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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.

Gamify Poverty

We can work to treat social problems more effectively by creating games that are designed to drive patients toward the goals.

How it would work isn’t clear, but it’s an intriguing idea: handle complex social problems by turning them into games, with the stakeholders as players and the remote goals left alone in favor of incremental achievement. It could work for many different social and political problems, but today I will focus on poverty as an example.

When someone is impoverished, they might sign up for foodstamps and other forms of welfare like Medicaid and housing assistance. The Republicans want to add more and more work requirements, strings attached to try to help them escape poverty in order to receive assistance. As though the problem of poverty is as simple as “get a job.” And then, of course, you have to balance assistance against wages earned to try to keep people from being better off staying poor than working a dead-end job, and it’s quite a messy problem.

One of the key features of gamifying is to offer both group achievement opportunities and individual achievement opportunities. Some respond better to one than the other, so having both is important. Thus, a person in need of assistance would either be assigned or would choose and join a group of others (likely at a mixture of stages along the route away from poverty) and would work with them on certain tasks.

They would also have individual tasks, with the possibility of individual achievement (and thus reinforcement). Because part of the problem with the current model of poverty-assistance is the fact that people can do the right thing and go wholly unrewarded, heightening the chance they will fail (i.e., an unreinforced positive behavior tends to be extinguished).

Bootstrapping the current welfare model, for instance, a person receiving $1 of assistance by default should receive $1.10 if they look for job opportunities, $1.20 if they research particular opportunities, $1.30 if they fill out an application, $1.40 if they go to an interview, etc. Instead of work-fare, it should be game-fare.

Similarly, for public housing, there should be some amount of discretionary spending allocated, which residents can use in their group (either a floor or a building or whatever pod-size makes sense) for improvements. The data from these events can be used to evaluate the sorts of improvements that will benefit other public housing areas, as well as provide the residents with experience in making improvements for when they have their own homes.

All of this can go atop some sort of score-keeping system, so that the assisted can track their progress, finding ways to improve their scores that also help them escape poverty. By formalizing it into a game, you get a ton of data that can further improve the game and you get a plethora of reinforcement opportunities where the assisted can see their actions resulting in some tangible gain, even if only in game points.

This same model could be used in many other areas, such as Veteran reintegration, prison reform, helping people with medical problems (“the diabetes control game”), and so on.

The biggest obstacles to this sort of reform are probably:

  1. Calling something a game may be misperceived to be making light of a serious situation.
  2. Politicians are preternaturally opposed to good ideas.

Congratulations for Reading This!

A look at the problems with arguments against “participation awards.”

Participation awards. People have a problem with participation awards. The argument is that awards that do not signify an achievement these busybodies find significant weakens their own self-esteem to the point where they no longer feel special when they get their tenth sandwich free at whatever hole in the wall they thought they were competing in America’s Got Eating a Lot or whatever.

The truth is, psychology is against them. The reality of our lives is against them. Yet they feel they have a beef. Awards for little league seem to be their primary target. Story goes, a little kid, or even up to young adult played a sport. They didn’t send their opponents home in a St. John’s Ambulance, so they don’t deserve to be “rewarded” (because a molded-plastic trophy is something other than a mere souvenir) for “just showing up.”

I’m 100% certain that these people making a federal case out of participation awards do not celebrate their birthdays. Birthdays are the ultimate participation award. You didn’t die for a year. Have a cake and we’ll sing and here’s a gift card to that sandwich joint you keep bragging about getting your holes punched at, you bastard. No way. Birthdays? Please. Do something big, for a whole year, like hopping only on one foot the whole year, or go a year without using the word “ball,” including compounds thereof, then we’ll talk. Then you can have your fucking cake.

Same goes for that tenth-sandwich-free thing. Eating regularly isn’t an achievement. It’s a privilege. There are starving people in this world, and merely being lucky enough to not be one of them does not constitute an achievement (unless you did something like invent farming, maybe). If you’re so concerned about false awards, refuse that freebie.

These same people, when they go on vacation, they won’t buy souvenirs. Going to a museum does not qualify as achievement, so they can’t buy the reminder. Oh, wait. In that case, it’s commerce. So if their child buys himself the plastic twerking trophy, they’re cool with it? What if their child steals it? Isn’t successful theft an accomplishment of sorts? What if all the other teams in the AAAA…A ball league, that they somehow believe might qualify their little rascals for being called up to the big leagues, suddenly get chicken pox at the same time? The team wins by default? Is the trophy somehow earned then? What if the munchkins arranged for the whole league to get the pox? Does that count?

Anyway, back to psychology. If you want kids active, and many kids aren’t, rewarding them for being active is good. That’s not to say those trophies are really about reward. That’s a conceit in the mind of the parents. The trophy is so they can look back and remember how many sports they tried and maybe remember how much they grew as fucking human beings. The horror! It reminds them they can participate at all. That even if they weren’t the best, the world needs support roles, and sometimes the support classes make the difference, even if the parents of the quarterback think they shit gold.

In psychology, if you want a behavior to sustain and increase, you reinforce it. If you want it to cease, you withhold reinforcement. If you take away kids’ silly trophies, and if those trophies were rewarding to them, you may just find they stop participating. If they don’t care about the trophies, you saved a few bucks on trophies, and you reduced the amount of plastic waste in circulation.

Turn Left onto Memetic Circle

So the other important issue here is the so-called Putrification (Putrefaction) of America. Sometimes called the Pussification or Pussefaction. It’s a form of the Politically Correct meme, though purveyors of this version believe they are firmly anti-PCness.

I’m 90% sure this anti-participation-award crap came out of the mind of someone on the lookout for pussefying. The neighborhood pussy watch or something. Wait. The pussy posse. There you go.

But the point is, this idea that there is a definite trend in some vein, and then you can find the fucking pattern. The frequency illusion. You know, you find a dollar on the street and then suddenly you’re finding dollars everywhere. Except with a word, or a concept, or whatever. Not with money. Never with money. Damn you, Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon!

The difference in this case, the pussefaction-believer wants confirmation. They aren’t looking at all the ways America is not being changed, or being changed in other ways. They only look for, only see things that confirm.

In closing, a list of things that participation award haters also cannot do:

  • Read this post, as it would make them winners of the “I read that” award that all readers of this article are awarded
  • Have funerals unless they died in some really cool and/or unique way, as, like birthdays, funerals should be reserved for the badasses only
  • Get married, unless they rescued their spouse-to-be or otherwise achieved something that deserves it, like haggling for a really great price on the venue, cake, flowers, or so on
  • Take advantage of income tax deductions or credits
  • Partake of the post-orgy group-cuddling (unless they orgasmed more than the average number of orgasms)
  • Celebrate Christmas or Easter or really any holy day, unless they have done something to earn it, dammit (I’m sure the Easter Egg Hunts they put on for their kids include spikepits and other hazards)
  • Same for Independence Day: unless you fought in the Revolutionary War, no fireworks, hotdogs, or s’mores for you!
  • Drink cocktails that have garnishes (self-explanatory)
  • Give their kids tooth-fairy money
  • Wear any sports paraphernalia from any team they were not an integral part of (this includes political signage, etc.)
  • Accept the “I Voted” sticker, unless you did a really kick-ass job of voting, I guess

And so on. Let’s call these freeloaders out! Always keeping the extra soda that accidentally fell out of the soda machine, like they earned it. Always parking in an empty parking space without even having to drive around for hours, like it’s their birthright.

But seriously, there are a ton of no-effort trophies in life, and it’s a bit silly to only clamp down on the ones given to children and young adults while ignoring all the others. If you want to be macho, grow a mustache. If you want your children to achieve something, help them by giving them opportunities to fail and the freedom to choose what to try.

Anyway. Enough words wasted on that silly idea. Congratulations for reading this post. You did it! I hope you will keep reading things (written by me or not) in the future! Good job, winner of the “I read that” award (no monetary value, offer void where prohibited, bestowal of award may not be used as evidence that you actually read anything, etc.)! For a copy of your award, print this article out, and scribble your name on it and have it framed or gilded or something cool. You can even hold yourself a little ceremony where you give it to yourself and make a speech and drink champagne. Then later, you can hold an ethics hearing into the allegations you didn’t really read this article, and you can have a committee decide whether you can keep the award. Then you can go on an apology tour where you try to reassure everyone concerned that you messed up, okay, you get it, but you have changed, in your heart, which is the place where change is the most meaningful, and you deserve a second chance. You don’t have to, but you could do all of that. It would be quite an achievement if you did.