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It’s 1987. You’re looking awesome in your oversized Michael Jackson “Bad” t-shirt as you slot a chunky, grey game cartridge into your NES console. But instead of the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt title screen, all you see is a jumbled-up mess of an image that looks like an 8-bit Picasso. What do you do? The same thing everyone did – you take the game cartridge out, blow into it, and put it back in. Lo, and behold: this time the game loads perfectly and you can squish goombas or shoot ducks to your heart’s content.

But in the pre-internet age, how did we all “know” to blow into cartridges? And like rubbing the magnetic strip on a credit card or shaking a Polaroid photo, why did we keep doing it even when product manufacturers and scientists insisted that it didn’t work and could actually cause damage? Joe Hanson, biologist and author of the popular science blog It’s Okay To Be Smart, offers up some answers in a neat YouTube video asking just that.

Hanson uses the commonly-held belief that blowing into cartridges dislodged dust as a hook for this video addressing confirmation bias. He suggests that we mistook correlation (when I take out the game, blow on it and put it back in again, it works) for causation (therefore, blowing in the cassette makes it work):

The Nintendo Entertainment System featured a snazzy-looking loading system, unlike any other games console before, which was designed to mimic the way a video cassette is loaded into a VCR. Unfortunately, design flaws meant the contact pins were prone to damage over time. Combined with debris and tarnishing of game cartridges’ connectors, this made for some pretty sloppy connections, and thus screwed-up load screens.

▼ “N-E-S” or “nez”? Famicom? Whatever you call it, if you had one, you probably blew into its cartridges.


Nintendo was pretty adamant that blowing in cartridges was a bad idea, openly warning gamers:

“Do not blow into your Game Paks or systems. The moisture in your breath can corrode and contaminate the pin connectors.”

Of course, plenty of people still believed–nay, believe–that blowing in the game cartridge, while potentially damaging in the long-term, had a short-term positive effect, either because it blew out dust and gunk stuck in there, or because the moisture in your breath increased the conductivity of the metal contacts.

▼ Hanson is pretty sure he knows why we thought this: our brains try to fill in the gaps between what we know and what we don’t know.

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Although, as we saw earlier this week, the very concept of loading a game cartridge into a console is pretty alien to a lot of kids these days anyway. I’m pretty sure blowing on a tablet computer doesn’t do much either.

Sources: YouTube, Kotaku JP, Mental Floss