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Mario, Psychology, and Design

Mario, Psychology, and Design

Spoiler: sometimes a brick actually holds ten coins (if you can jump fast enough).

Super Mario Brothers makes use of something akin to a random reinforcement schedule in order to add to the fun of the game. It’s not a true random reinforcement, as the rewards are the same from game to game, baked in to the levels. But to the new player, these choices feel like a random reward.

The first level, known as one-dash-one (1-1, some pronounce it one-one), features these elements early on. The first set of above-your-head blocks include bricks and question-mark blocks. It’s natural as you start to feel your way into the game to try jumping around, and you’ll jump into the bricks and blocks, if only by accident. You’re rewarded for jumping with coins, or perhaps a mushroom pops out. You happen to touch the mushroom and become super. You jump some more, collide with an overhead brick, and it breaks!

As you move through the level, you want to hit these blocks. You’ve learned the simple and rewarding task that makes up one of the core mechanics of the game.

Harder to discover elements remain. First is pipes. you come to your first pipe only slightly past your first blocks. It’s bigger than you! Perhaps you can go inside it? If you can, it’s not obvious how. You tried pressing down (), but it did not do. Oh well. You carry on jumping over or on enemies, on to the next pipes, trying to go inside. The fourth pipe, you can go down!

Most people saw others play first, learned that some pipes are enterable that way. The entering of pipes isn’t as obvious as hitting blocks by jumping up into them. The designers tried to make it more obvious by making the pipes bigger than you, suggesting something your character could crawl into. After you complete 1-1, you’d see your character enter a pipe to get to 1-2, which might make you try entering pipes. In later levels you would see piranha plants—something like venus fly traps—come out of pipes, another possible late hint.

The others are slightly more discoverable, perhaps: there are bricks that act as question-mark blocks, and there are invisible question-mark blocks. By getting in the habit of busting bricks, players would eventually find the secret that some bricks aren’t mere bricks. And by jumping around in random places, one could discover that some hidden blocks lurk in the air. (There aren’t many hidden blocks in Super Mario Brothers, but they still add to the effect of pseudorandom reinforcement.)

(Later iterations of the Mario franchise would expand on these elements with other block types, checkpoints, doors, end-of-level-roulette, and more.)


The first level teaches you to play, an enduring and outright essential feature in gaming. But it doesn’t only teach you how to play Mario, it teaches you how to play video games in general. It says that gaming is a world where sometimes things work a little weird, seem a little random. It’s an experience you have to experiment with. Try jumping into things. Try pressing down on top of pipes.

But it also gives you that reinforcement, that feeling of reward, for trying things out. While many games lean heavily on combat—killing enemies and beating the game, Mario includes these other reinforcement options as well:

  • Finding which blocks and pipes contain what.
  • Coin collecting (numismatism).
  • High scores.
  • Best times.

These extra dimensions add something to the game, particularly because they reinforce your effort. They make you want to do better. Without reinforcement, animals including humans wouldn’t learn, I’m sorry to say. When you bump into one of those blocks on 1-1, you’ve learned something. This is known as the law of effect (Wikipedia: “Law of effect”), which basically says that things that have positive effects we (being those with averagely-wired brains) want to repeat (and, by extension, those with negative effects, we seek to avoid).

There are several kinds of learning here:

  • Action–reaction mapping, where we discover some action has (probably) some result.
  • We learn what games are like (so that in other games we will check for invisible blocks)
  • We learn that there are tradeoffs in game design, that breaking some design rules makes gameplay stronger

In the last case, the designers could have made pipes indicate which were enterable or not. They could have avoided having bricks that give coins. But they wanted it to be a surprise. Normally that’s bad design, to have two things look identical but behave differently. Does it get a pass because it’s in a game? For some players it does. It frustrates some players, but for most of us it’s a game. The game world has different rules that makes it okay to a point.

The point where things break down is if there’s too much inconsistency, too much incoherence. Even there, some players would still go along. But most wouldn’t. There has to be logic in the departures, and it needs to be limited in number. You can’t keep adding more breaks in the game reality, where some koopas grant powerups, some fireflowers are poison, some platforms are really pits, and some bricks are secret flagpoles.

There wouldn’t be a game left, if on every level there were no rules to depend on.


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