Day 6

Nintendo's Game Boy systems were stepping stones to smartphones, says video game historian

Nintendo's various Game Boy systems were designed for video gaming, but throughout their 21-year run, various accessories and non-gaming cartridges — from a camera to a sewing machine to a glucose monitor — transformed the systems into all-in-one pocket devices.

Various accessories and non-gaming cartridges transformed the handheld systems into all-in-one devices

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Nintendo Game Boy Advance's release. Video game historian Kelsey Lewin says the Game Boy Advance and the extended Game Boy family were the stepping stones to modern smartphones. (Getty Images)

When the original Nintendo Game Boy was released in April 1989, its main purpose was to play video games on the go. 

But as time went on and the Game Boy family grew bigger, so too did the systems' lineup of accessories — and its usefulness outside of gaming.

"With the right accessories or cartridges, you could do pretty much anything," said Kelsey Lewin, video game historian and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.

Though the original Game Boy consoles were technologically inferior to their competitors, including the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, Lewin says their withered technology actually worked in their favour. Game Boys were cheaper than the competition, had longer-lasting batteries, and weren't as power-intensive as their competitors.

That made them attractive not just for game developers, but also companies outside of the gaming industry.

Kelsey Lewin is a video game historian and the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. (Kelsey Lewin)

"It's a computer that you can actually build on. You can build software or hardware, even accessories, to use with this already-existing computer," Lewin told Day 6.

Though the systems could never make or receive phone calls, Lewin says their popularity, versatility and portability make them similar to smartphones.

"I would say that the Game Boys really are sort of a stepping stone into what we think of as modern smartphones," she said.

In the same way that apps have turned modern smartphones into portable, all-in-one devices, accessories and add-ons allowed Game Boys to be used in a variety of different — and sometimes unexpected — ways.

Working on the go

One way companies tried to expand on the Game Boy's capabilities was by creating accessories that let them act as cheap alternatives to other, more expensive devices. Examples include the low-quality and greyscale Game Boy Camera as well as the Game Boy Printer.

Similarly, there's the WorkBoy, a keyboard peripheral that plugged into the a Game Boy system and turned it into a tiny laptop.

The WorkBoy featured a wide variety of applications, including a planner, a calculator, a phone book and a currency converter, Lewin said.

Though the WorkBoy was never released, Lewin says it shows how some companies were thinking of the Game Boy as more than just a gaming device.

"It had a lot of productivity things that made it useful as a little computer — things that I think are standard applications now on a smartphone, but at the time, not something you had in your pocket yet," she said.

Game Boy for sewing machines

The Game Boys' capabilities weren't just limited to photography, printing and computing. It could even sew complex, detailed patterns into fabric when attached to devices like the Singer Izek.

"It's a sewing machine that interfaced with the Game Boy," Lewin said. 

Digital interfaces were becoming a standard for sewing machines in the 1990s and early 2000s, but they were expensive to develop. So to combat this problem, Japanese manufacturer Jaguar collaborated with Nintendo to develop a sewing machine that used the Game Boy as a digital interface. 

A Jaguar employee poses with the Game Boy Color and the company's Game Boy-compatible sewing machine. (AFP via Getty Images)

The device caught the attention of American sewing machine manufacturer Singer, which was about to begin bankruptcy proceedings. With home-based sewing going out of style in the United States, Singer took a shot at the product by licensing it and selling it for approximately $799 US.

"Singer ... felt like this was a pretty good way to get kids back into sewing," Lewin said. "They're familiar with video games, they're familiar with the feel of the Game Boy, so they're kind of blending these two hobbies together."

Though the sewing machines failed to attract a more tech-savvy audience, Lewin says the collaboration was understandable on paper.

"When you already have a digital interface that you can use with this stuff, it makes a lot of sense for companies to kind of blend these two together," she said.

The Game Boy Advance was the fifth of seven different iterations of the Game Boy. (Sion Touhig/GettyImages)

Measuring glucose levels with a Game Boy

In all of the Game Boy family's most surprising accessories, Lewin says one of the most interesting applications is the GlucoBoy.

"The GlucoBoy was a blend of two things. It was a blood glucose monitoring device, but it was also a video game to help encourage kids to be checking in on their blood sugar levels and to monitor their blood glucose levels," she said. 

The accessory was invented by Paul Wessel, whose son has Type 1 Diabetes. Lewin says Wessel's son often lost his blood glucose monitor, resulting in him being unable to check in on his blood sugar levels.

"So Paul had the idea to tie it to something that his son really did care about: his Game Boy," she said. "Paul set out to create something that would help his son, something that would motivate his son to want to be testing his blood sugar, and what he came up with was this thing called the GlucoBoy."

WATCH | Kelsey Lewin on the GlucoBoy

According to Lewin, Nintendo was initially concerned with licensing the device due to medical liability risks. But after three years, Wessel finally got the approval to manufacture the Game Boy Advance-compatible accessory in 2007.

Games on the GlucoBoy encouraged players to check their blood glucose levels regularly by unlocking items and power-ups — an approach similar to how modern mobile games encourage playing daily by offering rewards, Lewin says. 

"You get the beginnings of login bonuses and that sort of thing that you get from a lot of mobile games today," she said. "It's incentivizing continued use of the device."

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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