Handheld Uncanniness

In 1989, Nintendo revolutionized gaming by releasing an innovative new system that would take the industry by storm – the handheld Game Boy. Although the Game Boy played many of the same games as the original Nintendo Home Entertainment System and was not the first of its kind, this familiarity combined with the novelty of portability induced an unparalleled gaming phenomenon. This is what University of Chicago professor Tom Gunning in his essay Re-Newing Old Technologies calls “the uncanny” (Gunning 46). The uncanny “comes from a flowering sense of unfamiliarity in the midst of the apparently familiar,” explaining the Game Boy’s ability to emerge as a marvel amidst a sea of similar technologies (Gunning 48). While there was nothing uniquely new about the separate components of the Game Boy itself, the new combination of interchangeable game cards, handheld technology, and the Nintendo game universe was enough to render it an uncanny phenomena.

The Game Boy took the gaming industry by storm upon its 1989 release. Before the Game Boy, handheld gaming was limited to low quality, single game devices with relatively little battery life and virtually no potential for long term entertainment. High quality multigame playing was possible with home entertainment systems from companies like Nintendo and Atari, but lacked convenience and portability. Consumers simply craved more out of their gaming experience. Because of this, the release of the Game Boy, according to Douglas C. McGill, created “a mainstream addiction, doing for games and puzzles what the Sony Walkman did for music” (McGill). The design of the Game Boy was simple, familiar, and user-friendly, but it was also a radically different experience from previous gaming devices. But it was not the system itself that made Nintendo a marvel – what really “sets Nintendo apart from the rest…is its games” (McGill). The popularity of Nintendo games (such as Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong Legend of Zelda) were uncommonly universal and still induce a sense of childlike wonder in all who play them.

Gunning claims that “new technologies evoke…a short-lived wonder based on unfamiliarity which greater and constant exposure will overcome,” but this is not universally true (Gunning 47). While the newness of handheld devices has lost its sense of wonder, the original Game Boy continues to excite and amaze those who come across it. The childlike novelty of the Game Boy continues to endure due to classic game design and entertainment. Gunning concedes that the uncanny “involve[s] magical operations which greater familiarity or habituation might come over, but not totally destroy;” the uncanny “crouches there beneath a rational cover, ready to spring out again” (Gunning 47). The Game Boy in this sense is uniquely uncanny, continuing to entertain and amaze despite twenty-five years of gaming innovation and experimentation. While the idea of interchangeable handheld gaming is no longer new and exciting, the novelty of the original Game Boy and the legacy of classic Nintendo game play is continually loved  by fans young and old and will be for years to come.

Game Boy Poster

A hypothetical poster for the release of the Game Boy in 1989.

Works Cited

“Display Ad 434 — no Title.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Sep 21 1989: 1. ProQuest. 1 Feb. 2015 .

Gunning, Tom. “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century.”Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. 39-60. Print.

McGill, Douglas C. “Nintendo Scores Big.” The New York Times 4 Dec. 1988: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

McGill, Douglas C. “Now, Video Game Players Can Take Show on the Road.”The New York Times 5 June 1989: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 31 Jan. 2015.


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