The videogame press has been buzzing lately about Nintendo’s upcoming system, the Wii U. Normally, a new videogame or system would be nothing to get excited about because most entries in the genre endorse the worst kinds of Social Darwinism and stratification. The “heroes” of these games are in some way predestined as individuals for greatness—and this is celebrated—and the mechanics of these games are such that the heroes are more powerful than their enemies because they are inherently better and/or have established private ownership over weapons and armor inaccessible to others. Nintendo’s flagship protagonist, however, is different. The Wii U will feature a hero of the people: Super Mario.
To eyes accustomed to seeing the world through the veil of a bourgeois value-system, the name “Super Mario” seems inappropriate. Mario is an ordinary worker. He wears work boots and denim overalls, he is a simple plumber, and his dark hair, mustache, and name mark him as an ethnic-Catholic immigrant of the sort that has composed a substantial and iconic part of America’s working class from the Ellis-Island era to present day. Finally, Mario is not inherently especially powerful; he is killed by a single blow like his enemies (though some enemies are less vulnerable), and his only abilities are moving laterally, jumping, and his trade. Mario is decidedly proletarian, but we are to recognize him as a laudable hero capable of saving the Mushroom Kingdom.
The plight of the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario’s struggles through it similarly represent the struggles the oppressor has imposed on the oppressed through private ownership of property. Bowser has seized the land for himself and claimed an elevated status over the common people by calling himself “King of the Koopas.” Bowser dispatches his lieutenants in castles and various goombas and koopa troopas elsewhere to waste their labor ensuring that the land remains under private ownership so others cannot take according to their need. The system’s waste is demonstrated by the valuable, unused resources, like fireflowers, left to languish in question-marked boxes throughout the land. When the worker, Mario, rises up and seizes the means of fireball production from private ownership, he puts them to beneficial use and becomes recognizably “Super.”
The Koopitalist regime also creates reprehensible working conditions for Mario. Mario dies from preventable workplace injuries like being burned by lava, struck by loose koopa shells, falling into bottomless pits, and being crushed by heavy, angry stones. Like most entrapped in wage slavery, Mario subjects himself to these unconscionable dangers in a desperate attempt to collect enough coins to make a life. The dangers of exploitation through private ownership are punctuated by Mario’s encounters with the ghosts (boos) of dead workers; they pursue Mario and will harm him unless he looks at them, thus demanding that Mario (and the player) see and recognize the horrors wrought by wage slavery.
The Mario series personifies the latest innovation in oppression, the so-called New American Dream, in Princess Toadstool. Although she is a member of the upper class, being a Princess, she offers to make Mario a cake or invites him to a party before being “kidnapped” by Bowser at the beginning of each installment. The implication is clear; if Mario sacrifices enough of himself into the privately-owned machinery of production, for long enough, then he will not only earn a living but is also promised entry into the bourgeois party by joining the Princess. However, Mario is never really with the Princess—the promise is illusory, a manipulative form of oppression. Mario completes his work in each castle but repeatedly finds his fellow workers, Toads, instead of his Princess. The goalposts move throughout the game, causing Mario to work harder and suffer more dangers.
Even the state at the end of each game, where Mario is “reunited” with his Princess, is transitory. By the next game she is gone again, and instead of freeing Mario from his condition of labor and exploitation, the promise of the Princess works to trap him in that condition—just as the New American Dream of becoming rich manipulates the American worker into advocating against his own interests and for the entrenchment of the ownership class. Perhaps someday Mario (and the his non-digital comrades in the working class) will internalize the message that his princess is truly in another castle: the castle of socioeconomic revolution.
Cultural Literacy and the Law is a humor column written by an anonymous Harvard Law student. The column runs every other Monday.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.