Updated: Oct 26, 2020
What's going on everyone?
I decided to shake things up a little bit back in March when there were rumors of schools closing down due to COVID-19. Curriculum didn't really matter anymore (for a few days at least) and I wanted to have a couple of fun lessons to lighten the mood. Obviously for me that meant finding a video game that I could teach to my students. After mulling around a little bit I decided on Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch. Everyone knows Mario and I thought it would be a cool game to bring into my classroom. One thing Mario games have historically done well is capturing the fun/unique qualities of various cultures without degrading into offensive stereotypes. In Super Mario Odyssey we see Mario, an Italian plumber, travel to worlds that borrow cultural aspects from Mexico, Japan, New York, etc. The lesson plan for Super Mario Odyssey is available here.
Media and entertainment are not always successful at depicting various cultures without tapping into some kind of stereotype. While Super Mario Odyssey does dip into some stereotypical aspects of each culture, it is done in a way that never feels offensive. It is fun, enjoyable, and a perfect example to show students appropriate ways to have fun with culture. The Aim for the lesson was "How are we often learning without even realizing someone is teaching us?" (I may need to reword this question as it came off as confusing for sone if my students. They are all immigrants and English Language Learners). My thinking was to analyze how there is a hidden curriculum in life that is constantly educating us and shaping our understanding of different people and cultures. Many of our own assumptions are based on how people are portrayed in popular media, including video games. I wanted my students to observe the various representations of culture in Super Mario Odyssey and then decide for themselves if the game was being respectful or offensive. I also wanted them to think on other examples of how they might be learning in unexpected places.
The lesson comprised of playing through three of the game's levels; The Sand Kingdom Tostarena, the Metro Kingdom New Donk City, and the Bowser Kingdom Bowser’s Castle. Each of the levels are inspired by different real world locations. Tostarena is inspired by various parts of Mexico, New Donk City is a sprawling cityscape modeled after New York City, and Bowser's Castle is heavily influenced by traditional Japanese castle architecture. Each level has characters wearing each culture's respective clothing and music from their respective cultures plays in the background. Its Mario's job to engage with each new culture in order to reach the end of the level. The objective of each level is to collect a certain amount of moons in order to advance to the next world. In some cases Mario needs to perform in a Mariachi band in Tostarena, or attend a jazz fest in New Donk City. Students were given about seven minutes of running around each location and had to document what they observed (i.e clothing, architecture, music, geography, people). Looking at the student samples you can see that several of the students noted how there were yellow taxis, people in professional clothing, and Jazz music in New Donk City. The game is teaching the players something about the culture in New York City, even if these are all somewhat stereotypical aspects of NYC's identity. They also observed lots of desert and Mariachi music in Tostarena (Mexico). Mario even has the option of purchasing and donning a sombrero. Again, somewhat stereotypical, but never offensive.
The notes that students took on the final world of Bowser's Castle included mentions of many colorful castles with lots of red. A number of characters wore traditional looking samurai armor (Karuta) and the music involved lots of taiko drums that made it seem like the characters were in a march or celebration. None of these students found the game to be offensive. They all thought that the game was a fun way to interact with the cultures of different countries. There was one student in the class, however, who had never played a Mario game before and did not know what about existence of Goombas. To clarify, a Goomba is one of Mario's many enemies in the game, that happens to take the form of a mushroom - so she initially assumed the game was portraying Mexican and Japanese people as Goombas! She was happier once the class clarified that Goobmas have a long history in Mario games.
Whenever we engage with a text, I want my students to think about what the author or creator is attempting to teach them. In the case of this game, they noted that the game may be trying to teach us about different countries and different perspectives of culture. It was also fun for them to discuss how culture is represented in different mediums. Super Mario Odyssey is a game developed in Japan that borrows aspects of cultures from around the world. Going back to the Aim, they also started to think about how they are often learning something without even realizing. One student said, "We realize that someone is teaching us later because at the moment we don't think about that. We can realize that we learning something when something the same happen to you and you stop to think like "Oh, I learned this the other day!" This student understood the point of the lesson perfectly (after translating the question into Spanish). There are people out there who have played Super Mario Odyssey, but have never visited Mexico, New York City, or Japan. When they eventually do travel to these destinations, they will already have gained some surface level background knowledge of these places just by having played this game. Visiting places as a tourist offers a very different perspective than that of the locals. Visitors tend to latch on to the more well known aspects of the place they are visiting (like yellow taxis in NYC).
There are a million different choices that go into the creation of a video game which are by and large influenced by aspects of real life that make their way into each game's development. Those involved in the creation of Super Mario Odyssey made very intentional choices to create each level as they did. Recognizing those decisions is an important part of having a critical eye. One of the students brought up that watching movies and TV can have a similar effect. A lot of what we learn comes from the media we consume. That media, however, has always been created by people who have a specific goal in mind. Goals can also have unintentional consequences. The developers of Super Mario Odyssey may claim that their intention was only to create a fun experience, but the sheer nature of placing the players in locations that look like real places has an effect. It may teach someone that NYC is full of yellow taxis, or potentially even accidentally reinforce a negative stereotype that Mexico is all desert. This is that hidden curriculum that is ever present in our lives. Playing a video game is by no means the only way to teach this concept to your students, but it is definitely a fun and engaging method.
Mario is a cultural icon recognized by most people in the world and a video game franchise that many of your students have played at some point in their lives. I can guarantee that a number of them still play each of the newest entries in the series. Because of that, it makes sense to bring the character into your classroom in some capacity. Tap into that prior knowledge of your students. Bringing students' own skills and abilities into the classroom will set them up for success. And in this case, you'll have fostered a conversation on cultural representation in a fun and respectful manner.
Thanks for reading,