Super Mario Maker: Educating Youth One Level at a Time

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

"An exceptional experience." "Brimming with positivity and encouragement." "The dream game we have been waiting for." Video game critics have fallen head over heels for Super Mario Maker, the latest installment in the adventures of the instantly recognizable virtual plumber. But unlike earlier editions of the Mario games, this one features an entirely new element: you. Yes, Super Mario Maker puts players in the director's chair of their own title, giving them the ability to spawn waddling Goombas, slinky Chain Chomps, exploding Bob-ombs, and toothy Piranha Plants with a swipe of the Wii U's stylus. A number-one debut in Japan and a number-two placing on the United Kingdom's sales charts show that consumers have welcomed the game just as warmly as critics. But why has Super Mario Maker garnered such acclaim, and what does its popularity mean when it comes to encouraging creativity in kids?

At first glance, the popularity of Super Mario Maker seems a bit surprising. After all, software that allows gamers to create their own custom titles has existed for nearly twenty-five years. As early as 1991, The Bard's Tale Construction Set let aspiring dungeon crawlers craft their own games set in the hugely popular world created by Michael Cranford and Brian Fargo. RPG Maker, a 1992 release, boasted such power that amateur game designers are still using it to churn out commercial titles. Chris Roberts made young players into deep-space tacticians with 1993's Wing Commander: Academy, a sandbox simulator where users populated the void with phalanx after phalanx of enemy fighters. And then there's Minecraft, Markus "Notch" Persson's 2011 survival simulator that sets players loose on a blocky world with nothing but their bare hands and imaginations.

Of course, all of those titles lack one important thing: Mario. It's hardly hyperbolic to say that the red-clad, mushroom-munching plumber has cachet. "I really wanted him to make my Mickey Mouse," said Shigeru Miyamoto, the character's creator. "My hope was that 10 or 20 years down the road, he would be the iconic character of video games. I feel tremendously fortunate that's what came to pass." Come to pass it most definitely has. Since 1981, customers have purchased over 500-million copies of the franchise's titles.

But there's more to the warm reception of Super Mario Maker than the storied history of its titular hero. Publisher Nintendo has managed to put tools in amateur game makers' hands that are both powerful and intuitive. Sounds almost impossible, right? Well, Super Mario Maker manages it with an easy-to-use interface and by selectively withholding key bits of functionality. At the onset, players can fiddle with only a handful of elements from old games. A block here. A power-up there. A line of coins. A marauding Koopa Troopa. All are managed with the Wii U's stylus, and tapping to select an object or dragging to resize it is easy for anyone who has a passing familiarity with the system. Once a player spends at least five minutes working with the tools currently available, he or she gains access to a whole new bag of creative goodies the very next day. 

The way Super Mario Maker goes about introducing those new elements is instructive. It doesn't so much hold players hands as encourage them to experiment. Shake some items and they'll transform into different ones. Combine others to make entirely new objects. Every action gets reinforced with cheery sound effects, and players needn't possess obsessive attention to detail to enjoy themselves. As Tom Hoggins of The Telegraph noted in his review, "Nintendo throws open its tool box in the only way Nintendo knows how, with simplicity and giddy playfulness. I say tool box, but Mario Maker often feels more like painting. You can meticulously craft something--a level of perfect momentum, gaps, and enemy placement--or you can splatter the canvas with stuff and things and more stuff and still come out with something playable."

Nintendo also understands that we live in the age of social media, and Super Mario Maker caters to young creators' impulse to share. A robust search and review utility allows players to discover fan-made levels that ape bullet-hell shooters or become virtual music boxes in the playing, levels that strain even the most skillful or teeter on the edge of chaos. Also, the 100 Mario Challenge adds a competitive edge, challenging players to complete a bevy of randomized consecutive courses with only 100 lives.

So what does this mean for young players? Does Super Mario Maker offer children anything other than diversion? Researchers seem to think so. In a 2013 panel discussion at Stanford, Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Games+Learning+Society (GLS) center has concluded that "games are architectures for engagement," frameworks for critical thinking rather than the rote repetition of facts. Stanford Professor Dan Schwartz agrees. "Games allow us to measure learning in ways we couldn't do before," he said. "Knowledge is not the outcome we want; we want students to learn how to make choices." Microsoft also sees educational opportunities in virtual entertainment. After purchasing Minecraft publisher Mojang in 2014, Microsoft released MinecraftEdu, a standalone version geared for educators.

It's unlikely that Nintendo will release a school-oriented version of Super Mario Maker. But would it even be necessary? Not really. It isn't difficult to imagine how Super Mario Maker might influence young learners, turning them from mere pupils to culture makers. Could a budding architect discover the importance of artistic design while crafting a fireball-filled dungeon that's as elegant as it is deadly? Might a wannabe novelist grasp the importance of atmosphere and tone while populating a spooky haunted house with ghosts? Is it possible that a struggling student on the edge of shirking his or her studies could learn the value of perseverance after finally finishing a level once thought to be impossible? It most certainly is. After all, kids don't necessarily need pens and pencils, desks and notebooks, report cards and registrars to learn. Sometimes all they require is a controller, a screen, and their own imagination.