The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More: Mark Rober (Transcript)

Mark Rober at TEDxPenn

Following is the full text of YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober’s talk titled “The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More” at TEDxPenn conference.

Mark Rober – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

About a year ago, I asked my YouTube followers to play a simple computer programming puzzle that I made with a buddy.

The object of the puzzle was to get your car across the maze by arranging these code blocks that represent typical computer programming operations, such as if-else statements and while loops.

Once you thought you had a good code, you would hit Run, and your car would move based on the commands you had in the program.

I asked my YouTube followers to play it because I said I wanted to prove that anyone from any background could learn to code. 50,000 of them took the challenge and attempted the puzzle.

But the truth was that I didn’t actually care about proving that anyone could learn to code. What they didn’t know is that we actually randomly served up two slightly different versions of the puzzle.

In one version, if you hit Run and you weren’t successful, you didn’t lose any of your starting 200 points. We showed you this message.

[That didn’t work. Please try again.]

However, in the other version, if you hit Run and again you weren’t successful, we showed this slightly different message:

[That didn’t work. You lost 5 points. You now have 195 points. Please try again.]

…stating that you lost five points from your starting 200 points. That was the only difference.

In one version, if you failed, we simply took away five no-value-in-the-real-world, no-one-will-ever-see-these, completely meaningless, fake internet points.

That minor difference is crucial to keep in mind for the results I’m about to show you from the 50,000 data points we collected.

For those who were penalized for failed attempts, their success rate was around 52%. For those who were not penalized, their success rate was 68%.

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That statistically significant delta of 16% was really surprising and almost seemed too hard to believe until we looked at another piece of data that we collected, which was attempts to solve before finding success. It’s shown in orange right here.

So, those who didn’t see failing in a negative light nearly had two and a half times more attempts to solve the puzzle. As a result, naturally, they saw more success and therefore learned more.

So if you think about that and sort of unpack these results, the trick to learning more and having more success is finding the right way to frame the learning process.

And this observation seemed really profound to me. It made me wonder: What if you just frame the learning process in such a way that you did not concern yourself with failure, how much more successful could you be, how much more could you learn?

The next thought was that if this is a real effect, clearly there must be some evidence for this in real life. It made me think of toddlers. That’s my boy; I helped make that.

They are constantly trying new things, and they certainly aren’t concerned with failure. When my son learned to walk, he didn’t think about how dumb he might look if he fell down, and as his parents, we didn’t punish him if he wasn’t successful either.

The focus was always on the end goal, and we celebrated the successes with him. As a result of constantly failing and trying and discovering new things during that phase of our life, we discover so many more new capabilities within ourselves. And it’s not even close to any other time in our life.

But maybe using a toddler is sort of cheating because their brains are different than ours. To make the case that perhaps they aren’t that different than us, I’d like to tell you about a plumber I first met when I was eight years old. He was Italian.

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When Super Mario Bros. came out, my friends and I became obsessed — like, we wanted to get to the castle and rescue the beautiful Princess Peach from the evil Bowser. We’d get to school and ask each other, “Dude, what level did you make it to? Did you pass the game?”

We never asked each other about details on all the different ways we might have died. When it comes to games like this, no one ever picks up the controller for the first time and then after jumping into a pit thinks, “I am so ashamed; that was such a failure,” and they never want to try again, right?

What really happens is they think, “I’ve got to remember there’s a pit there; next time, I’m going to come out with a little more speed and jump a bit later.”

The focus and the obsession is about beating the game, not how dumb you might look if you get hit by a sliding green shell. And as a direct result of that attitude of learning from but not being focused on the failures, we got really good, and we learned a ton in a very short amount of time.

We were the right side of this graph. This is what I call the Super Mario Effect: focusing on the princess and not the pits to stick with a task and to learn more. This caused me to reflect and realize that there were lots of other examples from my own personal experience where this attitude of life gamification, this Super Mario Effect led to more success and therefore more learning.

I have a science YouTube channel where I will sometimes use my engineering skills to build things such as the world’s largest Super Soaker or the Guinness World Record world’s largest Nerf gun.


Or maybe this snowball machine gun. Ha, ha, ha. Yes!

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Fashioned from a leaf blower. That’s my niece. Those are my nephews. I haven’t quite figured it out, but when it comes to me, their uncle, they seem to have some trust issues.

So, these builds usually take me about two to three months, but there was one that took me three years. Basically, I wanted to make a dartboard where you could get a bullseye every time. The idea was that if you throw a dart, we could track it through the air, and then we’d move the board to sort of catch a bullseye.

And so, once we did the math, we realized that if we wanted to track the dart for a typical, like, game of darts, typical velocity, we would basically have to both track the dart and move the board in the same amount of time it takes for a human to blink once. No big deal, right?

I’m not going to bore you with all the details and the failures and the setbacks from a lot of metaphorical sliding green shells and those pesky Hammerhead Bros. But eventually we figured out it would take something that looks like this, which is six stepper motors and motion controllers, a Vicon motion capture system with six cameras, and just a ton of tweaking and rewriting the code.

But finally, eventually, we arrived here.

What’s interesting is when I look back on that process, like, I can honestly say my attitude towards that was the same attitude I had toward, like, rescuing the princess from Bowser. Like, of course, each failure and setback sucked; it stung.

But it was no different than falling in that pit on Level 8-1, and you’re like, “Argh,” and you got to go back and try again. It was always like, “OK, that sucked, but what did we learn from that? What can we do next for it? Let’s hit it again.”

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