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Why World 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers is the Perfect Example of Backwards Mapping and Lesson Plannin


If you are reading this, then the image you see is familiar and likely tied to some powerful childhood memories.

Super Mario Brothers included an instruction manual, but for the most part we played the game by simply grabbing the controller and exploring. We learned some things about the way the game played, and we died. And died again. And again. We earned a quick Game Over, and started over from the beginning.

If you could, try to recall your first experience with that first level. What were some of the things you discovered? How did your failures ultimately craft your successes?

This may surprise you, but your reactions to this experience were completely by design.

In 2015, Eurogamer.net interviewed Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's legendary producer. Miyamoto is responsible for the creation of many of gaming's most iconic franchises, including Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, and Mario.

Eurogamer focused their interview on the design and development of the first level of the first world of 1985's Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo Entertainment System, colloquially referred to as "World 1-1".

Watching a creator go into such depth regarding design concept is always fascinating, but viewing this interview with a teacher lens allowed a pair of points to really stand out.

It was curious to me how purposeful each little discovery was. Simple mechanics of the game such as "I can't go back from where I came from," or "The weird colored mushrooms are actually good for me," are learned by trial and error. Each piece built onto the next to allow the player to discover the game on their terms.

The second point was a revelation. At about 3:10, Miyamoto was asked at what point in the game's development was World 1-1 designed. Whereas many assume it was near the beginning, Miyamoto informs us "We built everything else first, then created World 1-1 last."

The explanation: We couldn't build this type of level without knowing exactly what we wanted players had to do to be successful.

What does this mean for teaching? Too often, the first lesson we plan is the next one. If we apply Miyamoto's approach, tomorrow's lesson can't be planned unless we know what's coming after.

Let's look at what this look like in practice: by the end of a unit, students in 5th Grade may be expected to add/subtract fractions with unlike denominators. Let's break this down backwards. There are two components here: adding with unlike denominators and subtracting with unlike denominators. Students generally need to combine two key ideas to do this:

Any fraction has an unlimited number of equivalent fractions.

Fractions can only be added or subtracted when denominators are common.

In addition, we want to make sure that students have a concept of what a fraction represents: the relationship between a quantity and its whole beyond simply "part/whole".

When planning this lesson, we start there. A brief conversation regarding the meaning of fractions will go a long way in uncovering misconceptions and framing the terms in a shared context, and won't take more than a day or two. Following up with this would be the refinement of equivalency skills, perhaps generating additional strategies for finding equivalent fractions over the course of 2-3 days. At this point, we can introduce the newer idea: that a common denominator is necessary to add/subtract fractions. A simple sort of "Can We Add These Yet?" with pairs of expressions can develop an eye for this before students make the connection:

"If the denominators are not common, how can I MAKE them common?"

With this in mind, I can start planning. Even though the first lesson I'll want to give is the conceptual fraction piece, the first one I'll actually design is the "Can We Add These Yet?" sort. Once I've done this, I'll have an eye on what to include in my "Equivalency Strategies" lesson, and once that is designed, I'll know the major points to include in our conversation regarding basic fraction concepts. Even though the fraction concepts lesson is first, I'll plan it last.

Over 30 years after Super Mario Brothers, Miyamoto's approach to level design serves as the foundation for video game designers throughout the industry. Miyamoto himself refers to his design philosophy as "learning through play." The function of this play, however, is intentional and designed to lead players and learners alike in the guided discovery of skills.


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