What can we learn from Super Mario Brothers?

Mario and Luigi, aka the Super Mario Brothers, from Nintendo, have stood as beloved game characters for decades and still are the central characters to many new Mario games.  In almost every Mario game, the goal is to jump through obstacles, defeat enemies, and solve puzzles to save the Princess (and sometimes the whole galaxy).  There are single player and multiplayer games, as well as various iterations of the same game.  Take, for example, Super Mario 1, 2 and 3.  Yet, there is very little language involved in the actual playing of most Mario games and we wouldn’t suggest them as good choices for target language practice.

So, why even mention the game series?  What can we as language educators learn from Super Mario Brothers?  While not directly related to the actual use of digital games, I would like to use this post to suggest three lessons we can take to heart from this time honored game tradition.

(1) ‘Death’ is not the end of the world and everyone should have the opportunity for unlimited lives, even if it means having to go back and re-do some levels for additional practice.

In Super Mario Brothers, there are numerous attempts to earn additional lives and keep playing until one is successful.  Even if one loses all of his or her lives, the player only starts at the beginning of the world, and is not deemed a failed player.  The same should be true of second language learning.  Encouraging failure (similar to what “kills” you in Mario) as an essential component of learning (e.g., negotiation of meaning and communication strategies) and providing the opportunity to continue trying until the skills are mastered has the potential to be very powerful.  As we design learning experiences (in mediated or non-mediated contexts), providing opportunities for failure with a learning purpose allows learners to move at their own pace and learn from their own mistakes.

(2) The Power Jump Paradox or…you must learn to master things at your own level or you will be unsuccessful in future levels.

One component of digital games that we find to be especially compelling for L2 learning is the way that feedback is delivered.  Super Mario Brothers is especially successful at providing scaffolded, meaningful feedback.  For example, an  important skill to be mastered is the power jump (i.e., the ability to jump extra high or over long distances).  When learning to power jump, the player first encounters the skill in a practice space where failure is annoying, but does not inhibit gameplay.  However, as the game progresses, the power jump becomes more and more critical until it is impossible to move forward without it.  In this way, the player receives continuous feedback on the success (or failure) of the power jump until it is impossible to survive without it.  Language learning feedback would also benefit from this type of gradual, scaffolded feedback in both foreign and second language contexts.  Learners should be given multiple opportunities to use the material being learned and then be assessed on their ability to apply it in a high stakes situation.   This stands in stark contrast to learning something one day and then being tested on it at the end of a chapter or unit.

(3) Tricks, tools, and resources are invaluable in saving the princess.

It would be impossible to save the princess without the help of Toad, Yoshi, and multiple other in-game characters and resources.  They guide the player and assist in difficult tasks.  As language educators, we should encourage the proper use of resources as opposed to banning them from the classroom.  For example, an online translator, while often used improperly, might serve as an excellent catalyst for a discussion of lexical diversity or literal versus functional translations.  Instruction on how to best use translators and dictionaries could prove to be invaluable.

-J. Sykes

10 thoughts on “What can we learn from Super Mario Brothers?

  1. Marcelo

    Great comments. I found my kids love Mario series, and certainly your comments guided me to some take aways from the Mario games.

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