I recently stopped drinking to force myself into productivity. In some ways, this went well - I've been shortlisted for an award for my literary criticism (click here to vote for me if you're kind) and have begun making a lo-fi interview web series. However, what I quickly learnt was that, no matter how hard I trained myself to work, I still needed some way to relax. My mind craved pointlessness, and so I found Super Mario Run.
If you're unfamiliar with Super Mario Run, it's the first official Mario game for smartphones. If you're unfamiliar with Mario, he's an overweight Italian plumber who spends the majority of his time working as a (seemingly pro bono) A Team-type adventurer or as a competitive go-kart driver. In Super Mario Run, Mario (or, once you've spent hours playing the game (like I have), your choice from amongst his friends and pets) runs automatically from left to right, jumping when instructed to, in a timed search for coins and the rescue of a princess. I play Super Mario Run while I walk my dog or take poos, so it's filled up 90% of my designated unproductive time since the game was launched for Android a month ago.
I initially chastised myself for this, as adults approaching thirty shouldn't be compulsively playing computer games. But then I realised that Super Mario Run is actually the perfect metaphor for millennial life and I was right to have become so engaged by it. Let me explain:
To play all of Super Mario Run, you have to pay £9.99, which is obscene for a game on your phone. If you pay, you're buying into the belief that Super Mario Run will be three to five times better than a normal mobile phone game. You can play some of Super Mario Run for free, but paying that tenner is an investment in optimism, in hope. For me, as an English Literature graduate, this reminds me of further education. Tens of thousands of pounds spent (borrowed), but with nothing to show at the end except some fun memories. Exactly like gaining a degree then feeling you should seek a hefty corporate paycheck, once you've invested in Super Mario Run, you feel obliged to try and collect as many coins as possible.
In Super Mario Run, as in life, you run relentlessly forwards. If you miss a special coin you wanted, the only way to go backwards for another attempt is to injure yourself. If you fail to attain the success you want, you have to leap into lava or off a cliff to try again, and - as in life - there's no guarantee you'll get what you wanted, and there's only a limited amount of times you can try. AND - even if you hurt yourself, go backwards AND get the special coin you needed for your sense of value, there is then the risk that you'll run out of time and never get to the end of the level, rendering all your self-harm and backtracking pointless.
It's like changing careers, retraining and working harder in the evenings until you're exhausted. We invest our time and money in ourselves but there is no guarantee we'll see returns, no matter how much we tailor our aspirations to reality. The best thing that can happen in Super Mario Run is that eventually I get all the special coins and all the special "Toads" (don't ask). But even if I do that, I don't have £9.99 worth of anything. Finishing Super Mario Run won't feed me, won't help me find happiness, it will merely have wasted time. When I'm playing Super Mario Run I want to be the best at it, and am willing to hurt my plumber avatar in pursuit of success. It's like when I left my office job to go back to university and when I quit my (later) steady job to become self-employed. I have given myself less time to achieve anything, and there is no guarantee the risks will pay off. And even if they do and I secure nice, regular, revenue streams and a growing readership for my writing, these things mean as much when weighed against the inevitability of death as the petty achievements I've made in Super Mario Run do when weighed against life.
Super Mario Run is expensive, normalises self-destructive risk-taking in the pursuit of materialistic success, and tricks you into caring about things that are deeply vacuous. Just like real life, it can be a lot of fun, but even more like life, it's utterly bloody pointless.