I know I’ve been awake too long when I break Super Mario Kart. I’m on the last lap of my first race, but I zone out long enough to start driving in the wrong direction, sending noted savage Luigi on a collision course with Mario, Donkey Kong Jr., and all the rest. The races typically end in two minutes, but the timer ticks up to eight minutes, then nine, then 9:59:99, where it remains fixed as I barrel farther away from my goal. The other drivers should retire to victory lane, but instead they continue to circle the track, either in solidarity or contempt for my plight. I eventually try to stop this bizarre display by reversing course, but the race continues even after I cross the checkered flag one, two, half a dozen times. We just keep driving, me and the cartoon bots, trapped in a purgatory of perpetual motion. “Am I having fun?” I ask myself for the hundredth time that day. It’s 4 a.m., and I’ve been playing Super Nintendo games for 20 hours straight.
I volunteered to review Nintendo’s latest holiday gadget, the Super NES Classic. The device, a follow-up to last year’s miniaturized Nintendo Entertainment System, comes preloaded with nearly two-dozen 16-bit titles, including common greatest-of-all-time nominees like Super Metroid, Final Fantasy III, and Super Mario World. Most of these games are widely available on smartphones, home console digital storefronts, and ROM sites. But Nintendo has made its specific brand of repackaged nostalgia feel essential by matching analog wistfulness with digital convenience. The appeal is not just the bundle of games offered at a relatively affordable price, but also the full restoration of the SNES’s Fisher-Price-from-the-future aesthetic, all the way down to the purple reset button that squeaks when you slide it.
As I remove the SNES from its red-and-black retro-themed box and shuffle it from one palm to the other, I feel a mixture of curiosity and dread. I have agreed to play each of the console’s 21 titles for an hour each and blog about my experience. I’m not sure why I created this challenge for myself–I never even owned an SNES, and I haven’t been especially desperate to revisit the games I’m familiar with. But I’ve been thinking for a long time–years, really–about why I don’t enjoy video games as much as I used to. Did I change, or did they? Maybe immersing myself in some of the most critically acclaimed games of all time will remind me why I first fell in love with them. Perhaps I can make myself have fun.
I made some simple rules for myself to get through the day. I’d play the games in random order, so that the ones at the end of the alphabet wouldn’t automatically be subject to my late-night stupor. I’d get a 15-minute break after every fifth game. And when I finished each hour, I’d jot down the answer to a simple question: Am I having fun?
My marathon starts with the poorly rendered CG graphics of Donkey Kong Country, a fine but unremarkable hour of cartwheeling into alligators. Next comes Star Fox, a vomit of polygons that only vaguely resembles an aerial dogfight but is able to maintain some level of drama in large part thanks to the great music. (The first time my finger itches to hit the SNES power button is when I get a Game Over screen 45 minutes into Star Fox.)
The tranquil pastels of Yoshi’s Island arrive at the perfect moment to give me a vacation from my onerous task. The game, which looks like a coloring book sprung to life, was created as a kind of love letter to the beauty of sprites. It debuted in 1995, the same year Sony’s PlayStation ushered in the 3-D era. Yoshi’s Island was marketed as a sequel to the platforming masterpiece Super Mario World, but it plays more like an adventure game that happens to use jumping as its primary traversal mechanic. Unlike past Mario games, there’s no level timer. Worlds filled with collectible items branch off in a variety of directions, which encourages exploration. And Yoshi’s ability to aim and fire eggs that he poops out (yeah, it’s weird) makes the gameplay more varied than previous outings. The dreamy visuals and leisurely pacing combine in an alchemy that comes so naturally to Nintendo’s best work. The game is really fun.
Why, exactly, is pressing buttons to move a green dinosaur around on a television screen so enjoyable? In addition to force-feeding myself a 21-hour Nintendo binge, I turned to some experts to ask exactly this. For more than a decade, psychologists have been researching what motivates people to play video games. Many in the field now point to a framework known as self-determination theory, which posits that intrinsic motivation is what drives us to engage in all sorts of play, whether that’s in the form of a tropical-themed SNES title or a pickup basketball scrimmage in the local park. No one can make us have fun; we have to want it for ourselves. “Fun itself is kind of a mystery,” said Richard Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester and one of the theorists behind self-determination theory. “For a long time we’ve been interested in the phenomenon of intrinsic motivation. Why people would do any activity that they’re not getting rewards for but they’re doing just because they enjoy the activity.”
One of the key elements of self-determination theory is autonomy, the amount of control a player feels they have over the events unfolding in a game. When I encounter a branching path on an early level of Yoshi’s Island, I’m being granted a certain level of independence, even if both routes wind toward the same goal. Yoshi’s varied skill set also allows for more attack options than just “bop the Goomba on the head.” Even though the game is 2-D, its ambitious scope hints at the “go anywhere, do anything” ethos of open-world gaming that would become the primary aspiration of big-budget games just a year later when Nintendo released Super Mario 64.
Yoshi’s Island is easy to get lost in. Before I know it, an hour has passed and my phone alarm is blaring Outkast’s “Git Up, Git Out” (a song about not wasting your life at home on pointless activities). It’s time for the next game.
Am I having fun? Yes, this is tropical bliss.
If Yoshi’s Island felt like a trip to paradise, Super Castlevania IV is a journey straight to hell. As vampire hunter Simon Belmont, I have to traverse castles and crypts fighting various forms of the undead. Giant skeletons hurl bones at my skull, bats swoop down from all directions, and a roving squadron of floating Medusa heads make progress seemingly impossible. My primary weapon is a whip that doesn’t feel up to the task of taking down these monsters. The game feels not just difficult, but cheap. And since the real world is now an actual nightmare, I don’t much feel like spending an hour combing through the dour bowels of Transylvania. For the first time all day, I want to chuck my new SNES out the window.
But I’m stuck in this universe for 60 whole minutes, so I take a deep breath and focus. Slowly the logic of the game world clicks into place in my mind. My whip is more versatile than I originally thought, able to swing in a circle as a form of crowd control. A boomerang found early in the first level allows me to pick off enemies from afar. The Medusa heads are actually pretty harmless if you walk through their lair rather than try to leap around them. It’s a game that rewards patience rather than aggression.
As I settle into the game’s methodical rhythm, I’m reminded of Bloodborne, the horror hack-and-slash PlayStation 4 adventure. The title, a spiritual successor to the popular Dark Souls franchise, is full of ruthless enemies who don’t have obvious weak points and always punish you for your mistakes. In many modern games, foes serve as fodder to help splice some action into staged set pieces; in Bloodborne, the danger that lurks around every corner seeds the tension that permeates the world. The only way to survive is through mastery. Despite being notoriously difficult, it’s one of the few games I’ve felt motivated to beat in recent years.
Bloodborne and Super Castlevania IV are fun not despite of their difficulty but because of it. The second big ingredient of self-determination theory is competence. We like games that challenge us and make us feel like we’re getting better over time. Games that instill a sense of competence have been shown to boost self-esteem and improve the mood of players, according to a 2006 study published in the psychology journal Motivation and Emotion. A challenge creates internal stakes that bring us back to certain games again and again.
“We love to exercise our capacities and grow and get better at things,” Ryan said. “People are always practicing or doing crossword puzzles or playing sports in their backyard. Why do we do these things? Because we enjoy that feeling of mastery and competence.”
Am I having fun? Yes, once I get into the Dark Souls frame of mind
The third leg of self-determination theory is relatedness, how a game helps us connect with other human beings. Street Fighter II is meant to be played with others, but I’m stuck on this odyssey alone, so my hour with the game is crushingly boring. I preoccupy myself with how baffling it is that such an iconic video game could be this racist. There is a character from India named Dhalsim whose stage is a palace filled with six elephants and a giant portrait of the Hindu god Ganesha. Also, he’s shirtless and wears a necklace of skulls. Also, when he wins he floats cross-legged in mid-air and says things like, “Now you’ve realized the inner mysteries of yoga!”
Am I having fun? Only in the sense that I can now more closely identify with Lupe Fiasco.
I’ve played a bit of Super Mario RPG before. It’s a perfectly pleasant, simple game that has its retro charms. But from the moment I boot it up, I can feel a frustration bubbling up inside of me. I watch Bowser kidnap Princess Peach (who in this game goes by her old-school name “Toadstool”) for the thousandth time. Why doesn’t the Princess get better security? And why the hell is a human woman the reigning monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom, a society most prominently populated by anthropomorphic fungi? And why the fuck would an anthropomorphic mushroom call himself “Toad”? Within 10 minutes my frustration has morphed into irrational anger. Is this the worst game I’ve ever played?
Before my marathon, I asked a bunch of video game reviewers and psychologists exactly how many hours you can game in a day before you’ve sapped all the fun out of the experience. Most wouldn’t hazard a specific guess–every person’s experience is different, and different games encourage various types of play, and other such caveats. But Julie Muncy, a contributing writer for Wired, was willing to throw out a figure, which seems eerily ominous as I suffer through my ninth hour of play with Super Mario RPG. “I kind of think doing anything for about eight hours is the threshold for when it starts feeling awful,” she said.
Am I having fun? For a vanishingly small percentage of time
I thought this was the Mega Man where they finally let you shoot diagonally. It’s not. I scream into the void.
Am I having fun? No, but I appreciate the reference to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in the opening scene.
I know I’m no longer my normal self when I land on planet Zebes at the start of Super Metroid and feel … nothing. This is one of my favorite games in one of my favorite franchises. It’s aged astoundingly well, with airtight controls and a comic-book style that’s cartoonishly menacing. But as I guide Samus through the game’s alien-filled corridors — some recess of my memory instinctually knowing the proper path through the labyrinth — my mind is essentially blank. I’m not bored exactly, but also in no way riveted. I’m just pressing buttons.
Super Metroid hasn’t gotten worse since I last played it a few years ago. I’m just forcing myself to try to enjoy it at the wrong moment, which is a tough trick to play on the human mind. “All of us have a diurnal cycle of energy,” Ryan said. “Across the day we’re gonna have flagging times of energy. A lot of games require concentration and commitment to the game, and that may be mismatched with your energy level at that time. In a marathon, you’re kind of forced to persist anyway.”
If I choose to keep up this extreme gaming habit, it probably won’t be healthy. In a 2009 study titled “Having to Versus Wanting to Play,” researchers examined the differences in what they called “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion” for games. “Harmonious passion for an activity means that the activity is personally important, freely chosen, and in harmony with the other aspects of a person’s life,” the study explains. “In contrast, obsessive passion for an activity is experienced as compelled or driven and leads activities into conflict with other facets of one’s life.”
The researchers surveyed more than 1,300 gamers about their play habits. They found that gamers who exhibited harmonious passion tended to have more energy after gaming sessions and derived greater enjoyment from the games themselves. People who exhibited obsessive passion tended to have increased tension levels after gaming, less enjoyment, and in some cases, lower life satisfaction.
My marathon doesn’t exactly meet the criteria for obsessive passion, Ryan told me, since it’s artificially staged. But as midnight approaches, I’d definitely say my overall life satisfaction is declining.
Am I having fun? Sleep would be fun.
The dullness I felt playing Super Metroid devolved into exhaustion by the time I reach the 15th game in my marathon. This is not a game to play when you’re feeling tired and slow-witted. Stand still at the spawn point of the very first level and you’ll be devoured by zombies within 10 seconds. Side-scroll a little farther to the right and you’ll be swarmed by leaping hyenas, skeletons that spew fireballs, and even more zombies, simultaneously. Not even my knight character’s double jump (which I didn’t realize he had until 10 minutes into play) could help me evade all these hazards. I die within one minute of starting the first level several dozen times, growing more dazed with each failure.
Perhaps if I’d played earlier, maybe right after Super Castlevania IV, I would have had the energy to figure out the enemies’ patterns or use my own weapons in more clever ways. But my intrinsic motivation has been depleted. The fun is gone, so I’m stuck playing a game I despise for 60 minutes. I’ll probably never touch it again.
Am I having fun? Not even for one minute
The piece of my brain that motivates me toward achievement–whether it’s in video games or sports or writing a really great article–has withered away. I have no sense of autonomy, since I’m trapped in the virtual world of Mario Circuit 1, forever circling the track, and in the real world of my living room, waiting for an hour to pass playing this mindless game. I have no sense of competence–I gave up on the race practically the moment it started and am now driving backward. And I don’t have any feelings of relatedness, since I’ve been alone throughout this entire 20-hour ordeal. According to the self-determination theory, there was pretty much no way I was going to have any fun during my Mario Kart hour.
Games are supposed to be fun, but I feel like I’ve traveled so far beyond the notion of enjoyment that I’ve found a different sort of comfort with it. There’s an odd Zen in knowing that for as long as I’m circling this track, nothing else going on in my life matters. Luigi’s quixotic quest to win by racing backward is the real world–the problems sprawling in every direction outside my front doorstep are the silly game.
I wonder if this is what being a gaming “addict” feels like. That’s a loaded term in the psychology world, since it’s unclear when a person’s gaming habit becomes a problem or whether people can form diagnosable behavioral addictions at all (as opposed to chemical addictions to alcohol or drugs). According to Ryan’s research, gamers have been found to suffer damage to their well-being, such as lower vitality and increased anxiety, if they play for more than 20 hours per week.
But he and others caution that the line between harmonious and obsessive play varies from person to person. “We’re still arguing today what is the prevalence of people who have a video game problem,” said Joseph Hilgard, a psychology professor at Illinois State University. “Depending on which paper you read, depending on which researcher you ask, and depending on which definition you’re using, they might say as much as 15 percent of people have a gaming problem, or they might say as little as one half of a percent have a gaming problem. … What we’ve found generally is that it’s less about the raw number of hours people are playing. It’s more about what percentage of their spare time are the games taking up.”
Surely a game can’t be “fun” for 20 hours in a single day. I try to recall my longest gaming sessions that weren’t work-related. I played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker—which I’d been anticipating for years—for so long that my GameCube overheated. The night Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out in 2008, I pulled an all-nighter with my high school friends. Even one morning last winter, I booted up the farming simulator Stardew Valley, and by the time I’d grown tired of milking cows and calculating the crop yields of blueberries, dusk was approaching. Was I really having “fun” the entire time I gorged on these games, or was I being held in some sort of hypnotic state? Experts don’t seem to know yet. “If it’s like other compulsions, [players] may continue doing it, even after they don’t like it anymore,” Hilgard says. “But that’s a big if. There’s not data on that.”
I’m not sure how long I can wring enjoyment out of games each day, but it’s a whole lot less than 21 hours. Pretty much every game I played on the SNES Classic has garnered some level of critical acclaim. These games have all proved fun for millions of people. But what’s fun one day can feel frustrating the next, and the mysterious formula that makes it impossible to put some games down has to do with more than just simple enjoyment.
“[Fun] is not a strong predictor of people staying engaged over time,” Ryan said. “I can find something really fun but not think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something I want to keep repeating over and over.’ So you need more than just the feeling of enjoyment. You also need to think, ‘This is an area where I have skills that I could be increasing or I can see an area for growth,’ or, ‘This is a game I’m going to be able to play with my friends.’ That’s different from simply the idea of fun.” Ultimately I find myself out of motivation for both the games and completing my endless Nintendo sog. I end up cutting my Mario Kart playing time to just 30 minutes, and I half-heartedly trudge through a half hour of the last game on my list, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The nostalgia is there, but the fun is gone. I have to believe that self-moderation will bring it back. Eventually.