Thursday, February 16, 2017

Video Games and the Myth of Process


This past December, Nintendo released their first video game for Apple’s iPhone. Curiously, it is about running. Mario Run, a zany side-scrolling game in the Super Mario universe, features the eponymous Mario, the famous overall-wearing plumber, on yet another quest to save his girlfriend, Princess Peach, from the evil turtle-king Bowser.


In Mario Run, the heroic Mario runs... and runs... and runs. You, the player, guide Mario as he dashes through numerous levels filled with pipes, chasms, and creatures that block your way. Unlike other versions of the game franchise, in Mario Run you cannot stop Mario’s forward movement. You can only adjust how he sprints, jumps, and flips his way through each level. Mario always tries to run forward. If he gets stuck at an obstacle that requires a jump, he waves his hands in discombobulated confusion. If he slams into an enemy, he wails in despair as he falls off screen.


Mario’s run after Princess Peach is like something from a Samuel Beckett play.  He simply never stops running. Mario cannot pause, even for a moment. While he might momentarily vault backwards off a wall, the plumber immediately turns his head back to the quest, compelled inexorably forward. “Onwards! Onwards!” he seems to say to himself. It’s like watching the agonies at the end cross country race, when every runner’s face is set in a sneer of self-flagellation toward the finish line.

Mario’s movement is constant, a red blur of unstoppable forward momentum. His is an un-arrested flight, like the Internet videos of crazed parkour athletes in post-Soviet nations. Except rather than sliding through the ruins of failed totalitarian economies, Mario flips, vaults, and sprints through a Technicolor dreamscape of mushroom forests, yellow deserts, and spooky caverns. He careens through dungeons and zooms over clouds. He bounces incessantly over Goombas. Indeed, it is Mario that is the aggressor here, hurdling over his opponents and smashing in the heads of creatures that seem to be otherwise minding their own business. No matter.  Mario is, quite simply, unable to stop running.


When I played Mario Run, the experience felt strangely personal. It wasn’t just that I had grown up playing Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. Indeed, Mario Run is utterly different from its predecessor video games. In the earlier games, the player also guided Mario forward on a quest to save the Princess. But you needed to explore each world, to ponder Mario’s route through a level. Success required ferreting out secrets and discovering secret passages. Sure, there was a count-down timer that forced you to the finish of each level, but the point wasn’t just to win. You were also supposed to have an adventure. It was far removed from the headlong rush of Mario Run.

I realized that the evolution of Mario from red-overalled adventurer, to over-caffeinated super-marathoner, paralleled my own changing relationship with distance running.
When I started running, it was to see what was out there. I ran along neighborhood roads, cutting through the woods of new-growth forests that divided the sprawling suburbs. I was curious what was hiding under and along the trees. I ran out on country lanes. I was not really trying to get anywhere in particular. I ran simply to see were the road went.

Things changed in high school. I became consumed with that deep and laudable goal to become the best possible runner I could possibly be, no matter the cost. It was, like Mario’s run for the elusive princess, my own personal quest.

When you devote yourself to competitive distance running, “process” is important. Indeed, commentary emphasizing “process” over “Big Goals” is everywhere in running coaching and journalism these days. Pay attention to yourself, be mindful of your habits, be aware of your approach to life and your surroundings. Adjust the little things for optimal results. Even good efforts like a PR or strong race, are merely the means to the end of further self-improvement. Only process is important because there is no stopping, not really. There are many finish lines, but a distance runner can always go faster and train better. She can get a bit more sleep and do a bit more core-work. She can push a little bit farther, a little bit harder. Process is the end in itself.

“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit,” the famous sushi chef, Jiro Ono, once said in describing his life’s vocation to prepare the best possible food. “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach for the top… but no one knows where the top is.” All of us, like Mario and Jiro, are constantly striving forward to a destination that is everywhere and nowhere. Process is everything. But only because we are on an endless treadmill of self-overcoming.


“How very bleak,” I thought as I powered down my phone after a bout of running Mario through a veritable genocide of Goombas. Had I become a fleshly facsimile of Mario? Was I so relentless focused on my own improvement that I had stopped enjoying the sport?

These thoughts followed me out the door as I went out for a run. Maybe I need to reclaim a bit of the innocent juvenilia of my youth. A light winter snow flurry picked up as contemplated my interest in the sport. Perhaps I might schedule certain runs as moments of exploration, discovery, and play? Hmm. Scheduling adventure seemed the very antithesis of thing itself.

I had jogged myself into a paradox, a dungeon of my own making. I winced away some snow from my eyes, put my head down, and, like Mario, ran onwards.


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