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April 10, 2012

Hating the player

Being an adult requires some mischievous dishonesty, but it’s not as fun as Mario.

Super Mario 64 is the greatest video game ever made.

Yeah, I said it. And if you disagree, you’re wrong. If you just spat out your Froot Loops and emitted some angry sounds vaguely resembling the words “ocarina” or “portal,” I humbly request that you grant my statement as fact for the remaining 700–900 words. This can’t be that much of a stretch; who among us really dislikes Mario’s first foray into the third dimension, into a world full of Power Stars and permeable paintings?

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I, someone pushing 20 years old, still play Super Mario 64 from time to time. “Time to time” usually lasts about three hours and comes every couple of weeks. I’ve been playing this game since I was little, so racking up stars and showing Bowser what’s up is nothing new for me, and there’s no longer anything new for me to discover about the gameplay itself.

Why do I continue to play it then? I asked myself this question recently after about 15 people asked me the same, their obvious confused frustration increasing with each query as they watched me throw both my and Mario’s lives away. The first conclusion I reached is no less nerdy and pathetic than you’d expect.

Every now and again on a weekday, when I need a brief break from unending responsibility and being outsmarted repeatedly by pieces of paper, one of the best ways for me to unfetter my mind and un-furrow my brow is to answer the distressed call of Princess Peach. Simply put, I enjoy the immersive, dishonest diversion—the feeling that, when I become the chubby yet freakishly spry plumber, I can escape the often trying realities of my life at the U of C and just be in another world where everything (myself included) kicks ass. Koopa ass, to be precise.

But it’s not quite a mindless diversion. Because I’m so, shall we say, experienced (read: forever alone), I admittedly don’t have to try all that hard anymore to get all 120 stars. What keeps things engaging, though, is merely experiencing the world that the act of playing the game opens up to me. The Mushroom Kingdom and the diverse microcosms its paintings contain are unbelievably deep and nuanced, with its intricate landscapes and seamless interactivity, along with a childish absurdity that sets it apart. It’s an easy universe to get lost in, and I escape to it with some frequency. Lots of games have a similar appeal.

I figured this much out after a recent Mario sesh, when reality set back in: I was a little upset with myself for playing when I could’ve been working, a feeling I imagine is not uncommon in these parts. As much as chemistry can fascinate me, when I moved on to this particular problem set, it didn’t exactly move me in return. It didn’t at all, in fact. Transitioning from the mechanical yet consuming task of chasing down stars one by one to the more unfamiliar endeavor of answering questions about rovibrational spectroscopy (whatever that is) had an upper-then-downer effect on my mind that was too much to bear. Where the game drew me in, my work pushed me away.

This brought me to the other conclusion I reached, one which is, mercifully, not as geekish. Ultimately, I don’t play the game exclusively because I find its world fascinating, but rather because it is fascinating thanks to minimal effort on my part. After all, can I seriously claim in good conscience that some video game has more sheer potential to intrigue me than the field of chemistry? It’s not as if I was forced to take the class. Really, my repeated decisions to play Mario amount to me lying to myself—choosing, in moments of weakness, not to have my mind blown, but instead to have my mind blown as easily as I could.

All of a sudden I found myself saying, “Ajay, if you put half as much into your chemistry assignments as you did into that video game, why, you’d be a regular Einstein.”

The moment I thought this, I sat down and ploughed through my problem set, found the material more accessible and interesting than usual, and I think I became an adult.

The next time I picked up a controller, I really tried, but I couldn’t convince myself that enjoying the game alone was enough to warrant playing it. I felt guilty and quit in a few minutes. I can’t remember the last time that happened, but odds are the alternative I chose then was learning how to tie my shoes or watching the latest episode of Barney. The next time I picked up my chemistry book, on the other hand, I somehow convinced myself not that I had to read it, but that I wanted to read it—that it would interest me—and I think I enjoyed it. Here I was, not only eating my broccoli, but savoring it.

While I will always maintain that Super Mario 64 is the greatest game ever made, I don’t think I’ll be admiring it anymore except from afar. You see, I’m a grown-up now, and I like making responsible decisions—staying on top of my shizz, looking for a job, sleeping early. Sure, maybe this whole acting like an adult thing will be helpful in the long term (and even now), but I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s the lamest form of dishonesty. The longer you can swindle yourself into doing whatever you want, the better. I’ll save you some broccoli in the meantime; it’s just as good as mushrooms, really.

Ajay Batra is a first-year in the College.

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