By Laurel White
Mario, Luigi, and the satisfying chime of collecting a gold coin (“ga-ling!”) in Mushroom World have captivated gamers across the globe for almost 40 years — and a new book from a UW–Madison faculty member seeks to explain why.
The book, “Run and Jump: The Meaning of the 2D Platformer,” published today by MIT Press, explores the legacy of two-dimensional, platform-based games like Super Mario Bros. (and Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, and others) and how the abstract and formal design choices behind those games have kept players coming back for more.
Peter McDonald, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, says he sees the book as an introduction to thinking about video games in a more expansive, meaningful way.
“I wanted to tackle a game genre that’s seen as ‘lowbrow,’” McDonald says. “There are lots of games out there now doing artistic, serious things — platformer games are not seen in that way. But they have been consistently popular since the 1980s. They speak to something about what video games are.”
In general, McDonald’s research explores the ways people interpret play, the design practices that can support critical engagement through play, and the historical contexts of playfulness. In “Run and Jump,” he peels back layers of meaning that game designers and players can create with decisions as seemingly simple as how a character jumps or how an enemy interacts with a main character.
McDonald says one of the unique powers of “2D platformers” is that they give virtual bodies more flexibility than many other games. In platformers, jumps are less hindered by realism. They can even be in what’s called “coyote time” — a split-second sensation familiar to many gamers in which a character is suspended in midair for a moment, having run off a cliff edge but somehow not yet falling.
“Jumping in these games gives you fantasies of being differently embodied and more powerful,” he says.
Through an application of structuralist semiotic theory, which shows how meaning arises through differential relations, McDonald offers insight into how enemies can be uniquely built and understood in platformers. He argues the actions of certain enemies — like the small robot in Mega Man who hides under a shell and shoots at the player’s back — allow a player to construct an ethical universe within the game.
“Players make implicit distinctions about what kinds of things exist, and how they think and feel, in these fictional worlds,” he says.
As a former English teacher, McDonald says these insights about storytelling and engagement could be rich material for educators to cover in lessons about narratives, how they play out, and how they effectively connect with readers.
“Video games can show things that we take for granted when we read a novel,” he says.
McDonald hopes teachers — especially teachers who haven’t felt comfortable speaking the language of video games or felt empowered or inspired to use them in the classroom — seek out the book. He also hopes the game resonates with members of the gaming community who have been long entranced by 2D platformers, but may not have known exactly why.
“For gamers, I hope they start thinking about these games as meaningful things that are telling implicit stories through the way they play,” he said. “For designers, I want them to start seeing the thing they’re making as deeply engaged cultural projects: things that don’t just entertain, but change people’s lives and put forward a version of the world that can be transformative.”
Note for media: McDonald is available for interviews about the book and related subjects. Please contact Laurel White at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.