Every Saturday morning I wake up at 5.30am to the croaky sound of my three-year-old son. He always says the same thing. It’s Groundhog Day. Only instead of an alarm clock, it’s a barely hatched human being delivering the pain.
“Daddy, I want to go downstairs.”
Every goddamn time.
Just typing these words makes me shudder.
It’s hardwired to my brain. I’m looking at these words. I’m curled up, eyes crusted, body screaming. 10 more minutes. Just 10 goddamn more minutes.
“DADDY WAKE UP. I WANT TO PLAY MARIO ON THE BIG TEEDEE.”
Children are creatures of habit.
My child is a creature of habit at least. Every morning he wakes up at the same time and requests the same shit. He wants Weetbix for breakfast. He wants it to be ‘nice’. ‘Nice’ means popping it in the microwave, so that it isn’t cold, but not too hot either. ‘Nice’ means adding a little bit of maple syrup. He’s also “COLD DADDY”, so I need to wrap a blanket on him while he eats.
I do all this in complete autopilot as the sun rises. In my scants, half-shut knife, eyes barely open, squinting at the sun, which has only just risen because for Christ’s sake it’s 5.45am on a Saturday and what the hell am I doing in my underwear, feet on the cold floor making Weetbix for this tiny little sociopath who shows no mercy at any point ever.
Parenthood certainly is an interesting life stage.
After the Weetbix comes the Mario.
Mario. On the big teedee.
Teedee means TV. Mario means Super Mario 3D World, which my son plays religiously, endlessly, to the exclusion of all other video games. I am here to tell you something shocking: my most played game of 2016 is Super Mario 3D World and it is not even close.
But it’s weird, I have learned a lot about video games from my three-year-old son who loves Super Mario 3D World more than I love any non-sentient object in this universe. Some of it is actually interesting.
The way children consume things is otherworldly. You or I -- adult people -- are content to play or watch something once – two or three times if we’re big fans. But there’s a diminishing return here. You don’t get the same pleasure the third or fourth time. At the very least it’s a different experience.
Children are different. Children are like a goddamn etch-a-sketch. A pure miracle. They are living the dream. They can watch the same movie endlessly and they can play the same video game until every single second of the experience is rote. Somehow, they will enjoy this. Frequently, they’ll drag their parents along for the ride.
Which is painful as all hell. Adults, we seek out new experiences. Children couldn’t give a fuck. All children care about is mastery. It makes total sense. Put yourself in their position. You spend every single waking second being told what to eat, what to wear, where to go and when to sleep.
Then you get this video game. All of a sudden you are the master of your own destiny, you are the king of this digital domain. The sheer power Children must feel in these universes, with their clear rulesets, and comforting, unchanging worlds. The more they play, the more sense it makes, the more fun it becomes.
And they play over and over and over again.
I must have run through the first level of Super Mario 3D World… Man, I couldn’t even count. But it’d have to be at least 200 times. At least.
“Daddy I found secret.”
I don’t know how he did it but, on like the 80th run through of this goddamn opening level, my son found an area I’d never seen before. I lost my shit. I couldn’t believe it. We’d played this level so many times. So. Many. Times. Yet I’d never seen this. He found it, without my help, possibly on his own and he wanted to show me.
Now, every time we play that level: “Daddy, you didn’t know about this secret.”
My son understands the first level of Super Mario 3D World better than I know any virtual video game space ever conceived.
But it’s the way my son plays Super Mario 3D World that’s intriguing.
I truly don’t think he understands the linear progression of video games and how that’s supposed to work. He doesn’t move from world 1, to world 8 in sequential order. He doesn’t defeat Bowser, dust his hands and say, ‘job well done’.
No. He just wanders on a whim, jumps into levels casually. Switches randomly between worlds. If he wants to use the cat power-up, he jumps in a level he knows has the cat power-up. If he wants to be ‘fireman Mario’ he selects a level that features the Fire Flower.
To my son, Super Mario 3D World is simply a multi-faceted, endlessly malleable toy to be experimented with. It’s not an experience to mindlessly plow through. I think on some level I admire that, even if I don’t share his enthusiasm.
It’s weird. I’ve learned so much about Super Mario 3D World. In that time I’ve gone from quietly resenting its lack of ambition to admiring its commitment to multiplayer. To respecting just how accessible it is, how well-balanced its learning curve is. It’s probably the best children’s game ever made, and one that’s perfectly suited for my situation, as a father looking for a video game to share with his son.
We’ve lived in this world together. Some days it’s trying, but for the most part we’re having a tremendous amount of fun. That’s been a unique experience – seeing video games through his eyes. Removing the need to ‘achieve’ or ‘experience’ and instead just engaging with this toy on its own terms; in a lot of ways it’s forced me to question the reasons I play video games: to be part of the conversation, to engage in a culture, to achieve? Those are all perfectly good reasons to play video games but the original impulse to play -- my son’s reasons for playing – feels far more noble. He plays because it empowers him. He plays because he wants to. He plays because he likes it.