The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Mark Rober | TEDxPenn

The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Mark Rober | TEDxPenn

October 12, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Jeesun Youn
Reviewer: Lisa Thompson 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. Fifty thousand 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. [Please try again.] However, in the other version, if you hit Run and again
you weren’t successful, we showed this slightly different message, 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. (Laughter) 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%. 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. (Laughter) 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. (Power up sound effect) (Laughter) 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. (Video) (Screaming) (Audience) (Laughter) (On stage) Mark Rober:
Or maybe this snowball machine gun. (Video) MR: Ha, ha, ha. Yes! (On stage) MR: Fashioned
from a leaf blower. (Audience) (Laughter) That’s my niece. Those are my nephews. (Laughter) I haven’t quite figured it out, but when it comes to me, their uncle,
they seem to have some trust issues. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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. (Applause) 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.” And this concept of life gamification is more than just, like,
“Have a positive attitude” or “Never give up” because those sort of imply you’re having to endure
against your true desire to quit. I feel like when you frame a challenge
or a learning process in the way I’m describing, you actually want to do it. It feels natural to ignore
the failures and try again, in the same way a toddler will want
to get up and try and walk again or in the same way you want
to keep playing Super Mario Bros. or in the same way the group on the right
had a desire to stick with that puzzle two and a half times longer. They weren’t getting paid to do that. Nobody was forcing them or watching them. It was just them on their computer,
alone in their house. Their outlook made it so they
wanted to keep trying and learning. The icing on the cake for the dartboard was I took it on Jimmy Kimmel
and challenged him to a game of darts. I’ll just set this clip up
by saying two things. The first is we also
had a mode on the board where if your buddy had it
and threw a dart, the board would move the other way. (Laughter) And the second is that we couldn’t get
this thing working during rehearsal, and it was just barely
kind of creeping along. I get up to stand in the elevator, which is the door that moves up
before you go down out on stage. I look to the right,
all six cameras had failed. So my buddy John is feverishly,
like, restarting all the cameras as I’m going out onto stage knowing this,
and there’s, like, four things and bits, and I work up to the dartboard
as the sort of grand finale. So just keep that in mind
as this clip starts. Like, that’s where my headspace is. Three freaking years,
and it comes down to this moment. (Video) MR: What you’re going to do
is give this dart to your buddy, and you’re going to challenge him
just to, like, hit the board. Jimmy Kimmel: Just try
to hit the board. OK. Alright. (Laughter) MR: Alright, hot shot. Double or nothing? JK: Alright, yeah, yeah, alright. Ready? (Laughter) OK. MR: Alright. And so, then I step up here.
JK: This does this automatically? MR: That’s right.
JK: And you built this? MR: That’s right. I step up. Here we go. (Cheers) (Applause) (On stage) MR: Fake it till you make it. (Laughter) I will say, in all of our testing, literally, we never
had a dead-center bullseye as much as that one right there. So, like, after that,
I haven’t even touched the board since. I’m like, “I’m so done with it.” (Laughter) And I really believe that if you reframe,
like, the challenges, it can make all the difference. I have a simple thought experiment
to sort of showcase this. Let’s say I gave you a test and it had instructions on it
that you would carry out, and to do that, it had
sort of buttons like this. And the instructions would say something
like, “Push button 3 for 5 seconds” and then, “Push button 6 for 1 second,” then, “Push buttons 3 and 5
for 6 seconds,” and so on. And unless you carried out
the instructions on page one exactly, you couldn’t see
the other 32 pages of the test. How much would I have to pay you
to take that test for an hour? Now suppose I change
the word “test” here to “game,” and I rotated this, and for the input device,
I shrunk the buttons and moved them here, and I gave it a cool paint job and maybe different button styles. And then instead of using words, I represented the tasks you needed
to accomplish visually like this. Note the output is the exact same: you have to push these buttons
in a very specific manner to move on to the next page
or level, as it were. Now picture it’s 1986. How much would you pay me
to take this test just for an hour? If you have a very bad imagination,
here’s a hint to the right answer. I know. I was there. (Video) Boy: Nintendo! (Crying) Oh, Dad, thank you. Thank you! Dad: Don’t come and hug me,
go play with it! Boy: (Crying) (Audience) (Laughter) (On stage) MR: That has to be
the greatest YouTube clip of all time. (Laughter) So, as a science YouTuber, sometimes I feel people
have framed the act of learning science in a negative way. It’s been taught poorly,
so it feels scary to them. It feels something more like this. And my approach is to take the same
physics lessons you might have hated and to try and sort of trick you into learning something
through something cool: basically to go from this to this. So for example, in this video,
I made a hot tub with liquefied sand. And this is another one of my nephews
with unexplained trust issues. (Laughter) I explain in the video
that it’s a fluidized bed, and then we talk
about the principle of buoyancy and how it makes the whole thing work, and I use several examples, like, you know, the blow-dryer
with a ping-pong ball like this. I like to think my approach to science is
similar to Velociraptor hunting patterns. So, I get people to come in with something
cool and amazing like the sand hot tub, and then when they least expect it – (Video) (Music) (Growling) Robert Muldoon: Clever girl. (On stage) MR: Admittedly,
the analogy breaks down a little bit right there at the end. But by reframing the learning process
and focusing on the cool end goal, the fear of failure
is often taken off the table, and learning just comes more naturally. I’ll close with this thought. Someone came up with this cartoon,
and I totally love it. This is so true, but often in life we tell ourselves
that the top version is what we want; that’s what we expect. But then something happens. Maybe it’s a really bad grade on a test or a meeting with a client
that goes horribly wrong. Maybe it’s a bad breakup. Maybe we miss a wide-open shot. Some kind of green shell hits you. And so, at that first setback
or sign of failure, doubt creeps in. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough
or we’re not smart enough. And yet, if the bottom rectangle here
is a game where now your bikes crash and you have to get your bike
across to the flag, it’s not, “Oh, I hit these rocks.
I’m just going to leave my bike here. I’m not good enough,”
and you quit and walk away. You see that flag to the right, and you’re like,
“Nah, what did I just learn? OK, next time, I’m going
to come out with more speed and lift the front of my bike up.” You want to try it again. You’re immediately excited
to go for it again. We sort of tell ourselves we want our life’s challenges
to look like the top one, but that’s boring. If that were a real video game
or a book or a movie and that went out to the market, it would be a total failure. Nobody would buy it. Where’s the risk and the reward?
Where’s the challenge? There’s no feeling of satisfaction. The bottom picture is real life,
and that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Think about anything
that means anything to you in life, whether it’s a degree, a relationship with a friend
or someone in your family, maybe a professional accomplishment. I can guarantee you it came
from something that looks like the bottom and not the top: failing and failing and failing
and eventually succeeding to the point that it now holds value, just like the most meaningful high-fives
of my adolescence were those when I said, “Dude, I finally beat Bowser last night.” I feel like a lot
of the successes in my life have come down to the Super Mario Effect, and while framing challenges
like this has worked for me, of course, results may vary. Everyone is going to be different, and I don’t know exactly what it
looks like for you to take this principle and map it into your life. But if we got these very real results from a very different cross-section
of very unique people, clearly I’m not alone. There’s some universal
principle at play here. By shifting your focus to the princess and treating your life’s challenges
like video games, you can trick your brain
and actually learn more and see more success. Thank you. (Applause)