Why I Choose to Kill Goombas

Tom Mc Shea explores how the smallest choices can have the biggest impact on our experiences.


My fiancee does not play video games. Wait, let me amend that. Without a plastic guitar in her hand or high-tech camera tracking her movements, my fiancee does not play video games. But she is an open-minded woman, eager to learn about my favorite pastime, so I've been slowly introducing her to the breadth of what this incredible medium is capable of. Why is this important? Because I realized while we played Thirty Flights of Loving together how the little, seemingly insignificant choices we make during our play time greatly affect how we see the game, and, in some ways, how we view ourselves.

In Thirty Flights of Loving, the basic mechanics are so simple that it feels more like an interactive story than a proper game. One of the only things you can actually do is pick up objects in the environment. Eager to interact with the game the only way she knew how, my fiancee stashed away every object that wasn't bolted down. She scooped up stray bottles, loose bullets, and random guns whenever she found a new cache. After a few minutes of this, she admitted, "I wish I didn't have to pick all this stuff up." Like so many of us, she didn't even realize that she was making a decision every time the E prompt appeared onscreen and that her choice was shaping how she viewed the world. The protagonist transformed from a thoughtful bank robber to a kleptomaniac who couldn't keep his sticky hands in his pockets.

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A burglar's paradise.

Normally, when we think about moral choice in video games, we imagine the dialogue trees that populate role-playing games from developers such as BioWare. And though this obvious way that we affect the outcome of events is certainly important, its inherent limitations are impossible to ignore. Video games are, after all, about the act of playing, so making important decisions away from the core gameplay feels as if we're reading a "choose your own adventure" book in between bouts of unabashed carnage.

What's so interesting about games is that seemingly innocuous situations continually arise without trumpets blaring in our ears to herald the approach of a poignant decision. It takes no more than a second before Super Mario Bros. presents a situation in which the fate of an innocent life is thrust into the hands of a pasta-filled plumber. We know this scene incredibly well. Mario walks forward a few steps, a slow-moving goomba lumbers onto the screen, and we react instinctively. Do we leap over the mild-mannered beast, collecting coins and bashing bricks as we hurtle toward the exit? Or do we rise above the meager threat, casting down a shadow that momentarily blots out the sun, before we squish the poor goomba flat?

From a game design standpoint, this tableau teaches us how to play one of the first platformers ever created. Run forward without tapping any of the buttons, and you meet your untimely end to the lowly enemy inching toward you. On your second life, you learn to jump over danger, and that simple lesson carries forth for the remainder of the game, telling you how to avoid every obstacle you confront on your way to rescuing Princess Toadstool. But while the design philosophy is readily apparent, the moral quandary is anything but.

Why did I turn Mario into a mouth-foaming, snarling hellbeast of a man instead of the loving plumber that Nintendo presented?

Confession: I always jumped on the goombas. Even though I often had to go out of my way to kill them, and put myself in unnecessary danger as a result, I rarely left enemies alone to live out their days unmolested in the Mushroom Kingdom. For years, I ruthlessly eliminated every crawling thing without questioning what compelled me to do so. There's no tangible reward for felling foes in Super Mario Bros., so why did I turn Mario into a mouth-foaming, snarling hellbeast of a man instead of the loving plumber that Nintendo presented?

The answer is rooted deep within my own psyche. In my day-to-day life, I rarely leave a task unfinished before moving on to my next to-do. And because it would be humiliating and disgraceful to spare a goomba only to have it walk into my backside while contemplating my next leap across a bottomless pit, I had no choice but to kill the darn things before they became a problem. Furthermore, my compulsive need to be right means I often put myself in bad situations when simply accepting another's viewpoint would suffice. Needless to say, the goombas and I disagreed about their place in the world. My innate disposition determined how I interacted with Super Mario Bros., and that scene has been emblematic of how I've played games for my entire life.

Grand Theft Auto relishes moment-to-moment decision making. Fearmongers warn frightened parents that you can murder prostitutes and run down innocent citizens. And though that's certainly true, what they usually ignore is that the choice to commit such atrocities is yours. The beauty of Grand Theft Auto is that it neither condones nor demands such reckless bloodshed. Commit a felony in broad daylight, and the police are on your tail in a flash, which shows that consequences exist even in games that allow you to act out with more violence than you would ever consider in your everyday life.

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But what's most fascinating to me is how my interaction with the franchise has evolved as time has gone by. When Grand Theft Auto III appeared, I reveled in unprovoked carnage. No innocent life was worth sparing, and I spent hours ignoring the storyline so I could bring my wrath to the ignorant masses. I don't want to speak for everyone, but I can explain why I murdered so freely in the safe confines of this digital world. I was no stranger to the occasional dark fantasy, and Grand Theft Auto gave me an avenue to pursue these base desires without any lasting harm.

But all of that changed when Grand Theft Auto IV came out. Its predecessors were so cartoonish, so over-the-top, that even though I was stealing cars and running down people, it felt so disconnected from my own reality that I could convince myself that it was merely video game tomfoolery. But the realistic atmosphere in Grand Theft Auto IV gave me pause. The streets, buildings, cars, and pedestrians were plucked from a city I could seemingly fly to if I wanted, so committing the acts of an insane man made my stomach churn. No longer a freewheeling miscreant willing to kill anyone to fulfill an unholy power fantasy, I obeyed traffic laws and avoided unnecessary bloodshed because anything else made me feel bad about my actions.

There are countless examples of these moral choices. In Okami, did you feed the animals or let them starve? And how does that compare to how you treated beggars in Assassin's Creed? Did you rush to aid your struggling partner in Journey? Or leave your partner behind? These moments have no tangible impact on the games as a whole, but that doesn't matter. It changes how we view these games, and once our instincts are laid bare by these choices, it can reveal a lot about who we are as people. Often more than we'd like to admit.


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Avatar image for blackknight467

Just like life, everything is a choice

Avatar image for vatorus

WTF? Goomba is a derogatory term for Italians, like the n-word for black people. WTF is wrong with you?? It's like having the headline "Why I Choose to Kill Ni***s"

From Urban Dictionary: "Taken from an Italian word meaning friend, the word is mostly used today as insulting term for Italian-Americans. By calling someone a Goomba, you are implying that they have ties to the mafia."

Get ready for a lawsuit

Avatar image for DrizztDark

Wtf is the matter with this guy that wrote this article. Sorry but quite trying to oppose your own opinions cause of how you fill on everyone else. It's fuckin ridiculous.

Avatar image for naryanrobinson

@Suikogaiden 1. If you can't contribute anything then don't reply to me.

2. If you can't understand why then it's not worth explaining.

3. It's not philosophy it's psychology.

Avatar image for Victorious_Fize

Tom, while your mastery of platformers is admirable. I can't help but to advise you on cutting it back a little...

Avatar image for hoppie

I found GTA IV still a little cartoonish to make me regret occasional bouts of homicidal lunacy; running down pedestrians in my Land Cruiser or battering some poor sod to death with a baseball bat was just too much fun, and I think the more 'realistic' physics and tone of the game in some way actually, kinda, worryingly, contributed to that. Ironically however, I think that's a good sign for the game, if those 'activities' weren't fun, the game wouldn't be as good as it is.

The gravity in the game was gained more from the characters and their storylines than the faceless, nameless, characterless human ten pins that littered the streets of Liberty City. I cared what happened to Niko, as I cared what happened to Roman too, or actually almost any other character that R* decided to establish and then, through their writing and cinematic flair, embellish. The average citizen was there just to be part of the backdrop, like the walls that flake and the windows that smash when bullets blaze in and through them the people who wandered around were there to add nothing more than a bit of colour to the real story.

When that changes, when these sprites are given some meaning (where do they live, where are they walking to, where is their family/friends, what is their job and where is their office), then, maybe, I'll feel a little bad about putting them down with a swift swing of my bat. Until then, they're still effectively holographic ghosts, walking from nowhere, to nowhere, only to disappear as soon as Niko turns in the opposite direction and speeds off, as innocent civilians are mowed over during their endless, pointless trek.

Journey however, now, that was a game that made me care. I never left my companion, and always tried to help.

Avatar image for naryanrobinson

There's something that you seem to have both hit on and missed at the same time though Tom.

You actually mentioned that you kill the Goomba's because if you don't, then you have to split your attention between the next jump and the Goomba, in case it walks into your backside again after having left it alone. You would much rather focus your attention on the task at hand than divide it up over previous tasks.

In real life though, if you just accept someone else's opinion, *that* is what lets you put your mind at ease. If you try and force your way into being right you have to split your attention between the task at hand *and* thinking about all the people previously that you might have offended or something, and how that might affect your future interactions with them.

I reckon we're more aware than we think of our solitude when we play single player games, and I think there's an in-built "single player mode" in our brains that gets activated when we're by ourselves, whether we're playing video games or just brushing our teeth.

So it's really quite the opposite.

Avatar image for Giancarlo

@naryanrobinson Whoa. This is some super awesome psychoanalysis.

Avatar image for Tacojoint

i could never kill grunts in halo...... they were too cute

Avatar image for AELG

I dont like killing mudcrabs in Skyrim... I can't kill an inocent fox just because I need their pelt. If i need it, I go to a store and buy it. Same with deers and other animals. I use the "calm" spell on them if they get hostile. About GTAIV, I LOVE phisics in video games, and this GTA with this Endorphin technology, I couldn't held my self... but just as you said, I couldn't ran over too many pedestrians at the same time.. I felt bad for it.

Avatar image for capper64

@AELG I'm the opposite. If I see an animal as I'm walking around Skyrim, I will try and kill it. At the very least, I'll take a few pot shots at it. I love the hunting.

Avatar image for blue_powder

People who don't get this article have never been immersed into a game. If you care about the people and ambient around you in a game, you will instinctively treat them as you do in real life. Unless you're a psychopath, of course.

Avatar image for kamran11

Great article, very thought provoking.

Avatar image for forcefactor13

Congrats, Tom, and nice article.

Avatar image for thereal-15-cent

I usually avoid killing people in GTA and Saints Row. But, if I fail a mission and get screwed by a bad checkpoint system, I get mad and stop caring how many people I run over. I'm always a good guy in Mass Effect, and I was kind of an anti-hero in KOTOR.

Avatar image for DrizztDark

@thereal-15-cent same here. It's hard for me to be the bad guy is most games..

Avatar image for swyg

I felt just as detached from GTA4 as I was from GTA3.

Avatar image for simulacraman

Line up those kittens, and I'll put 'em through the goal posts.

Avatar image for GSyyMega_LoseryyGS

the people of younger ages posting in here aren't mature enough to "get" this article, which is no surprise.

Avatar image for DeKuip

@Mega_Loser So called mature people dont understand that there are people of younger ages that do understand the article. which is no suprise

Avatar image for Runock

After reading this article and giving careful consideration to my thoughts I have decided - I like cola.

Avatar image for flesh19no

Stupid article. Irrelevant

Avatar image for Shelledfade1

wut is this... I don't even..

Avatar image for Lord_Python1049

"I obeyed traffic laws and avoided unnecessary..." Come on Tom, seriously? What's so morally apprehensive about running a red light?

Avatar image for flesh19no

@Lord_Python1049 Think if everyone drived on red lights: Chaos, mayhem. Not so smart, you are...

Avatar image for kamran11

@flesh19no @Lord_Python1049 "drove", I hate being the grammar police but if you are going to call others dumb, as an old rap rhyme goes "check yourself before you wreck yourself".

Avatar image for DeKuip


Who the **** cares about grammar. People who nag about grammar on the internet should get some help. Its not like we are writing a article or a something like that.

We are writing comments on some site so get over it and get a life

Avatar image for Lord_Python1049

Good article anyways!

Avatar image for Nodashi

"...and once our instincts are laid bare by these choices, it can reveal a lot about who we are as people. Often more than we'd like to admit."I completely disagree. You know, my choices in life reflect the fact that I interact with living, sentient beings.Shooting a pixel person, dog or horse means nothing. They don't exist. Unless the game reflect those choices, it also shouldn't have much emotional impact on the player - simply because doing bad things to them should not trigger your empathy reflex. Saying you wouldn't "like to admit" you lack empathy to pixels is simply silly. Why would you have it in the first place?

Avatar image for Falru

@Nodashi The same reason people relate to fictional characters in books, movies, or any other entertainment medium?

Avatar image for Nodashi

@Falru Exactly. Meaning I will only relate to them if the people that made the game take the effort to make me relate. Same with books, movies, etc. Because there's no such thing as (at least sholdn't be) empathy towards a bunch of pixels. Goombas are not characters. And they are not real living beings. So killing them means nothing, nor should it mean. Same for killing the generic soldier in shooters, same for hunting game in red dead redemption. Imho, this article is overthinking something that simply doesn't matter.Mind you, when the caracters ARE well built and you're let into thinking of the caracter like real living beings, not "enemies", things can change, and it can be quite interesting. But cannon fodder? Nah, it's doesn't apply,

Avatar image for modernsocks

Oh, Gamespot, why do this?

Avatar image for nate1222

Admittedly, I'm a goodie-toe-shoes in most games. In KOTOR I'm very much a "Light Side" Jedi. In Oblivion I help people and avoid bloodshed when possible.

My brother, on the other hand, enjoyed behaving like a Sith in KOTOR and KOTOR II. My brother can be a real asshole in a game.

Avatar image for Ortego13

@nate1222 Friend, I can not believe this - the same thing with me. I mean I also played those games trying to be good guy. And my brother usually behave otherwise.

Avatar image for Trenchman

@Ortego13 @nate1222 I have to say I usually play the good guy myself, but my reasons aren't moral. I've been playing games long enough that I'm in the same position with them as I am movies, I can never forget they're not real. i usually play the good guy because it's what benefits me the most in the game. I'll do what will benefit my character the most, not what is the most moral. There are cases where I've actually been affected enough that I can't bring myself to be evil, even if it is what would benefit me, but those situation are few and far between.

Avatar image for Ortego13

@Trenchman Well, I see your point. I personally play good cause of moral condition. But in some games it is kinda easier to be evil like in Fallout 3 ( so I chose this way), but in New Vegas it is more benefitial to be good. And also I was affected by moral once I played Bioshock - I always tryed to save little girls, moreover, it was more beneficial.

Avatar image for starduke

In games, I tend to be a very ruthless nice guy. I'd do quests to help NPCs out, and do the nice guy quests, but if they cross me I BLEEPING kill them!

Of course, in Skyrim, I wasn't such a nice guy, since I joined the Dark Brotherhood. Same with Dishonored, I'm doing the nice guy help people out quests, but at the same time I'm slaughtering all the guards and killing the targets. I do like being an assassin.

Avatar image for Zheph

The first game I played that I can recall gave me choices such as these (beyond 'to kill the Goomba or not') was Driver. I'm guilty of enjoying going the speed limit more than recklessly driving around the city.

Avatar image for deviant74

I love to save the game. Then let loose hell in the sand box. I'm think a smart developer should know people are going to do this and give them a morale choice by giving them something that makes you want to just keep playing from there instead of go back to the save point. Maybe like the dark brother hood quest in Skyrim.

Avatar image for xdrmonkeyfishx

Great read Tom. Personally, I find it hard to kill innocents in games, or to acquire negative karma in Fallout or renegade points in ME. I think that games that are a little more realistic in their portrayal of people and actually give us choices with consequences make us a little more hesitant to mindlessly murder everyone. It depends a lot on the person. That being said, slaughtering raiders or killing zombies is a great stress release

Avatar image for KillaGinjaNinja

Excellent article. Too bad editors and journalists of the non-virtual news aren't as insightful

Avatar image for kazumashadow

Great article, sure made me think.

Avatar image for Longini

"Furthermore, my compulsive need to be right means I often put myself in bad situations when simply accepting another's viewpoint would suffice." Hahaha awesome.

Great article, I've been playing back and forth between Dragon Age Origins and Super Mario Galaxy so this article is pretty relevant to me right now in both the obvious and not-so-obvious moral choices. Also looking forward to playing Okami for the first time in a couple weeks when the HD version comes out.

Avatar image for TheIfym20

I always play the good guy first then I kill everything through the second play through to see what will happen.

Avatar image for lurkero

For all we know Mario is releasing Goomba spirits to Goomba heaven. All they do is stop and disappear.

Avatar image for oldschoolvandal

I completely understand.

The first time I played Bioshock I've harvested most little sisters mercilessly and I never thought or exitated about it....on my second playthrough I had fathered a little girl a two months back and just could not do it...

At that point and based on my real life experience I realized that games could go beyond my TV screen and were directly linked to me and my life.... to the point where one changed what I thought was cool or acceptable in the other.

Avatar image for nate1222


Being an uncle of 3 nieces and a nephew (I'm 36), I'm alot like that.

When I play Castlevania Portrait of Ruin (DS), and play through as Richter, I don't like using Maria (his partner) -as she is a 12 year old girl. Just the idea of placing a child in harms way bothers me. I know it's just a game with fictional characters and all, but I just don't like doing it. So, if I play as Richter, I only use Maria in the least threatening areas and only when neccessary.

Avatar image for SkamArtist

I find the decisions that you make in games is no different than people posting hiding behind a screen name. As a character in a video game it's like putting on a mask. You tend to behave in a way that you would never do in real life. It's the same when posting comments on a forum. There is sense of personal detachment that makes you feel that it's okay to act a certain way because there are no real world consequences associated with those actions. On a side note,randomly killing people in GTA IV is such a stress reliever for me.

Avatar image for PrpleTrtleBuBum

@SkamArtist As a person who always uses different masks in games (sometimes I help, sometimes I cause chaos), I can't help but feel that this article is overanalyzing. I usually play games to have fun and try out everything the devs have put in there. Playing through Mario while avoiding all contact isn't very fun.

But speaking of the topic I'm bothered about how in Mass Effect I'm forced to kill lots and lots of people only to get a choice whether I let someone go or kill him. As much as I'd like to spare him, I feel it's really unfair for the 99 people I killed without choice.

Avatar image for xDeadMarchx

Most gamers are guys - aka, testosterone filled lunatics. We need to stomp and break everything sometimes and it is far better that we do that in a game than in life.

On the topic of freud, I heard a story about a christian who denied his anger and any kind of evil thoughts until one day he crushed a baby chick in his dreams. These kind of feelings must have an outlet or they will create one, best not deny them, but instead control them.