What Super Mario Bros teaches us about motivation

Published on Sep 19, 2016

by Dr. Duck

People who were around during the moon landings often tell me what it was like that day. I don’t really have a moon landing story. But I can tell you about the time I was a kid and I first witnessed the launch of the video game, Super Mario Bros, on my friend’s television.

There were the obstacles, jumps, magic mushrooms and endless falls down bottomless pits. Quirky sounds triumphantly proclaimed growth, progress and victory. Goals were signalled with flags and celebrated with fireworks.

Enemies came from below and above. Each one had its own personality. You could jump on the head of one enemy and squash it but the next one would be covered in spikes. Another would duck its head in its shell, which would then ricochet off a wall and return to knock you over.

Kids all over the world were hurling their controllers around the room desperately trying to get this tiny little Mario sprite to reach the goal of rescuing the princess. Nobody really cared who the princess was or why she was even captured in the first place.

There was no genuine reward other than the pure satisfaction of getting to the end. Forget all the textbooks on motivation. Nintendo had captured it in a bottle, like lightning.


Gamification…not that gimmick again!

Let’s jump forward say, 20 years or so. The term ‘gamification’ took hold and spawned some innovative ‘game-based’ problem-solving approaches as well as setting millions of eyes rolling. It was gimmicky, like a typical management fad and seemed to trivialise our important day-to-day jobs.

My eyes weren’t rolling, though. The eight-year-old in me was grinning. I suspect I wasn’t the only one. Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood—whenever that transition is finalised—we all shift from embracing fun to becoming very serious about work. Work isn’t a video game. It’s business. And business is a serious affair, Dr Duck.

For those of you unfamiliar with gamification, the idea was to use the elements that make a video game so engaging and apply them to the way we go about work. The best gamification has already been applied without you realising it. There are the subtle movements and sounds your phone makes when you activate it. The various apps you use have adopted gamification principles, like including avatars, scores and rating systems.

Fortunately, gamification doesn’t have to be a management fad in my line of work. As a psychologist, I became curious as to the underlying mechanisms that make video games so engaging. Here are a few observations:


Meaningless scores and progress

Video games are addictive because they provide an ongoing sense of progress. I remember adults observing Super Mario when I was a child. They seemed to link the objective of the game to the score in the corner.

The score, however, was never the goal. Unlike earlier video games, like Space Invaders, where high scores were presented on a screen, in Super Mario Bros the score was never compared to other users. It was the mere feeling of progress that was motivating.

Adults filtered the goal of the game with their own orderly logic. There had to be some reward in reaching the end. However, like any good job, the work in of itself was the reward.


Power mushroom sounds

In a recent job I was informed by the IT professionals that office computers shouldn’t have sounds as they are distracting. No doubt this was correct but I grieved the lost possibility of using sound as subtle motivator.

Think about how often sound enriches our experience. There’s the sound of unwrapping a present, the crunch of fresh popcorn at the cinema, the satisfying click of the mouse, the music the pumps through your headphones on the train or when you go for a run.

Think of how much less impact a film like Star Wars would have without the blaring themes of John Williams or Darth Vader’s creepy breathing.

Super Mario Bros was known for its joyful tune as well as little blasts of sound effects for everything you did. Grab a mushroom and the game makes a satisfying sound signifying augmentation. Get hit by a bad guy and the music makes noise representing sorrow and misfortune.

The sounds are like a commentary on the drama and reinforce positive performance.


The bottomless pit learning curves

Super Mario teaches us a lot about learning too. When you first play the game, you die…a lot. It’s annoying but with every new try, you make it a little bit further and there are milestones that help you on the way. Doesn’t that sound like how a workplace should function?

Unfortunately, with most workplaces, we hire ‘qualified’ and ‘competent’ people so we don’t have to go through all that. Human beings are sometimes treated like assets that are installed and then simply operate as per specification.

Imagine what our environments would be like if they were designed to allow people to make lots of mistakes so they could upskill and learn? Think about how you really learn. It’s usually through experimentation, trial and error and asking people. How many workplaces embrace, let alone tolerate, errors?


Nintendo Controller Simplicity

It’s often assumed that when we introduce a new system or procedure, we need to train people and give them documents. This, to me, is a sign we probably haven’t designed the new solution to be as simple as it needs to be.

I recently overheard a conversation in a workplace where someone said, ‘I feel like we are designing everything around human error and that’s just not right.’ I resisted the urge to butt in and say, ‘Yes it is!’ Design is everything.

When I played Super Mario for the first time it was simple. The controller had a few buttons, clearly labelled and designed for your thumbs. You pressed start and off you went, learning along the way.

When was the last time you used a workplace system that worked as well? It was probably your Smart Phone, which was designed with the same mentality as a video game.

This frustrated employee didn’t like the idea of continually designing the system to work around the quirks and limitations of people. People needed to work around the system.

But that’s why video games are so much fun. You aren’t spending all your time trying to work out how to play. Someone’s already spent the time working that out for you. You just start playing.


‘Your princess is in another castle’ humour

What makes something funny? It’s when we expect an outcome but are surprised by an alternative. Video games are often surprising and have a good sense of humour.

Super Mario has various castles to conquer and when you reach the end, you are informed, ‘The princess is in another castle.’ The anti-climax is amusing and triggered many kids to scream and laugh at the television with frustration. Get to the end of the entire game and the princess says ‘…but our princess is in another castle…just kidding.’The developers had fun making this and have designed it so you will have fun too.

In workplaces, we are careful to strip out the jokes and humour from the products and solutions we develop. Sure, we make jokes along the way and have fun. But why do we want to sanitise our documents, systems and surroundings from good old fashioned fun? When was the last time you read a communication from an executive or CEO that wasn’t carefully crafted and devoid of any humour?

Gamification re-introduced some of these ‘fun’ elements to work. When it is done well, the fun and gaming elements are integrated seamlessly. When it’s done badly, it results in gimmicky trophies, medals and scores being slapped on a dashboard. As with any workplace initiative, gamification also needs a lot of attention and effort to make it work. Humour can be a part of a solution. It just needs to be done well.


Pokemon Go…back to work

I’ve never really liked the term work-life balance. It implies work is something we have to do so we can enjoy our real lives.

People like to quarantine fun and work. Video games are fun and need to be limited. Growing up, we had time limits on how long we could play a game. After all, the game was robbing my time that could have been better spent on more important stuff like exercise and school. Who would have thought that as an adult I would be able to use and apply all those wasted hours on Super Mario?

Today, I’ve noticed the same fear of smart phones and tablets. There was the probably the same fear of television and no doubt radios and story books. Recently, there was world-wide enthusiasm as well as condemnation of Pokemon Go. Although I didn’t jump on either bandwagon my only thought on it was the eight-year-old in me—‘That looks like fun.’

Meanwhile, I watch as my daughters learn from YouTube and effortlessly navigate their Ipad. They’ve learned to create incredible playdough, beautiful artwork and craft from the online media.

Like video games, I’m not so fearful that they are wasting their time. I am more curious as to how all of these amazing technologies will be further integrated into our lives in the future. My eldest has already started to ask me to show her how to create drawings using the computer.

The technology isn’t a distraction. It’s progress.

Thank you for reading this blog but my insights are in another castle…just kidding.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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