Game Boy turns 25: The untold story of how Nintendo helped Air Force families

The original Nintendo Game Boy. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

HONOLULU, April 21, 2014 — Today the Nintendo Game Boy marks 25 years since its first release in Japan. Truly a pivotal invention in the history of consumer electronics and portable gaming, the Game Boy is revered for allowing players for the first time to experience high quality, involving games anywhere an owner chose to play them.

GenXers and early Millennials remember well the utility of Game Boys on airplanes to offset long flights, or even sneaking them to school in their backpacks to play during lunch, but Nintendo’s handheld console also served an important role in helping military families during some of America’s most turbulent moments of the early 1990s.

On August 2, 1990, the world was stunned when Saddam Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait, precipitating widespread fears of an energy crisis and the possibility of a major world war. As the United Nations set in motion the beginnings of an international response with Resolution 660, in the U.S. military families already knew their lives were soon to change in a very big way.

When news reached the States that Iraq had invaded Kuwait, I was 10 years old; my father, then an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was stationed at Tactical Air Command headquarters in Langley AFB, Virginia. The startup of Operation: Desert Shield to send a massive buildup of forces to Saudi Arabia to deter Iraq from further land grabs also impacted deployments around the world as the U.S. military arrayed its full might to be ready to fight and win any conflict in the Middle East.

My family and I would be reassigned to the freshly activated 633rd Air Base Wing in the far off Andersen AFB in Guam, where some 37,000 tons of munitions were sent to prepare for war in the Gulf. My father was to be the medical group commander at Andersen, and when we arrived the entire base was swarming with activity, from civil engineers feverishly working to change the front gate’s sign from “Strategic Air Command” to “Pacific Air Forces” to scores of troops and combat planes landing in anticipation of war.

The shock of being a young boy thrust suddenly from Virginia to an overseas base with parents involved in preparation for war and no support network of friends was something that was both exciting and terrifying for me and tens of thousands of other military children around the world. Many would not see one or sometimes both of their parents for months, and military dependents at the time were expected to be tough and patient as America fought to liberate Kuwait.

My own parents, knowing I would be alone for lengthy periods, bought me a brand new Nintendo Game Boy to help me pass time and contain my hyperactivity. As it turned out, owning a Game Boy made making new friends very easy for the military children in Guam, serving as a social ice breaker for shy kids to approach each other and start up conversations over games.

Me (far right) with the original Game Boy in hand finally leaving Guam in 1992, pictured with Lt. Gov. Blas, my mother, and father (far left).
Me (far right) with the original Game Boy in hand finally leaving Guam in 1992, pictured with Lt. Gov. Blas, my mother, and father (far left).

Throughout Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, a funny thing happened at Andersen AFB: The children of officers and enlisted, combat pilots and support personnel from all walks of life quickly became friends and gamed their way through loneliness. A favorite among my friends was Tetris (which came with the console) and especially Super Mario Land, both of which could be played for hours on end with infinite replay value. Later, when Guam was devastated by multiple tropical storms and typhoons which in some cases left power knocked out for weeks, owning a battery-powered Game Boy helped make the sweltering heat, lack of air conditioning and blacked out houses somewhat less intimidating for young children.

When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded on June 15, 1991, Guam was again the center of frenzied activity when U.S. forces and their dependents would be mass evacuated to Andersen AFB. The thousands of evacuees cramped into hangars, gymnasiums, empty apartments and anywhere the military could find room on Guam was one of the most shocking events I’d ever witnessed as a child. Many of the evacuated children, forced into uncomfortable environments, found respite with their portable Game Boys and even made friends with Andersen children who volunteered alongside their parents in feeding, clothing and supporting the evacuees.

By the time that I returned to the continental U.S. in July 1992, I was thankful to be free from the pressures of lengthy loneliness, war, typhoons, exploding volcanoes and other national security and humanitarian crises that Guam so often finds itself in the middle of. Nevertheless, the gift of a Nintendo Game Boy made the time pass easier and helped me and countless other military children in some of the most turbulent moments of our time. The Game Boy’s place as both a cultural and technological icon is one that cannot be forgotten.

I personally would like to thank Nintendo and its team responsible for developing the original Game Boy console. The Game Boy was more than a portable gaming system, it was a friend for many military children and a means to find other friends. I hope that someday our president or a future president will recognize Nintendo’s contribution to American military families, and perhaps even award the Game Boy developers with a well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from
  • Danny, this is just awesome! tears

    • DannydeGracia2

      Thank you! A nation is built from a series of shared experiences and imprinted memories and this is one of the many things that I think my generation will build upon for building a better tomorrow!

  • jdk28

    Nice article. NIntendo is also part of my late childhood (Grade 6 to H.S.). Playing with friends is a priceless moment. I remember when my classmate’s GB was stolen on his backpack and everyone needed to show all the things on their bags.