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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.

Scores and Gaming

Thoughts on game scoring systems, which help make a game a game.

I recently played Cortex Command, a 2D game similar in some respects to Terraria except rather than being built with blocks, it is built with pixels. You are a brain in a vat, and you can control soldiers and robots to assault against another brain in a vat (also in control over forces).

It took a bit to get into the game, to get a feel for it. It does have a tutorial, but the initial experience is rather clunky until you get a feel for it. The tutorial only gives a sense of what the game is. It’s a game about digging (you can mine gold to buy more forces) and assault in a pixel-destruction environment.

The tutorial has a small pile of dirt you dig, with gold in it, but in my first attempt it wasn’t clear how much digging I would be doing in the game. They should have buried an object to dig for, just to make the point clear.

It’s a fun enough game, once you learn the ropes and begin trying the combat challenges (called scenarios). But it doesn’t quite gamify itself enough.

I’m currently playing AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, which is another simple enough game. You jump off a starting point and fall down. You get points for falling close to buildings, among other things. But A for the Awesome has something going for it that Cortex Command lacks: a point system. That’s really all it took to make something that would seem about the same (a fun mechanic without a lot beyond it) into a game that has more depth. Counting up the scores at the end, and seeing what points are needed to get five stars really gives the game a different element that it needs. A challenge, something to dig for.

In many games, there is a narrative structure that provides that challenge. And there may be upgrades that the player can seek out along the way. But these goals, these challenges, are what makes it a game. It’s not just a simulation, but it’s a mountain to climb.

That’s what Cortex Command seemed to lack. It didn’t track points. How did I do last time? Can I do better this time? The past didn’t exist. It was a blank slate every time. That lack of continuity, of any kind of goal, made it less of a game, less likely to draw you back to try again.

It was still a fun enough experience, once you got into it. Same with The Long Dark‘s survival mode in some ways (though they have a story mode that’s really great). Surviving can go on for ages, but every time you start it’s a blank slate again.

Maybe The Long Dark‘s survival mode could add a version more like what A for the Awesome does. I believe they are working on more challenges, which are separate from both survival and the story. Anyway, fun games. Time to go jump some more.

Steamworks’ Announced Changes for 2019

Thoughts about Steam’s announced plans for 2019.

Steam: Steamworks Development: 14 January 2019: “2018 Year in Review” announced some expected changes in 2019, including:

  • Steam Library Update—A refresh of the Steam client akin to the refresh of the Steam Chat that occurred in 2018.
  • New Events System—A way for games (and groups?) to announce non-release events to their followers.
  • Steam Chat for Mobile—Apparently a separate app that includes the upgrades to Steam Chat on the client.
  • Steam Trust—A provider-side reputation system that helps games moderate their players better.

Valve-time being a thing, we’ll see if these rollout this year (there were others, but these were the ones that interested me).

Library update

The Library refresh has been pending for several years and is long-expected and desired (though undoubtedly subject to backlash by a vocal minority). Games have changed a lot over the years, but the Steam Library view has stayed the same, so it will be interesting to see what this ends up looking like. It will also be interesting to see if there’s any visual-crossover between the refresh of the Library and Big Picture Mode.

At least some of the facilities mentioned in my recent post about instrumenting games for streaming could be useful for a future version of the Steam Library. For example, logging capabilities in games could easily populate the game-view in the library with details from your last game session.

Events system update

The events system is primarily an opportunity to let developers remind players about their game over time, in ways they largely already do on Twitter, but where many players may not see them. It’s not clear if the event system will apply to groups as well. Groups have been able to announce events for awhile, but if they’re granted the same abilities under the new system, it could be a shot in the arm for social-on-Steam, particularly when many gamers are far more reliant on Discord.

A full-featured event system could even let non-group events happen in the vein of “bowling night” among friends. If a group of friends likes to play together at a set time every week, Steam could enable that without them needing to create a full-on group. If game makers wanted to encourage that among players, they could also be empowered to do so.

Steam chat for mobile

The advent of a separate app for chat seems unwise (the language in the announcement is: “We’re going to ship a new Steam Chat mobile app…”). Hopefully they mean that they’ll ship a new version of the Steam app that includes chat upgrades. If not, oy. There’s a new contender to replace the old law that all applications expand to encompass e-mail: all providers expand to release a mobile chat application.

Steam Trust as a service

And Steam Trust will be welcome to the extent it helps reduce griefing and cheating in multiplayer games.


The Steam Client Beta for Linux added a force-Proton option on 17 January 2019, which is great news and shows that Valve is hitting the ground running this year. The option allows Linux gamers to choose to run the Windows version even when a Linux version exists, which may help in some circumstances:

  1. Bad ports—Not all Linux ports of games are up to snuff.
  2. Upstream bugs—Whether in the game’s engine or a video driver, sometimes bugs in other places break the native version, but not the Proton version.
  3. Missing features—Some ports are great, but for whatever reason miss a feature or two. Being able to use the native version for just those cases is a great option to have.

There are arguments about whether Proton diminishes the desire of developers to write Linux-native games or to invest in ports to Linux, but Valve’s strategy is two-fold:

  1. Get people playing on Linux, especially those who already love Linux but feel bound to Windows for a few games.
  2. Invest in Vulkan and other technologies that lower the cost of writing cross-platform games.

The latter is especially important, as games that aren’t written for Windows-specific APIs are much easier to port to Linux. It’s a longer-term strategy, but it should pay off both in better game performance generally and in portability.