake, Rattle 'N Roll. And as the public face of Nintendo in the late 80s and early 90s, a time when Nintendo was video games, Phillips found himself in the unenviable role of being the world's foremost advocate of games at a time when people (parents and politicians, mostly) were telling him they were nothing but mind rot. But Howard -- a video game enthusiast going all the way back to Pong -- didn't see it that way. A father himself, he saw them as perfectly healthy pastime for kids: good for them, even. "I'd see these little cherubic kids glowing and smiling and happy. They're in the flow, they're being successful playing the games," he recalls. Kids were bridging cross-generational gaps by speaking the common language of video games. Big bothers were helping their siblings. Video games made even the outcasts feel in control, empowered. "All this wonderful, natural humanity was coming out of this experience," he says. Phillips did what he could in the media's spotlights to convince others, but as the 1990s reared its head and games started to lose their innocence, it became harder and harder to do. "I had a totally different feeling watching a 7-year-old play Killer Instinct than I did watching a 7-year-old play Super Mario," he remembers. Games were changing, and Phillips' fame -- and with Nintendo Power subscriptions in over a million homes, being passed around in school yards to countless others, he was famous -- just got to be too much. A husband and father of two, he had a hard time going out in public with his family without being recognized. "I felt obligated -- for the right reasons -- to help people fulfill their wish when they'd suddenly come across this public figure," he says. "I was regularly giving my time at the expense of my family's time to satisfy the fans' needs. And that's something I didn't want to do. I wanted to spend more time working on games themselves, and making people happy because of the games, not because I would leave my wife and kids in the car at the gas station while I talked to someone and their kids for ten minutes."

Moving games beyond entertainment

Rather than convincing people in front of a camera, Phillips wanted to make games positive, to ship products that did a little good and, just maybe, changed the world for the better. And besides, Nintendo just wasn't the same anymore: through his ten years there it had grown from a small six-person start-up to employing literally hundreds and hiring a marketing director who used to push toothpaste. So when Steve Arnold at Lucasfilm offered him the chance to head its nascent Lucasfilm Learning division in 1991 and work on educational games, he left Nintendo behind. Phillips didn't stay there too long. He bounced around a while -- shipping some regrettable licensed games at THQ, heading a West Coast development studio for Absolute, and running a short-lived Redmond multimedia company called Splash -- before settling in at Microsoft, helping to set up its evaluation system for PC and Xbox games. There, while working on an interactive literacy initiative, he met and worked with Dr. John Bransford of the University of Washington, a psychology professor specializing in cognition and learning, particularly through interactive media. Bransford exposed Phillips to a lot of research that was being done with the cognitive sciences. In Phillips' brain, something just clicked. "I did a roll-up of everything that I knew to be true about what makes games compelling... and I cross-referenced that with all this newfound knowledge I had with cognitive science," he says. "And the parallels are just phenomenal." This left Phillips, someone who was never quite on-board with traditional "edutainment," wondering: if there's such an alignment between hundreds of years of learning sciences and decades of video game design, why aren't educational games rewarding learning experiences yet? Ultimately the literacy project fell apart, "crashing under its own weight," as Phillips tells it. He left Microsoft and ended up as the studio director at Epic-owned Chair, shipping Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade, but the idea of a learning game that actually made learning fun never left his thoughts.


Now on his own, Phillips is re-emerging after twenty years out of the spotlight, strapping the bow tie back on, doing media interviews, even starting an IAmA on Reddit, and getting ready to release Gamemaster Howard's Know-It-All, a mobile app that makes a game out of habituated learning, based on a system he developed. It's a simple tile-matching puzzle game that, in theory, will automatically help players memorize concepts through a combination of visual and auditory cues that happen as you play. For example, players might play with a set of guitar chord tiles that both show a chart and play the chord every time you place a tile down, or learn the Spanish names for common foods by constantly reinforcing a picture of the item along with a friendly voice pronouncing it clearly. It's a concept that Phillips seems to genuinely believe in. "I want to see a million people using this," he says. "I want to see kids everywhere doing their English language learning with this and being successful at it. I want to see people in the U.S. who are failing at math and engineering be able to do a lot better because suddenly they don't struggle with their times tables." The game is designed to be intentionally open, with data sets for players of all ages: currently, it imports data and tile sets from a free online flash card network that already exists, as well as a few of Phillips' own creations. Most are designed to help players memorize things that might help them out but, given the (theoretical) power of this system, there are other possibilities.


The game affects a player's striatum: the part of the brain that learns things in the periphery. Habitual, everyday things that you might not need to pay attention to. This is the same part of the brain that puts you on autopilot when you're driving home from work or, to bring it back to Super Mario, automatically recalls which pipes lead to secret underground areas. It isn't as "conscious" as traditional hippocampus learning and recall: in a sense, given that it's automated, it implants things in your memory without you realizing it. It might even be open to suggestion. "This could be used for evil!" Phillips admits when asked. "I can imagine McDonald's guys trying to get kids to say 'I'm lovin' it' 18 different ways." "Or maybe it makes you think, or expands your world, or who knows what." One early experiment in social change that Phillips has integrated in the game is what he's calling his "Poli-Gaffes," which has players matching a politician with a recording of a gaffe they've said in public. He's got two sets in there: one for those identifying as Democrats, and one for Republicans. At first, players cheerfully reflect on dumb things their opposing side has said. "It's playing into your weakness: you want to hear more Fox News or Huff Post or whatever it is," he says. But, play far enough into the game, and Phillips starts mixing in dumb things said by your side too. "The end result is you'll realize, oh, it's not just Romney who said something goofy, it's Obama too."

The Future

Changing opinions isn't the only (again, theoretical) emergent use of this learning technique. Talk to Phillips long enough and you'll get him theorizing about Know-It-All being used in the medical field. It is, after all, a brain modifying tool, one that ties things together in your brain in a way that is automatic. It could be used to treat people with brain trauma to regain lost language capabilities, or help someone with Alzheimer's recognize that the person coming to care for them every day is not actually a stranger, or help someone with autism be able to read facial expressions in a way that traditional learning wouldn't provide them. "This is all a stretch," he admits. "I don't know if this is the case or not." For now, Phillips is targeting traditional education with the App: in fact, he's hoping to be able to donate copies of the game to educational institutions once his initial $50,000 goal is surpassed. Learn more at Know-It-All's Kickstarter page.

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