What the Game Boy can teach us about getting work to pupils.



Genpui Yokoi is most famous for developing the original Game Boy, which was designed to operate on established, readily available technology already well understood by both engineers and customers. He coupled what he described as “withered technology” with “lateral thinking”, which involved finding new ways to use what already existed rather than looking to operate on the cutting edge.

Yokoi defined his approach clearly in saying “The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.”

The principle of using well established technology in creative ways has lots to recommend it. Yokoi felt when engineers and game designers focused on progressing technologically, the design of the game often suffered. Operating with familiar platforms freed up brain-space to allow them to be much more creative with gameplay while the older technology was cheaper and reassuringly familiar to consumers.

Lateral thinking with withered technology is why the GameBoy outsold more advanced handhelds such as the Atari Lynx and the Sega GameGear.

Many of us are now considering and revising the platforms we use for online learning. For some schools with affluent tech-savvy pupils and confident staff the right bet might well be live lessons using a platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

For other schools operating in different contexts this might be a poor choice.

Pupils who do not have access to laptops or lack the agility to quickly pivot to new platforms and brand new ways of working may find them so at sea with logistics they find themselves unable to access or properly focus on learning.

Similarly, some schools may have lots of staff who aren’t confident quickly adapting to unfamiliar technology may find a sudden shift to new apps and programmes counterproductive, with teachers spending so much time working out how to effectively use them that the work they set suffers.

Schools in such contexts might find Yokoi’s concept of “withered technology with lateral thinking” helpful. Staff in most schools, for example, are confident using PowerPoint. This, combined with the addition of a voice-over feature, might be a sensible platform that allows planners to focus on the substantive content of a recorded lesson over connection issues or working out how to use break out rooms. Using withered technology – be it paper based low-stakes worksheets, e-mail, or textbooks with email or phone support – may also allow those following up on incomplete work to focus on substantive learning rather than spending frustrating hours coaching young people on how to set themselves up on programmes and software they’d never heard of before shutdown.

Of course lateral thinking is as important as withered technology here too. Schools choosing to go with the tried and tested will need to support teachers to find new and creative methods of working within existing technology – using the voice over feature of PowerPoint might be a good example of this.

Finally, none of this means schools should not seek to induct staff and pupils in clever new platforms but this is probably best done incrementally with old methods doing the donkey work up to the point where substantive learning is able to be the focus. If we go faster than confidence can keep up then the focus will be the delivery method over the curriculum.

If we aren’t careful with all the new options available to us there is a very real risk schools may find learning increasingly accessible to only early adopters, be they children or adults.



6 thoughts on “What the Game Boy can teach us about getting work to pupils.

  1. Mark Anderson says:

    Good thinking as always, Ben and I hope you’re well. You’re right in saying you can use Zoom or Teams for a live lesson, but Loom isn’t a live thing, it’s like the PowerPoint recording feature you mention. It allows you to record your screen, so it’s more of a make it now, share it later tool for asynchronous lessons rather than synchronous. Another popular tool for this is Screencastify which has similar features to Loom. Best wishes, Mark.


      • Mark Anderson says:

        Every day’s a learning day, buddy. I didn’t know that about the Gameboy either and I don’t even have the excuse of being too young to remember it! I think overall though the message is absolutely spot on. What works with tech, particularly at scale, is the small stuff; not the woohoo, whizz-bang. It isn’t (so much) what you do, it’s the way that you do it, is my motto! Thanks for keeping on sharing 🙏🏻


  2. Pingback: 3 Things: 5 Timeless Keys to Learning, Shoshin, Habits and Self-Control – JON GUSTAFSON

  3. “withered technology” with “lateral thinking”–excellent insights for remote engagement! I remember the battle of the handhelds (always wanted a Game Boy). What a fascinating theory for its market dominance.


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