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