Last night, for a group of kids at the San Francisco Public Library, Super Mario wasn't just an iconic game character: he was a teacher.
In a rare move for the company, Nintendo partnered with the library to offer a series of lessons about game design, using the Wii U game Super Mario Maker — which lets players craft their own Mario stages and then share them with others online — as a teaching tool. "I think what we saw from launch until now is that there's so much more to Super Mario Maker than just it being a game," says Nintendo's Krysta Yang. "Kids these days really have some incredible choices when it comes to what they can do from an educational perspective, and it seemed to us like the creativity of Super Mario Maker and the ease of creating a level and sharing it could be used in a different way."
"There's so much more to Super Mario Maker than just it being a game."
The event was Nintendo's idea. The game company reached out to the SFPL in particular because it operates a space known as The Mix, where kids can learn about digital tools like film editing or Photoshop. "We chose this library specifically because they really have a big focus on digital learning," Yang says. "We thought it would be great to have Super Mario Maker be a part of that conversation as well."
The event kicked off with an overview of the game and its myriad of tools from an expert at Nintendo's Treehouse group. Those tools allow players to craft levels in the style of classic Mario adventures like SMB3 and Super Mario World, and Mario Maker is one of the few games that uses the Wii U's touchscreen Gamepad to its full potential, letting you drag and drop objects into your level, and then quickly switch from building to playing, so that you can test your creation regularly as you build it.
After the introduction, the children were then split-off into smaller groups, where, alongside a Nintendo rep, they learned in a more hands-on way by building their own level together. This portion lasted around an hour, before wrapping up with an opportunity for everyone to play each other's creations. (If you have the game, you can check out the levels with this code: E02B-0000-020F-B9DA.)
"The path from consumers to creators."
"We want them to learn the basics of level design, and start to think about the strategy and creativity that goes into creating video games," says Yang. "Really give them a glimpse into that using these easy-to-pick-up-and-master tools that are already available in Super Mario Maker." Megan Anderson, youth centers manager at the library, adds that "games like Super Mario Maker allow kids to take control of storytelling elements and game design and encourage them on the path from consumers to creators."
While the initiative is something fairly new for Nintendo, the idea of using games as educational tools is one that's been growing over the last few years. Minecraft, in particular, has become very popular in schools, teaching kids about everything from architecture to coding. Microsoft even announced an education-focused version of the game earlier this year, one that's been customized with schools in mind. Nintendo's offering is limited by comparison, restricted to just the one library — at least for now. The company is non-committal on whether or not this is a one-off event, or a test-run for something bigger, saying that it has "nothing to announce at this time about additional educational initiatives around Super Mario Maker."
Given Mario Maker's streamlined design, which makes building levels about as painless as possible, there's definitely potential for the game to serve as an introduction to the world of game design. Whether or not Nintendo capitalizes on that potential is another thing all together. But at least one thing is clear: Mario is a big upgrade over Clippy.