Luck be a blue shell tonight.
This article, originally posted on March 29, 2019, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.
Since its pre-video game years as a Japanese playing-card company, Nintendo has designed games that combine strategy, competition, and luck. This mixture takes competition-centric pressure off players, making the game less about winning and more about having fun.
Franchises like Mario Party, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Bros. are designed to put advanced players and novices on a more equal footing. These games are easy to pick up and understand, can be played alone or with others, and have high replay value.
However, some players rebel against luck in video games, arguing that skill and technical prowess should be the ultimate arbitrators of who wins or loses. They see games as a meritocracy and view luck as punishing some players for being good, while unjustly rewarding other players who didn’t put in the time and effort to improve. But for many Nintendo games, the focus on competition isn’t the point.
Dr. Nicholas Bowman is an associate professor at the Interaction Lab at West Virginia University. He researches interactivity and media psychology, analyzing how people react to media on screens. Bowman says Nintendo games such as Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros. use elements of luck to downplay cognitive aspects of gaming (strategy, reflexes, choosing what button to push at the right time, etc.) to enhance the social experience of playing.
"In some ways, they take after board games, which always have that element of luck, whether you are playing Monopoly or even something like Dungeon and Dragons," Bowman explained. "No matter how good you are, you still have to roll the dice."
What Nintendo knows is that an important part of having fun is those around you also having fun. Adding dice rolls to Mario Party, or items based on your place in a Mario Kart race, or stage obstacles to Super Smash Bros. creates an element of surprise that makes each playthrough unique and offers novice players a chance to win. Bowman argues that these Nintendo games are meant to allow players of varying experience levels to have fun playing against each other.
"You know that if you had five friends come over, and they never touched a video game in their life, you could have them play one of those games and they'd be fine," Bowman continued. "But the most important thing is they think they have a chance of winning."
Bowman also studies video games and nostalgia, and said the ease and casual nature of these Mario multiplayer games facilitates greater levels of social connection.
"What you find out is people aren't nostalgic for the game itself, but the game reminds them of the people they were around when playing it," Bowman said. "Putting Smash Bros. on 100 lives is ridiculous--unless you want to spend hours with your buddies--then it's awesome. The things that are most nostalgic are things that have these social connections with them."
But many casual gamers, for whom competition isn't a big motivator, often feel the broader gaming community looks down on those in it for the "play." In his book, "The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games," Dr. Christopher Paul is critical of the ways in which gaming culture has come to over-emphasize meritocracy at the expense of enjoyment. He writes that, as games became more popular and the community sought to carve out space as a legitimate sport, gaming culture uncritically accepted the idea that "success in video games is something that is properly earned by players through effort and labor."
Paul, an assistant professor at Seattle University, argues that this thinking and other cultural assumptions underlie toxic in-group versus out-group dichotomies of who gets to be called a "real" gamer. Those who accept this framework are likely to think luck has no place in a game, because randomness erases complete control and makes the game "unfair."
The logic goes that if a game is easy to learn, it takes less skill and less time to learn that skill; therefore it isn't a good or fun game, and those who play games like Mario Kart or Party are not serious about gaming or are "not real gamers." If luck makes it so that "anyone" can win, why play the game?
Super Smash Bros. is the traditionally considered the most skill-based of the Nintendo games previously mentioned; there are tournaments such as EVO, where items and certain stages are banned in order make the battles solely about skill. Mario Kart, meanwhile, has gotten some of the worst flack, mainly for what critics feel is the unfairness of the "blue shell." Many advanced gamers are critical of Mario Party, seeing it as too random, as opposed to being a genuine test of skill.
These critiques are indicative of what many more advanced gamers feel about Mario spin-offs, but also highlight that they are likely conflating skill, competition, and technical mastery on one hand, and "fun" on the other. Not being able to see the value of games like Mario Party is overlooking and diminishing the social intent behind them.
The rationale behind critiques of these multiplayer Mario games can be a bit contradictory. The stigma placed on luck or randomness is often at odds with how unexpected moments in games are often the most enjoyable. If you flip through Fortnite highlights on Youtube or Twitch, a constant thread is moments where players, even professional ones, get lucky. It doesn't mean these players didn't have skill, but shooting an opponent from a distance so far that you can barely see them is as lucky as hitting the first place driver with a red shell right before they cross the finish line.
Also, some gamers defend gaming as a sacred space of competition in ways they would find unacceptable in more traditional sports. If you and your friends went to shoot some hoops, and someone came over to say what you all were doing wasn't "real basketball," what would your reaction be? So why do we do this--either implicitly or explicitly--in the gaming community? Bowman thinks sometimes our competitive drive can bring out the best and the worst in us.
"Most people don't realize, it's not the in-group that's dangerous, it's once you start calling other people out-group," he said. "It's okay to be proud of who you are or the time you put in, but when that means other people who aren't you can't be proud, that's a problem."
What may be overlooked is the fact that the chance and probability elements of these games are meant to alter and augment player strategy, not diminish it.
There are scenarios in Mario Kart games where the best position to be in is second place, but if you are in first, you may want to hold on to a Super Horn to neutralize attacks from possible red and blue shells. After a few times playing Smash Bros. games, you understand how going after items is both an opportunity and a distraction. The randomness of their appearances forces players to constantly adjust their strategy and to see offense and defense as simultaneous choices, not separate ones. In Super Mario Party, players can take a risk and roll their special dice to move around the board faster, but also have to account for the probability that buying a star can help an opponent as well, since it moves the Star Space to another place.
Good players learn how to not only navigate the balancing elements of these games, but use them to their advantage. But while these games use chance as a way to even the odds a bit, they don't overcorrect to the point where skill and strategy are no longer vital.
For example, being good at mini-games gives you a big advantage in Mario Party. Anyone who has played Smash knows that the random item appearances or the obstacles on different stages aren't going to help a novice opponent who doesn't know how to block and dodge, or who hasn't learned how to overcome edge guarding. Mario Kart's director and producer Hideki Konno previously noted that Nintendo wanted an experience where "everyone was in it until the end," but the "best" player is still going to win most of the time--like they would in pretty much any other game.
On its website, Nintendo's marketing for the Switch includes phrases like "keep the focus on fun," "connect and make memories," and "something for everyone." These Nintendo favorites don't eliminate the incentives for mastery or autonomy, but they do place a premium on social interaction. Nintendo designs its games for families and those who want to have fun social experiences.
Skill and technical prowess will always be a key aspect of gaming. Wanting to win isn't an inherently bad thing. But adding a little bit of luck can make each playthrough unique and give players of different skill levels a chance to compete--all of which place more emphasis on the "fun" and not the "win."