Can Super Mario help you get better grades? Yes, according to Mark Rober, YouTube star and former NASA engineer.
With a premise like this, it’s no surprise that his fifteen minute TEDx Talk, entitled, “The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More,” has earned 2.4 million views.
He begins by sharing data from an experiment he conducted on human behavior. Rober asked his YouTube followers to complete a computer programming puzzle with the premise of wanting to prove anyone could learn to code. When 50,000 followers attempted the puzzle, they didn’t know Rober randomly assigned two different versions of the challenge.
In the first version, if a user was not successful, they didn’t lose any of their starting 200 points and received the message, “That didn’t work. Please try again.” In the second version, the message was, “That didn’t work. You lost 5 points. You now have 195 points. Please try again.” The first group had a 68% success rate, and performed 2.5 more attempts than the second group to solve the puzzle before finding success. The second group, however, had only a 52% success rate, with only five attempts to solve the puzzle before finding success.
For Rober, this illuminated that if you don’t see failing in a negative light, you are more apt to keep trying, see more success, and learn more. As a result, he became interested in the “right way to frame the learning process.”
The Super Mario Effect
Rober conceptualized this as “The Super Mario Effect.” In Super Mario, the learning process is the game and the objective is to save the princess. This is where the focus lies—to learn the game, adapt strategies, navigate better, and try again, all in order to save the princess. In other words, the joy is to beat the game and win; there is no real shame or fear of failure along the way. Rober highlights this by noting he and his friends would excitedly talk about what levels they beat and not about the different ways they might have died.
The Super Mario Effect is explained as “focusing on the Princess and not the pits, to stick with a task and learn more.” How can you apply this to feel less stressed and find more academic success? There are three takeaways you can start using today.
Master the Reframe
The Super Mario Effect is successful because it masters the art of the reframe, a useful strategy for students. With this approach, concepts that have a negative connotation or evoke anxiety are reframed to something less stressful that sparks engagement and curiosity. For example, failure is reframed as learning. It isn’t that you played Super Mario and failed level two— you’re in the process of learning level two with full expectation you will master it in order to move on to level three. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” you will learn to move forward. In the same way, a test, studying, or even a math problem can be reframed as a game to re-envision the task.
Rober suggests this kind of “life gamification” can be extremely helpful. Treating challenges like video games reframes the learning process as something you naturally want to keep engaging with because it’s fun, or because the fear of failure is absent. This makes it a challenge in a positive way, not a negative way. Even reframing a test as a game is a powerful tool, which Rober illustrates when he deconstructs the beloved game of Super Mario into a 32 page test with a set of instructions.
Focus on the Prize
With The Super Mario Effect, the quote, “It’s the journey, not the destination” is turned on its head. Here, it is about the destination. The journey is necessary, but not the focus. The focus is always on the prize. In a game, mastering the game is fun, even when it’s stressful, because it’s a challenge you’re trying to overcome. If it’s a “give your all to win the prize” environment, mistakes along the way don’t become rabbit holes of despair— they are learning opportunities for the next attempt. Rober speaks of how toddlers exemplify this because they are determined to walk and it doesn’t occur to them to give up. They just keep trying.
Focusing on the prize shifts everything, including how you think about and talk about the challenge. Rober notes that The Super Mario Effect is more than using phrases like “have a positive attitude” and “never give up” because these imply “you’re having to endure against your true desire to quit.” In the learning process, other similar phrases might be, “I have to go study” or “I have to go take a test.” However, when challenges are games and you are focused on the prize, the process feels lighter and you feel more empowered. The phrases become, “What worked? What didn’t? What can I learn and do different next time? Let me try again.” By “focusing on the Princess and not the pits,” Rober argues that you can trick your brain into learning more.
Take the Focus Off Failure
The beauty of The Super Mario Effect is that it can free us up from the fear of failure. It is “learning from, but not focus[ing] on, the failures,” where not making it past level one doesn’t mean you give up, it means you learn from what you did wrong and try again.
When you master the reframe and focus on the prize, when a “life gamification” mindset makes it easy to treat challenges like video games, it takes the fear of failure off the table and allows learning to happen naturally. Rober notes that with this approach, you want to engage in the process and it’s natural to ignore failures and try again. In fact, failure and challenges are what make a game interesting and bring satisfaction. Because of them, it is possible to learn more and see more success. Without them, learning and growth would not take place.
Rober remarks that the subject of science is often framed in a negative way because is taught poorly and feels scary. In this kind of environment, failure can feel higher risk and demoralizing, creating anxiety and causing stuck-points along the way, which delays more learning and more success. The Super Mario Effect, though, lightens what can be a heavy load with a friendlier approach. This is great news, as today’s students face more test anxiety and pressure to succeed and may experience anxiety or depression.
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