Gaming and Parenting: Lessons Learned From Super Mario Bros.

A dad shares the lessons video games have taught his son.

My son is five years old and he’s well on his way toward being a gamer. I can’t help but be proud of that fact, although most of your pseudo-intellectual neo-hippie types would probably accuse me of absentee parenting. My experience, though, has been that the time we’ve shared playing games has been of the highest quality.

…playing video games with my son would provide ample opportunity to impart life lessons that should, if taken to heart, stick with him for the rest of his life.

We all know that games develop critical thinking skills and hand/eye coordination. Makes perfect sense, right? But at such a young age, those benefits are negligible. What I didn’t know until I was in the thick of it is that playing video games with my son would provide ample opportunity to impart life lessons that should, if taken to heart, stick with him for the rest of his life.

My first video game console was a NES. Santa left it for me in December of 1985. I was 7. My first games were Duck Hunt and Gyromite. Shortly after the New Year, an odd-looking black box with a red and white mustachioed plumber on the front appeared on my bed. Santa must have forgot a present. Looking back on it, Santa had a warped sense of humor. Super Mario Bros. was—and still is—a brutal platformer.

Up until that point, my gaming had consisted of Oregon Trail on an Apple IIc and Freeway and Kaboom! on my grandmother’s Atari 2600. Super Mario Bros. was a revelation. There were eight distinct worlds?! And I only started with three lives?!?! You can’t be serious, Santa.

But he was.


My son’s first console was a Nintendo 3DS. Sure, he’d gotten a kick out of Doritos Crash Course on Xbox Live and had wiggled a Wii-mote once or twice. But Santa left him his VERY OWN 3DS. It was his. And the first game he ever played was Super Mario Bros. It seems Santa had made sure the 3DS came pre-loaded with a few classics.

Here’s where the life lessons begin.

Super Mario Bros. is not meant for a five-year-old. The game is difficult. And it is very often unforgiving. While games today can occasionally skew towards the brutal (Dark Souls, anyone?) in-game “deaths” generally lead to a quick respawn. And even if they don’t, you always have a save file to fall back on. Not so with Super Mario Bros.. You use up those three lives and you’re done. My son may not have been able to read the ugly white “GAME OVER” on his screen at first, but he knew what it meant.


So after running into that first seemingly-innocuous Goomba about twenty times in a row, he did what any five-year-old would do. He got frustrated and asked for help. Which, I’m proud to say, I was loathe to provide. I explained to my son that in Super Mario Bros., as in life, you need to dust yourself off and keep trying. I was happy to give him hints, tips and pointers.

I explained what mushrooms and flowers did, that super speed was your friend, and why collecting coins was important. Things I had to figure out for myself, by the way. Only after several tries at a level would I take the controls and guide Mario to the flag. Eventually he caught on, but SMB was simply too unforgiving.

Enter New Super Mario Bros. 2.


For a while, I thought I could write a book on why the New Super Mario Bros. series will eventually be blamed for ruining a generation of gamers. I came to realize that’s just the bitter old NES fan in me. When push comes to shove I think the concessions Nintendo has made to modern gaming conventions—frequent save points, tutorials, invincibility suits, easy mode—are good for little kids. But only little kids. Seven and under, tops.

When my son started playing NSMB2, he felt like he could do more, on his own. The looming threat of “GAME OVER” was gone. It was impossible for him not to pick up extra lives (not that he should need them, since he started with FIVE!) and power-ups that made the platforming action easier for his little gaming mind to handle. But it was still difficult. And when he got stuck, the opportunity to impart another lesson arose: cheaters never win. Or so I foolishly thought.


If you die enough times in NSMB2, you’re presented with the opportunity to don a cuddly white tanooki suit that grants you invincibility to all hazards living and environmental. Basically, the only ways to die are to fall in a pit or let time run out. For me, this was anathema. For my son, this was the greatest thing since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Suddenly, he was free to explore. Liberated from his diminutive avatar’s mortality, he began to get creative.Liberated from his diminutive avatar’s mortality, he began to get creative. And really happy. So happy that the words “Dad! I beat the board!” were flying out of his little mouth left and right. I’m convinced that stupid white tanooki suit cemented his love for video games.

I was not amused.

I explained to my son that using the suit wasn’t really playing the game. What fun was it to just blow through every obstacle? Where was the challenge? Where was the sense of satisfaction? It isn’t winning, I told him, if you’re cheating.

“But they gave me the suit, Dad.”

From the mouths of babes.

He’s 100% right. “They” did give him the suit. It wasn’t cheating. Nintendo consciously decided to give inexperienced—or lazy—gamers an out. Like it or not, it is part of the game. I didn’t—and still don’t—like it. My son loves it. He made it all the way to World 5, and slowly but surely stopped using the suit as he played. And then Nintendo dropped the hammer on him: he needed 50 Star Coins to open the next board.

Life Lesson #2: Mario, like life, isn’t always fair.

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  • Reblogged this on Jorda's Blog.

  • I agree that gamers today are very coddled in the modern gaming environment, but I would say we had our little ways to cheat as well, Contra with its up, up, down, down left right, b, a code come to mind, or Nintendo Power printing the code to jump straight to Mike Tyson, or even exploited mistakes such as the Turtle Bounce to get infinite lives in Super Mario Bros. they were always there, they just weren’t served up on a silver tanooki platter.

  • Zack Matzo (@perch15)

    Thanks for the comments guys, and Jorda–thanks for the reblog! I really appreciate it. I agree that we had our cheats. The 99 lives trick was HARD, though. 🙂 The Konami code? Not so much…

  • Sara Clemens

    I’ve had this piece bookmarked for a couple of weeks now. I’m so sorry I didn’t get to it sooner because it’s fantastic. A real gamer’s “back in my day…”

    I’m right there with you, though. I was six when Santa brought me my NES in ’89, and to this day Super Mario Bros. can give me trouble.