Mario’s Philosophical Odyssey
By Edwardo Pérez
I must confess, I have no idea how to play Super Mario Odyssey – other games such as Mario Kart, New Super Mario Bros., and Super Mario 3D World fit my skill level, but Odyssey baffles me. My nine-year-old son, however, mastered it out of the box as if he were Mario himself – confident, brave, and resolved to defeat Bowser and save Peach no matter how strange or difficult the journey. It’s admirable how easily he handles it. And yet, I persist – playing the role of an old man trying to learn a young man’s game.
Is it a vain, meaningless endeavor on my part? Am I doomed to fail? Or, is there something worthwhile in trying to complete the journey? (Something beyond the thrill of a second childhood). Given the state of our world these days, maybe I’m just burying my head in digital sand (which in Odyssey’s Sand Kingdom level is a nice crimson red), afraid to face the strangeness of what has become our daily reality. (Really, how does our current “long national nightmare” end? Will we find our way out of this mess or are we, as Fitzgerald concludes in The Great Gatsby, doomed to “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”?)
Certainly, there’s a parallel not just to Gatsby (Mario searching for Peach; Gatsby longing for Daisy – both seemingly futile quests) but to Homer’s Odyssey, too. Mario as Odysseus is easy to see and his visits to all the strange realms in the game are as fantastical as any of the islands Odysseus encountered. But, given the contemporaneousness of the game, it’s difficult not to view Super Mario Odyssey as representing the absurd trek our nation is on – from Twitter to Facebook to Russia to Porn stars to Nuclear War to Amazon to Fake News to Caravans to whatever breaking news breaks (Trump as Bowser?). And, this is part of my dilemma – can I really justify playing a game while all this is going on? Or, is there something relevant and didactic about Super Mario Odyssey? Am I learning about morality or am I practicing immorality?
Indeed, Super Mario Odyssey is quite different from Nintendo’s previous Mario games, not just visually (which at times is stunning) but also narratively – Mario is alone, his only companion is a hat named Cappy (hence the image of Mario wearing a cap that has eyes). And, this not only makes the game essentially a one player game (if you do two-player mode, the second player is Cappy, but it’s not as much fun, as the intuitiveness and instinctive moves you’d make if you were playing alone is diminished, if not absent) it makes the game an exercise in confused isolation (it’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey sans erstwhile companions, a Lord of the Rings with no fellowship, just Frodo and the ring). Half the time (despite what my son has tried to teach me), I have no idea what I’m doing.
Put another way, the nature of the game reflects the individuality of our world (where I also have no idea what I’m doing more than half the time) – we may be waiting for the “singularity” to show up and usher in a new era of artificial existence, but really, it’s already here (at least in a metaphorical sense), as most of us seem to go about our lives in our own individual universe, living in our own Plato’s Cave (because in a world where most of us don’t really learn how to share anymore, we must have our own designer cave). But, it’s not that we’re unaware of others (it’s not as if everything around us is a reflection of reality projected on a cave wall that we don’t realize is being projected). Rather, it’s that we don’t really care that others exist – and if we do care (to be even more cynical) we care because we want something in return (A nice Ikea Jansjö reading lamp for our cave?).
For Arthur Schopenhauer (a philosopher, I must admit, I don’t often agree with) we do this because “no action can take place without a sufficient motive.” As Schopenhauer sees it, when we take actions that benefit ourselves, we’re being egoistic and such actions can have no moral worth. (So, by this logic, playing any game, perhaps especially alone, is morally worthless – because it’s all just an ego trip). As Schopenhauer states, “if an act is to have moral value, then no egoist object, direct or indirect, near or remote, may be its motive.” So, what does this mean for Mario? Do we consider his winning of coins, stars, and moons as a benefit to him? Or, because Mario has to win coins, stars, and moons in order to unlock levels and realms so that he can ultimately get to Peach, does he really benefit himself?
In Schopenhauer’s logic, we’re essentially always selfish. No matter what reasoning we use to justify our actions, it all eventually comes back as a benefit to ourselves. So, Mario is selfish. However, Schopenhauer observes one exception: compassion. As Schopenhauer defines it, compassion is “the direct participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, in the sufferings of another, leading to sympathetic assistance in the effort to prevent or remove them.” So, when Mario battles Piranha Plants, Bullet Bills, Cheep Cheeps, and other assorted antagonists along the way, he’s removing all these goons to help Peach. So, we could suggest Mario is doing this out of compassion – so he’s not selfish?
For Schopenhauer, compassion is the basis of morality, or, as he frames it in his book, compassion is “The Only True Moral Incentive.” More plainly, just about everything we do lacks moral worth unless we’re doing it for someone else’s benefit. The only way to be moral is to be compassionate. So, if we want to think of Mario as moral, we need to see his actions through a compassionate lens. Otherwise, he’s just as selfish as Bowser.
As Timothy J. Madigan observes, Schopenhauer views life as being united not by religion but by “the realization that life itself consists of endless suffering the through the pursuit of goals which can never be satisfied. This pursuit ultimately results in a meaningless death.” (Which is why I’m not a fan of Schopenhauer). While Schopenhauer concludes that it would be better to not live at all, he at least concedes that since we’re alive we might as well be compassionate – or, as Madigan states, “we at least have a moral obligation to not increase suffering. We must be patient and tolerant, and show charity toward other fellowsuffering beings.”
So, we can only be moral by being compassionate, but being compassionate is nothing more than a moral obligation to not make things worse? Is Schopenhauer right? Is morality reduced to an obligation? And, are we all really selfish, concerned only with things that benefit ourselves? (Go Fund Me?) Is that why Super Mario Odyssey is really just a one player game – because it’s meant to signify the singular, selfish nature of our existence? After all, the whole reason Nintendo made the Switch console (which is what you need to buy in order to play Odyssey) is so that players can have the best of both worlds: a tablet that plugs in to the TV and that you can play on the go (it’s a Wii-U and DS lovechild). But still, tablets aren’t really built for sharing.
Or, maybe Schopenhauer is wrong, at least about compassion being the only basis of morality. Certainly, other moral philosophers (from Aristotle to Kant to Nietzsche) might take issue with Schopenhauer (as much as he does with them). In any case, I see Mario as embodying Schopenhauer’s definition of compassion, doing all he can for Peach because he cares for her at the expense of himself. At the very least, I contend that Mario’s actions are moral, not because he’s acting out of obligation but because he’s acting out of love, which, for Mario, seems unconditional and selfless.
To be clear, we could also analyze Mario through altruism, he’s certainly kind and he’s certainly placing others before himself – he fits this definition, too. Yet, compassion is what seems to drive him to be altruistic, especially if we consider the literal meaning of compassion as “to suffer with.” That’s what Mario is doing, isn’t he? And, because he doesn’t really ever talk, we only know what Mario feels and thinks through his expertly rendered facial expressions (he looks compassionate). He’s not just trying to save Peach (or anyone else) because it’s the morally right thing to do (whether we judge his actions based on kindness, duty, utility, consequence, or obligation) but because it’s the compassionate thing to do. He’s not even really doing it out of sympathy or empathy or virtue, such as with the Greek concept of eudaemonism – Mario doesn’t seem concerned with his actions producing well-being for himself. Rather, Mario’s concerned with the well-being of others. Thus, Mario helps and saves his friends because he’s emotionally invested in them, he cares about them (loves them), he shares their pain, and his concern is palpable, not just in his face but in his resolve.
Even if Mario gets angry (he has a cool angry face), it’s justified because Bowser and Bowser’s gang of thugs are cruel jerks who operate with complete selfish disregard for others. More to the point, Mario’s happiness and anger come from the same place: his compassion. He’s happy when he’s helping them and he’s angry when they’re being harmed – and none of this has anything to do with his own well-being. Nor, does it ever seem selfish or egoistic.
It’s worth noting that Mario isn’t the only current character embracing compassion in our cultural ethos – just look at any of the characters form Marvel’s MCU films and you’ll see portraits of compassion in nearly every scene of every film (perhaps one of the reasons Black Panther is still going strong at the box office has to do with T’Challa’s compassion, which, like Mario’s, taps into a zeitgeist longing for someone to care about more than their Twitter followers).
Of course, compassion is not a new concept. Indeed, the role or purpose of compassion has been debated for quite some time. Ancient Greeks dismissed it in favor of reason (because compassion is too emotional), while Hinduism views compassion as a virtue, with the concept of Daya being the most similar to our Western understanding of compassion. For Hinduism, Daya resembles the Golden Rule, suggesting not just that we treat others as we’d like to be treated, but that we should treat others (friends, enemies, and strangers) as if they were ourselves. In this point of view, all living creatures are one (or parts of a whole) so compassion is simply acknowledging the relationship between all living things, that we’re part of all life and all life is part of us (as T’Challa claims, we’re all “one single tribe”). For Super Mario Odyssey, we’re all part of the journey and the journey is part of us. As the saying goes, it’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination. For Super Mario Odyssey and for Mario himself, it’s about why we’re on the journey.
So, yes, I (foolishly) play on, knowing that beating Bowser and saving Peach isn’t really my goal (it’s not realistic anyway and if it were, then it’d take me about as long as Odysseus took getting home to Penelope and by then Nintendo would come out with a whole other system that I’d have to learn). Rather, my goal is simply to choose to beat on, current be damned, knowing that trying to save my metaphorical “Peach” (and everyone in my life she represents) is all that matters because, as Thor says in Ragnarok, “that’s what heroes (husbands? fathers?) do.”
Ultimately, I think this is what makes Mario so compelling (and what has made his cultural, “everyman” presence so enduring since he first appeared in 1981’s Donkey Kong), he’s the natural hero we all know we can be and not just hope to be – all it takes is a little persistence, some compassion, and a lot of unlimited play. Because, yes, the journey never ends and that’s a good thing. After all, none of us ever really wants to see “Game Over,” even if we happen to win.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. He also manages his own philosophical Web site: lightsabertoss.com.
Madigan, Timothy J. “Nietzsche & Schopenhauer On Compassion.” philosophynow.org, 2000.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Basis of Morality. Trans. Arthur Brodrick Bullock. Project Gutenberg, 2014.
Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo, 2017.