Some important questions about video games and how we learn. Seriously.

I’ve always been a pretty good video game player. In my adolescence, I was great. My brother and I could zip through Super Mario Bros, fly through Star Fox, and no one, I repeat no one, could take me in Mario Kart. I was so good at Golden Eye that patients would seek me out to play late at night when I was a resident (which is a whole other story). As I’ve gotten older, and as gaming systems have advanced, I have remained a pretty good player; but I’m not nearly as good as I used to be.

It’s not for lack of practice. The number of hours I’ve spent in Tamriel and Ferelden is borderline shameful. We own plenty of first person shooters, too, and I can hold my own in the campaigns. But when I play others… it’s not pretty anymore.

Even my boys (13 and 11) can take me handily in all sorts of games. The last few versions of Mario Kart, from which my legend was born, have even been an uphill climb. I rarely win, and sometimes I find myself in the middle of the pack.

These aren’t games with huge learning curves. We know how to race cars in games. Right out of the box, they’re kicking my butt, and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to catch up.

I assumed it was something to do with getting older. I figured that my reflexes are slowing, or that video games are built for younger nervous systems. But two things have made me question all of this, and I wonder if there’s something bigger going on here.

The first was that we dug up our old Nintendo 64 recently. My whole family (even Aimee) has been playing old school Mario Party (1,2, and 3), and Mario Kart 64, simply the greatest racing game of all time (DO NOT DISPUTE ME). And in those games… I am absolutely reigning supreme.

I don’t mean I’m doing well. I’m unbeatable. It’s frustrating my boys to no end. Any course. Any class of engine… I’m crushing them. It’s like it used to be. I just know what to do. Same with every Mario party mini-game.

The second is that we just bought Super Mario Maker. This game… it’s unreal. Using simple mechanics, you can design your own boards in any version of the Super Mario Bros franchises. You can test them out, and even upload them for others to play (my first real attempt is 1581-0000-0087-A01E, so go play it).

Once again, no matter what board we play – I’m the king. I can make Mario do anything. I can fly through a board in a near-panicked sprint and never worry about missing a jump. My kids are amazed. My timing is flawless, my reflexes lightning-fast. I have the hands of a twelve-year-old.

So here’s the thing. In the games of my youth, I am still amazing. Even with practice, my kids can’t catch me. But in new games, I can’t perform that well, and I can’t learn my way into being better. I have a couple hypotheses here, and I’d like your thoughts. Even better, I’d like some evidence to help me decide what’s right:

  1. New games are fundamentally different than old ones, and favor different skills. Maybe I’m a certain kind of player, and games of yore were pitched to me. Today’s games are different, require different skills, and are better suited to my boys. We will just be better at some than others. This would require there to be some fundamental shift in how Mario Kart 64 mechanics work vs Mario Kart 8.
  2. My kids haven’t had enough time to learn the older games, and when they do, I’m going to lose. I don’t think this is the case, though. After all, racing games are racing games. But I can’t win at Mario Kart 8 (or 7 or 6), and I can’t lose at Mario Kart 64. Vice versa for my boys. I can’t win in any recent version of Madden NFL, but I was a champion in Tecmo Bowl.
  3. Whatever skills I laid down in my childhood remain with me into adulthood. This is the one I’m excited about, and the one I hope there’s evidence for. Maybe whatever I learned in some critical period of my development stays with me long after. Maybe I no longer have the ability to learn how to play Halo like a champ, but learning to be world class at controlling Mario and Luigi remains programmed into my brain. Is that possible?

Or, maybe it’s something else. I’m open to suggestions. My hands and eyes still retain whatever skills I had at the games of my childhood, and those seem not to be as developed in my kids, who excel at more modern games. What’s going on here?

I’m going to open comments here for a bit, but I also encourage you to discuss with me on Twitter.

@aaronecarroll

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