What Can College Students Learn from Mario?

I teach a class at the University of Florida called “The Cultural Impact of Video Games.” We examine how evolving video game technology has affected the industry, society, and players; explore controversies in video games, such as the effects of video game violence, sexual content in games, video game addiction, and the link between games and health; and discuss ways in which games can be studied academically. In this series of articles, “What can college students learn from…” I share ways in which I teach certain topics in the classroom.

Mario’s influence on the video game industry and pop culture is hard to understate. First appearing in the 1981 arcade hit Donkey Kong (then known as “Jumpman”), Mario has greatly influenced the trajectory of the video game industry for over 30 years. Mario has appeared in hundreds of games, and all told, Mario games (including Mario Kart and Mario sports games) have sold more than 400 million copies: easily the most profitable video game series of all time.

Talking about video games without talking about Mario is like talking about rock ‘n’ roll without talking about the Beatles. Or like talking about drama without mentioning Shakespeare.

Mario is relevant not only for students of game studies and game design, but for any student interested in mass communication technology, the influence of media on society, or cultural studies. Nearly everybody in America is at least familiar with what Mario looks like. But does everybody know why Mario is important?

Super Mario Bros. (1985) almost single-handedly restarted the video game industry

In 1983, America suffered what’s known as the video game crash of 1983 (pretty clever name, I know). Video games had been out for more than a decade by now, but a series of derivative consoles (Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision, Intellivision, Odyssey², Fairchild Channel F) and poor software ports from arcades, plus a flood of low quality software, high prices for games, and rampant software and hardware plagiarism ended the Golden Age of Arcades and the second generation of consoles.

The video game “fad” as people were calling it was over. Toy stores were no longer interested in carrying video games.

Nintendo managed to get their first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (known as the Famicom in Japan), into New York toy stores by Christmas 1985. They positioned it as something different, an entertainment system, not a video game system (it originally included the toy peripherals “Robotic Operating Buddy” and the “Nintendo Zapper“).

R.O.B. in particular was a Trojan horse of sorts. Once the NES was in toy stores, Nintendo stopped support of R.O.B. (only two games were ever made for it, Gyromite and Stack-Up). The NES was then packaged with Super Mario Bros., and the rest is history.

People loved this game. It featured a larger world than any previous game, the most advanced graphics, a varied musical score, numerous identifiable characters, and precise controls. Super Mario Bros. was so successful that it spawned numerous sequels, cartoon shows, toys, and even a movie (let’s forget about the movie: that doesn’t really help me make my point…)

Super Mario Bros. is one of the best selling games of all time; nearly every student in my class has played this game. For that reason alone the game is deserving of mention.

Super Mario Bros. perfects the side-scrolling genre

Super Mario Bros. wasn’t the first side-scrolling game. Elements of the genre can be seen in the original Donkey Kong: each level was contained within a single screen, but the basic idea of jumping, progressing to the end of distinct stages, collecting items, and finding power-ups were all present. Side-scrolling shooters were also invented in previous years. The arcade game Defender was the first side-scrolling shooter.

Super Mario Bros. took side-scrolling to the next level. Worlds were varied and distinct. Jumping and running was given the central focus. The game world was more immersive and colorful than we’ve seen in the past. And I think this is key: the controls were perfect. When you press “jump” the character jumps. Hold the button longer, he jumps higher. When you press “run” he runs. Run over a longer distance and he runs faster. After jumping, press back to change your direction mid-jump. The game did exactly what players told it to do; if they died, it was their fault.

Contrast this with games of the previous era, many of which featured such poor controls that the games were unfair to play.

Side-scrolling games, or 2D platformers, aren’t as popular anymore, but throughout the third and fourth generation of consoles (the main ones being the NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis, and maybe even the TurboGrafx-16), one of the most popular genres was 2D platformer.

What else does Mario teach us?

Mario games also serve as a great contrast to many video game controversies:

  • Violence in games. When it comes to violence, Mario games are about as innocent as you get. Yes, goombas and koopa troopas die, but the violence is cartoony and without gore. Some people argue that graphic violence is necessary for games to sell well with adults; Mario games often prove contrary to this line of thinking.
  • Gender roles. In recent times, Mario games have been criticized for their portrayals of men and women. Specifically, the Mario universe features far more male characters than female characters, and almost all the female characters are submissive and weak (Princesses Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are the template for “damsel-in-distress” characters). Some people argue that Mario popularized gender disparities in video games. Given the influence Super Mario Bros. had on future platformers, the argument deserves notice.
  • Changing demographics. Shigeru Miyamoto created Mario games (and virtually all of his games, to be exact) to appeal to children and adults alike. Many “hardcore” gamers, though, believe Mario games are kid stuff and do not appeal to adults. Even though Mario is a character many are familiar with, many gamers “outgrow” Mario as they age. Comparing Mario to adult characters like Kratos or Lara Croft, then, shows us that all characters carry with them certain perceptions, regardless of the gameplay of those games.

How to teach Mario in the classroom

I could go on. Mario has a lot to teach us, but in the classroom, I don’t have a “Mario unit” per se. He comes up periodically throughout the semester. At any given time, we might spend anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes talking about him.

I do use PowerPoint and usually have a few slides about him. But you’ve got to engage with students in other ways to keep them interested.

Show gameplay. YouTube is great for showing students what games look like. For important games, I’ll usually show 1-3 minutes of gameplay just so people know what game we’re talking about. I also show videos before class starts for students who arrive early.

Allow students to play games. This is even better than showing gameplay videos. I have an adaptor that lets me plug any system into the classroom’s projector and sound system. When I taught Mario yesterday, I plugged in my Wii and allowed the students to play Super Mario Bros. from the Virtual Console. Sometimes only one student is brave enough to play in public that day: sometimes 2-3 students play. These little game breaks last anywhere from 5-10 minutes. Not a huge chunk of class time, by any means.

The students seem to really enjoy it, especially those not playing. They provide commentary, laugh when the player makes a mistake, cringe when the player almost gets hit by goombas, or cheer when the player gets to the Warp Zone. It actually gets quite rowdy.

Show game commercials. YouTube is a goldmine for classic gaming commercials. Showing them is more for entertainment value, but they usually only take 30 seconds. While they are usually funny in retrospect, by viewing advertisements, students see how games were marketed to the general public.

Dress up. This is my favorite part of the class. Each period, I try to wear something appropriate to that day’s lecture. Usually it’s just video game-related t-shirts, but I do add some costumes to the rotation. On Mario day I dress as Luigi (classic Luigi from the original game: white overalls, green shirt), not because I necessarily like Luigi (he’s a bit of a dunderhead) but my body type fits Luigi more than Mario. Plus, the students usually think it’s pretty funny.

Luigi costume

This photo ended up being quite patriotic!

Game on,
~Dennis

My Hexels for Settlers of Catan Finally Arrived!

Well, it took almost a year, but I finally received my hexels in the mail last week!

What are hexels, you ask? Do you play Settlers of Catan? If so, you know that the hexagonal-shaped board pieces don’t really stay together that well. The game comes with a cardboard frame, which kind of keeps the pieces together, but my frame has warped over time.

I like my tabletop play sessions neat and orderly: cards stacked, my little pieces arranged in rows, all the number tokens oriented in the same direction. No matter how much I fuss about keeping the hexagons fit together perfectly, inevitably fissures appear in the island.

Somebody rolls the dice across the board.

Somebody bumps the table.

Somebody slams a new settlement down too hard.

Somebody drops their beer bottle on the board (empty, fortunately!).

Hexels solve that problem!

Hexels for CatanHexels are black plastic frames with magnets in the sides. The board pieces fit inside perfectly, and the hexels attach themselves via the magnets. The seal is not strong, but strong enough to keep the board together. If your table is smooth, you can even slide the “board” around if needed!

Hexels for Catan

The board pieces sit casually inside. You don’t have to force them in, and they pop right out.

Hexels started as a Kickstarter project in early 2013. I was one of the backers, and for $50 I received 30 hexels: enough for the 5-6 player extension of the original Catan.

The project ran into a lot of problems on the manufacturing end. They were manufactured in China, and it took the organizers a long time to find the right kind of plastic. Late 2013, the pieces finally shipped to America. The creator, Tim Walsh, had to forgo assembly costs to keep the project on budget. That meant that backers had to insert the magnets and glue the covers in place themselves. It wasn’t too much of a bother, though: after about an hour and a half of work, my pieces were ready to go.

Hexel backs

The back of a hexel. A little magnet sits in each of those six wells. The magnet is about the size of those little ball sprinkles you put on ice cream. The covers are held in place with super glue.

How well do they work?

Nearly perfect, I’d say. The game pieces sit on top: no need to have the game pieces touching the board pieces anymore!

Hexels for Catan

An assembled 6 player Catan board using hexels.

Hexels for Catan

Any flaws with the hexels?

Only a few. First, the project didn’t raise enough money to create hexels for the harbor pieces. Thankfully your Catan game comes with harbor pieces separate from the main board frame, so these can be set every few spaces around the board. It doesn’t look as nice; maybe someday he’ll create frames for the harbor pieces.

Harbors next to HexelsSecond, the magnets hold the pieces together very well. But sometimes, the pieces get just slightly off. If you fuss with it, you can get the sides to match together perfectly. But even if you are off slightly, the board will still hold together properly.

Hexels for Catan

Notice how these edges don’t line up perfectly.

Do the hexels fit in the box?

Yes! Even with the 5-6 player extension (11 extra hexels) everything fits in my original Catan box. I had to remove the black plastic tray that comes with the box, but a minor inconvenience. The original board pieces fit in with the hexels, should I ever want to use those again. I even have extra room!

Hexels in Catan boxNow, if you are OCD about keeping things organized, I must mention that it can be difficult to get the hexels to stack perfectly on each other. This is based on the magnets wanting to attach to the hexels nearest them. You can get the stacks completely straight, but even if they are off slightly, they’ll still fit in the box (and once you transport the game, the stacks will probably get a little disordered anyway).

Hexel stacks

A full set for the 5-6 player extension contains 30 hexels. Three stacks of 10 will just fit in the box.

Okay, where do I get these?

Good question. The official website doesn’t have a lot of information, and no detail about ordering more. This is an officially licensed product of Catan and Mayfair Games, so I’m guessing they will be available commercially in the next few months once Tim fulfills all of the Kickstarter rewards.

If you want a different solution for your Catan game, there are Catan boards available from a different company (also officially licensed). You can buy plastic boards for $30 and bamboo boards for $120 (the wooden ones do look nice). These boards offer a similar solution to keeping your pieces together. They aren’t as portable as the hexels. Plus, the wooden boards are quite pricey: the board for 5-6 players is $180!

Settle on,
~Dennis

Origami to Strangers, From Strangers

I’ve never been satisfied with the assigned computers in my school offices. The school computers are always out-of-date, and every little update to internet browsers, Adobe, Flash, JavaScript, or any other essential piece of software requires authorization from IT. Of course, all these things offer updates every week, so naturally, they go un-updated (undated?). I’m not going to bother IT for every little thing.

Second, being that these computers are on the school network, they are loaded (encumbered is a better word) with security software. Because of all these layers of software and checks, plus the out-of-datedness of the computers itself, it always takes forever to log on.

A good five minutes, sometimes ten minutes if the computer’s been restarted (or restarted itself).

I have a lot of time on my hands, in other words.

Folding away the minutes

I use this time, then, to fold. My entire library of origami books is in my office, plus a file drawer full of different papers. This school year I bought a Star Wars origami book. All of the models are new to me, so I thought this would help me pass the time.

Star Wars Origami

The book can be purchased cheaply on Amazon.

Students and colleagues are always pleased by my origami, so I decided to do something different this year. Outside my office I have a small bulletin board. As I complete the models, I pin the models to the board and entice people to take them. The folding is what makes me happy; giving away the finished model makes other people happy. Here’s the current state of my board. Notice the A-Wing blasting away at the fire alarm.

Origami Board

If you can’t read the caption, it says “Do you enjoy origami as much as I do? Take one! It’ll brighten your day! I’ll just make more!”

Sometimes I see the models show up on other people’s boards: other times, they just disappear. I hope they find good homes.

Recently, though, I noticed something different. Somebody else left me a model:

Mysterious origami crane

A classic model, but one that still brightened my day. This person folded the model a little differently than I usually do. They only puffed the back pyramid shape halfway: I usually flatten it completely, but I kind of like the half-puffed look.

So here’s to the secret language of origami, communicated between people in-the-know.

Fold on,
~Dennis

Last Night There was a Mario Kart 64 Tournament. Good Thing I Have This Luigi Costume for Just Such an Occasion

I came as Luigi to the Mario Kart 64 tournament

I’m sporting Luigi’s classic look from Super Mario Bros. days on the NES: white overalls with green shirt.

All week my apartment complex has been hosting “beginning of the semester” events. Last night they capped off the first week back at school with a Mario Kart 64 tournament.

Because I teach a class about video games, I had just the costume for the occasion: classic Luigi! Everybody was super excited when I walked in.

Unfortunately, my entrance didn’t match my playing ability. I volunteered for the first round of 4 player verses and promptly lost in the first round, on Moo Moo Farm, no less!

Naturally I chose Luigi, but I don’t really like Luigi all that much, so by the time I figured out how to control with his character the race was over.

Oh well! My roommate won the tournament, and afterward I did much better in the pick-up matches, using Peach, of course.

A lot of serious gamers don’t like the Mario Kart series because of it’s randomness and balance. Mario Kart is one of those games that rewards people for being bad. If you are toward the end of the pack, you get better power-ups than the guy in first place. Thus, the guy in first place has a very difficult time staying in first place because so many people are gunning for him.

I understand that concern; however, Mario Kart has always been about fun more than fairness. About 20 people participated in the tournament; about half were decently good at Mario Kart. A few were terrible. But even the people who had to be told “A is for acceleration, B is for break” had a lot of fun.

And despite the “unfairness” of Mario Kart, the best players still find a way to win.

Game on,
~Dennis

Everything I Read, Watched, or Played to Completion in 2013

A few years ago I started keeping track of my media consumption. I’m not sure why, but considering I research mass media, it only seemed natural that I should look upon my own media consumption habits.

How I keep track of my media has fluctuated over the years, but currently, I track every non-fiction and fiction book I read to completion, every graphic novel and comic book I read, every television season I finish, every movie I watch, and every video game I complete.

The list, though, is not perfect. I don’t keep track of television that I just watch here and there; only series that I intentionally watch from start to finish. So even though my list doesn’t include The Big Bang Theory, for instance, I doubtlessly watched many seasons this year on rerun.

I keep track of every video game I play from start to finish, but some games are never finished (and some can’t be finished, like Minecraft). I also don’t keep track of the time I spend watching other people play games, like my roommates.

While I keep track of the graphic novels and individual comic books I read, I don’t keep track of the web comics I read regularly (like Penny Arcade, the Trenches, and Camp Weedontwantcha).

And let’s not even get started on calculating how much time I spend on the computer and the Internet, whether for work, school, or pleasure.

The Completion List of 2013

  • Nonfiction books: 13
  • Textbooks: 2
  • Graphic Novels: 3
  • Comic Books: 6
  • Video Games: 29
  • TV Seasons: 24
  • Movies: 42
  • Total Media: 119

Interestingly, I completed no fiction books last year. In previous years, I read a lot more fiction AND non-fiction (in 2012 I read 7 fiction and 37 non-fiction; in 2011 I read 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction).

The six individual comic books comes from Free Comic Book Day.

I really stepped up my game playing this year. I replayed a lot of classic games, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Donkey Kong 64, Star Fox 64, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Donkey Kong Country.

Last year I only completed 12 video games.

The Best and Worst of 2013

When it comes to television, I find a few shows that work and stick with them. I watched four seasons of X-Files, which I’ve never seen before. It’s a pretty good show, though a little long at times (I’m not even halfway through yet).

Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily my favorite show ever: I watched that series twice in 2013 (I’ve probably watched it 6 times total). I also watched the sequel, the Legend of Korra, seasons 1 and 2.

Cowboy Bebop is also on perpetual rotation; I usually watch it every summer at least, though I’m itching to watch it again. Bebop used to be my favorite show until Airbender topped it.

Notable video games include: Ocarina of Time, Tomb Raider (2013), The Walking Dead, Final Fantasy XIII (third playthrough), Portal 1 and 2, and Kingdom Hearts II.

I usually don’t play bad video games, but there were some games I never finished. Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 is one. I liked it as a kid but never completed it (I always got stuck on one particular boss toward the end). I tried playing it again, thinking I could finish it as an adult. I got halfway through and just got bored.

I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan and decided to replay FFXII for the PS2. I remember thinking the game was decent when it came out, and enough time had passed that I forgot the details of the story. I got about 20 hours into that game before calling it quiets. The story, cutscenes, dialogue, and characters are just so bad that I couldn’t stand it (and I’m not talking about the graphics, either; aged graphics from the PS2 era don’t bother me the way they bother some people).

Now that I think of it, I tried replaying Final Fantasy X-2 last summer but only got about 10 hours in.

When it comes to movies, it seems like I mostly watched bad movies or so-so movies last year. Movies I could do without seeing again: Star Trek: Generations, Watchmen, Quantum of Solace, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Fargo, Hellraiser, Hot Rod, and The Sword in the Stone.

Conclusions

I’m not sure what I accomplish by keeping track of my media consumption. Like I said in the beginning, the list isn’t perfect and leaves out a lot. And I have no idea how my consumption relates to others’ consumption. Watching 42 movies in the year seems like a lot, but that’s less than one a week. Watching 24 television seasons also seems like a lot, but then again, shows count seasons differently: they can range anywhere from 6-26 episodes depending on the show (and most of the shows I watch are half hour in nature, not an hour like live-action dramas).

I just find it interesting to keep track of this stuff. Looking over this list, I don’t have any goals or “improvements” to make in 2014, except maybe watch fewer bad movies.

~Dennis