Dr. Mario, Play, and Composition

I’ve always been better at Dr. Mario than Tetris. You remember Dr. Mario? In a Tetris-like environment, you control a colored pill falling down the screen, trying to align 4 blocks of color in a row to make them disappear:

Here’s the core of the game’s brilliance: there are only 3 colors in the game, so there are only 6 possible pills (red/red, blue/blue, yellow/yellow, and then red/blue, red/yellow, and blue/yellow). In practical terms, that means that things rarely go so wrong that you can’t get out, because one of the colors you need is likely to come up soon.

That’s got me thinking about the role of play when composing. The game’s limited color possibilities encourage you to play around, to take risks. I can set up all kinds of crazy combos (where an unused, falling piece will complete a 4-row set somewhere else) knowing that the combo might not work out the way I expect it to, but that some kind of awesome combo will pull together. All I have to do is set things up with that potentiality in mind, ready to do something awesome with anything that comes my way. In practice, I slam the pieces down in a rough order, like a restaurant cook tending 4 different pots, adding something here, something there, rushing around and loving it.

To me, Tetris feels different. In a Tetris game, I tense up, feeling that there is often no good place to put a piece, making me choose between multiple crappy placements. And that single bad move can ruin an entire game. But in Dr. Mario I feel loose, flexible, able to lay down viruses quickly based on my knowledge of what might come from that placement, while confident that if I’m wrong, something else will serendipitously arise.

So why go into all this? It reminds me of the conversations I’ve had with music composers for my dissertation, how so many describe just sitting down at the keyboard, picking some constraints (d minor and piano and oboe; or in Dr. Mario, two player, medium speed, level 5), and playing around until something emerges. That emergence happens because of practice: I can play around in Dr. Mario because I’ve spent so many hours playing it over the last 20 years, so the potentialities just kind of appear, as a jazz soloist can solo because of his or her familiarity with the scales and with that tune.

But I think for lots of composers–and I’m including writers here, especially unpracticed, student writers–the act of composition feels more like Tetris feels to me. That is, it’s tense, and it feels like everything has to be right the first time, and there’s abso-freaking-lutely no hope that mistakes can be easily fixed up by playfully diving into the future.

This is nothing new, of course. Folks have been encouraging teachers to build on students’ existing literacies as a pathway into learning new literacies for years. This one example makes me wonder what my students can do as well as I can play Dr. Mario, and how/if that metaphor can inspire/teach/guide them to a similar approach to their school compositions.

And deep down, perhaps this is really why I wrote this post: to share my moment of glory, the one time my name was featured in Nintendo Power magazine (issue 24, May 1991). (It’s a wonder what’s out there on this inter-net thing!) I had to take a picture of my achievement (and develop the film, of course) and send it in (through the mail) to prove it.

Scan from Nintendo Power Magazine

Not the best, not the worst--just right



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2 responses to “Dr. Mario, Play, and Composition

  1. Mr. Smith

    I remember this game! I used to be beast at it! Wish I could find a working nintendo so I could play again!

  2. kstedman

    Seriously, it never seems to get old for me. These days I play a lot on the Tetris/Dr. Mario cartridge for Super Nintendo, but I guess a working SNES is just about as rare these days as an NES?

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