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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by transcript Verlag September 17, 2020

Playful Work and Laborious Play in Super Mario Maker

  • Mark R. Johnson
From the journal Digital Culture & Society


Super Mario Maker (2015) and its sequel Super Mario Maker 2 (2019) have enabled a near-unprecedented amount of user-created level design, with well over seven million stages created to date by players from around the world. Within this vast library of levels, those built according to “troll” or “kaizo” level design rationales - which expect impressive feats of physical ability, puzzle-solving, psychological deduction, and emotional calm from their players - have become especially infamous and lasting. Drawing on literature around “productive play”, high-difficulty “masocore” game design, and gaming as a craft, this paper examines the playful work required to build and upload levels of this sort, and the laborious play that committed Super Mario Maker Players engage in when actually attempting to play them. In the first case, I study how designers create these sorts of levels, the meticulous attention to detail and the hypothesising about player mental states this requires, and how new norms have been created by these designers which reframe Super Mario Maker play. In the second case, I look at the players of these challenges, the sorts of enjoyment or satisfaction they get from these gruelling levels, the skills required to triumph over them, and the thin line between “good” and “bad” kaizo and troll levels. The analysis particularly focuses on the generation of dialogues between designers and players, and the deep emotional and intellectual appeal of such exchanges. The paper concludes by summarising how Super Mario Maker shows us the motivations to both produce and consume extremely challenging gaming content, and the playful work and laborious play required to construct and enable these experiences.

Published Online: 2020-09-17
Published in Print: 2019-12-01

© 2020 by transcript Verlag

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