Posted on 2017/11/05 by

Embodiment, Emulation, and Nostalgic Experience: The (After)Lives of the Game Boy Advance

In November 2006 and then in April 2013, Nintendo launched the Virtual Console for the Wii and WiiU respectively, a dedicated section of the Wii Shop Channel and Nintendo eShop that, according to their website, allows players to “experience some of the top titles from the NES, Super NES and Game Boy Advance eras.” The licenced re-releasing of classic games through the Virtual Console is in large part Nintendo’s riposte to video game piracy and an attempt to retain control over copyright; the platform provides access to content presently unavailable through traditional retail networks even as it admits to the ubiquity of proprietary software emulation.

Indeed, emulation has historically been an attractive alternative to using video game hardware not only owing to its ostensible costlessness but also due to its access(ibility), ease of use, role in software preservation, and its facilitation of gameplay or data modification. In contextualizing the use of emulators in the preservationist context of museums, Raiford Guins argues that the goal of video game emulation is:

to simulate a reliable and easily distributable copy (copies of copies like game software) so that the working program, the experience of game play, can persist in the present (and hopefully for the future) even if experienced on different machines and within different social contexts from those still resonating in the not-so-distant past. (36)

Guins is careful to communicate the fact that, despite public opinion, “emulation does not purport to ‘be’ the original game it simulates” (36), and he articulates his doubts that, even in the archival context of a museum, emulation can “reactivate the object reproduced” (29). Yet what about the authority of the emulator insofar as it exists indebted to and in close conversation with the original platform? I would go as far as to say that it is short-sighted to study the game without accounting for its emulators, which are inextricably linked to the production and circulation of the original object. Software and hardware emulation—sanctioned or otherwise—arguably allows us to obtain a fuller account of the game both as artifact and cultural object. In this probe, I focus specifically on the Game Boy Advance and the various platforms and emulators that have been developed and designed to play Game Boy Advance games: the Game Boy Player add-on for GameCube, the DS Lite, the VisualBoyAdvance GX emulator on a softmodded Wii, the WiiU, the VisualBoy Advance emulator on a Windows laptop, the MyBoy! Free app on Android, and VisualBoy Advance again on a Raspberry Pi arcade table.[1]

Data collected on the Game Boy Advance and the seven afterlives studied for this probe. (Click image to download legible PDF image.)

Despite Wolfgang Ernst’s proposal for “an epistemologically alternative approach to the supremacy of media-historical narratives” (55), to elide the sociocultural significance of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance as well as the historical circumstances that conditioned its release results in a failure to preserve and articulate a complete historiography of the object. The Game Boy Advance exists as a testament to the lessons Nintendo learned in the production of the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color, its reception informs the direction of the Nintendo DS, and, along with the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, it anticipates the casual gaming, smartphone-centred era we presently find ourselves in. The isolation of either hardware or software from its afterlives runs the risk of invisiblizing certain relationships between the media platform, their cultural contexts, and the embodied experiences of their users.

Video games technologies are necessarily embodied, requiring players’ active interaction with the platform in order access the internal workings of the game. As a result, technologies are constrained by and designed for the bodies intended to use them. The original Game Boy Advance is a portable console, weighing approximately 136 grams, 201 grams with the two AA batteries, and measuring approximately 5.7 x 1 x 3.2 inches—for comparison, a MotoX Play phone weighs 170 grams, measures approximately 5.8 x 0.4 x 3.0 inches and seldom fits in the pockets of most women’s clothing. Unlike its predecessors, the Game Boy Advance is horizontally oriented with the eight-direction joypad, start, select buttons to the left of the screen and the A and B buttons to the right. Left and right shoulder buttons are located on their respective sides of the top of the console. It also features a GBA Game Link port at the top, and the power switch, stereo headphone jack, and analog volume dial control on the bottom. The thin-film transistor screen measures 2.9 inches diagonally with a resolution of 240 by 160 pixels for an aspect ratio of 3:2

What do these technical specifications mean and what do emulators have to do with any of this? When analysing video game platforms, it is worth considering the idealized bodies they suggest, and the affordances and constraints imposed upon them. A portable console must be light enough to hold for a significant amount of time and small enough to transport and play on the go. Its chassis must be both durable and ergonomic. The technical specifications of the Game Boy Advance locate it as an immensely portable console for its time, but the cost of carrying the entire platform from processor to battery in one small object is the sacrifice in processing power and display quality.

The various controls used to play Game Boy Advance games. In order: Game Boy Player, DS Lite, WiiU (3 and 4), Game Boy Advance, Laptop, Android (7 & 8, portrait and landscape mode respectively), and the arcade table in the Residual Media Depot.

The release of the Game Boy Player two years after the Game Boy Advance gestures towards these constraints that the Game Boy Advance places on the bodies of its consumers. The Player uses near-identical hardware as the Game Boy Player but uses the GameCube as a conduit to output video and audio signals to a television and outsource its power supply to an electrical outlet. Placed side-by-side, these two technologies highlight the affordances of each, namely portability at the cost of accessibility. Despite the kitschy, Game Boy Advance-inspired border that frames playback on the Player, the ability to access the content in almost any light environment and to see the screen from a healthy distance permits a player to experience a game they might not otherwise be able to. Similarly, the decision to release the first two models of the DS as a backwards compatible handheld allows Game Boy Advance games to continue to be portable even as they are now displayed on a backlit screen, the MyBoy! emulator on Android permits the games to be played with one hand, and a softmodded Wii uses software emulation to play games on the television at a faster speed and with less hardware than the GameCube, while also removing the distracting purple frame.

The delight that is the Game Boy Player frame and the difficulty of seeing anything on the Game Boy Advance display in a well-lit room.

A comparative approach to the afterlives of Game Boy Advance games offers insight into the complex interactions between, platform, game, and embodied player. Why do people want to play these games on various platforms? What are the affordances of each platform? What is the significance of nostalgia, habitus, and the idea of a video game’s aura in the construction of the Game Boy Advance as an object? These questions raise issues of geography, temporality, and cultural contexts. Who can afford the nostalgia that comes from playing on these platforms? How much knowledge is embodied?

The timing of the release of Game Boy Advance games on the Virtual Store in 2013 is strategic not only in providing an alternative to emulation that allows Nintendo to capitalize on their intellectual property but also because physical Game Boy Advance games have a built-in life expectancy of between ten and twenty years. Like most pre-solid state cartridges, Game Boy Advance games contain small CR2025 batteries that allow players to save data. These batteries, while fairly cheap and easy to replace with basic soldering skills, have a lifespan between ten and twenty years depending on use. Without a functioning battery, games will continue to run, but save data will be lost each time the console is powered down. Nintendo’s preservation of the games and their save data in digital form on the WiiU acknowledges the obsolescence of their own game cartridges. It might be worth considering what it means to interfere in the life of the object to replace the batteries. Are we preserving the object by replacing the battery or are we, in fact, creating a new object in its stead? In “Signal Traffic,” Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski argue that moments of failure can bring to light perceptions and preconceptions that are elided when the technology or infrastructure functions the way it should:

“Infrastructural breakdowns and acts of repair should be thought about as a ‘normal’ part of technological processes and as opportunities for retooling social relations.” (13)

The increasing obsolescence of the Game Boy Advance when placed against more ergonomic, cost-efficient, sustainable alternatives provides an occasion for thinking through materiality, infrastructure, embodiment, and nostalgic experience. In “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” Susan Leigh Star argues that “the normally invisible quality of infrastructure becomes invisible when it breaks” (382) as well as, I have argued, when it is replaced. A comparative analysis demonstrates how technology shifts incrementally to adapt to various social, cultural, and economic factors, allowing us to encounter a much larger network than is visible if we study the Game Boy Advance as an isolated object.

The data I collected above opens the floor to further questions about the ways Game Boy Advance technologies are embedded into other structures, social arrangements, and technologies. What is the scope of the Game Boy Advance’s influence? What infrastructural changes become visible after a study of its emulation? What aspects of gameplay on the Game Boy Advance are taken for granted through familiarity with the object? What strengths and limitations of the Game Boy Advance are transferable across platforms?

Fire Emblem emulated on a softmodded Wii, the VisualBoyAdvance Emulator for a Windows laptop, and MyBoy!Free on an Android phone.

We can also consider questions specific to the preservation and archiving of these technologies. What legal issues come into play with respect to digital rights management, and in which ways does an academic or museum context influence the outcome? Do consumers have the right to displace media they have purchased onto a device of their choosing for archival or accessibility purposes? Does it make a difference if one places their defunct ROM cartridge beside their softmodded Wii or laptop running VisualBoy Advance? Moreover, if the emulator is intended to answer a specific problem related to preservation, what preservation does the emulator itself need as technology continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace? A softmodded Wii, for instance, prefers USB 2.0 and non-SDHC SD cards, both of which become increasingly rare as portable storage becomes increasingly refined.

Quoting Henry Lowood, Raiford Guins states:

“in the archives or museums, preservation of emulators, restored machines, and software objects alone will not take us very far. Careful attention to the relationship between hardware, code, use and context for use is necessary and can only benefit the application of technical solutions as emulation and bit-perfect replication of software.” (33)

Unlike Guins, whose interest in emulation is restricted to its use in museum exhibits, and Lowood, whose “How They Got Game” project has avoided emulators, meta-data packaging and hardware preservation (Lowood 19), I have tried here to argue for emulators’ importance in the construction of the object and in understanding its cultural context. At the same time, I am cautious of affording too much authority to derivative objects; this probe is therefore meant to reflect some preliminary thoughts on studying the Game Boy Advance as a network, and does not proport to elide the significance of the original object itself.

[1] The research I undertook for this probe combines a practical analysis of objects in the Residual Media Depot (Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Player, Wii, Raspberry Pi Arcade Table) and in my own collection (DS Lite, Laptop, Android Phone), as well as online research for the Virtual Console on the WiiU. The Kingdom Hearts cartridge is property of the Depot, while the Fire Emblem .ROM file is an archival copy of a game in my personal collection.


Works Cited

Ernst, Wolfgang. “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine Versus History and Narrative of Media.” Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp.55-80.

Guins, Raiford. “Museified.” Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. MIT Press, 2004, pp. 31-73.

Lowood, Henry. “The Hard Work of Software History.”  RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, vol. 2. no. 2, 2001, pp. 141-160.

Parks, Lisa and Nicole Starosielski. “Signal Traffic.” Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press, 2015, pp. 1-27.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 43, 1999, pp. 377-391, Doi: 10.1177/00027649921955326. Accessed 20 May 2017.

“Virtual Console Games.” Nintendo. Accessed 26 Oct. 2017.

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