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Published May 23, 2017

Mindfulness practice can take many forms. Some people meditate, some do yoga, some do extreme sports like downhill mountain biking, and some play video games. I have been grappling with anxiety and depression for a long time, and before I had ever even heard the term ‘mindfulness,’ one tried-and-true method of quieting my mind and finding my happy place was doing Super Mario Bros. 3 speedruns.

For young me, Super Mario Bros. 3 had a mythic status. Teased mercilessly by the 1989 movie The Wizard, the hype for its eventual 1990 release in North America was palpable. When it finally did arrive, I remember we bought it down in Florida where my grandparents had a condo, and I had to wait to the end of the trip to go home and play it. IT WAS EXCRUCIATING. When I finally did though, I was in awe of Mario’s new abilities, the colorful world and bosses (I love the Koopalings so much I wrote a blog homage to them), and the challenging levels. The world was huge, had lots of secrets, and gave you options between different levels to advance. It was gaming bliss.

I am 32-years old, and by high school I already had a SNES and my trusty N64, but I had owned an NES since I was four. It was the very fact that Super Mario Bros. 3 was a nostalgic trip back to my childhood that also helped remove me from the troubles of the moment and filled me with the warm fuzzies of childhood gaming. I had other go-to games as well: I would often open a save file for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI just to beat the final boss and re watch the endings. For the most part though, my happy place was with the Mario bros.

Now I should state, I am far from a professional speedrunner. I never timed myself, and I certainly never had any perfect runs. In high school I would simply challenge myself to play Super Mario Bros. 3 as fast as possible. Generally with warp-whistles this could be done in less than an hour, which meant is wasn’t a huge time commitment, and the focus required took me right out of whatever was bothering me and put me right in the zone. I knew the game in and out, so playing it required very little thought and was done mostly by reflex, yet the concentration required gave me a singular focus that allowed for all of the negative thoughts that would typically dwell in my brain to shut up for an hour.

Super Mario Bros. 3 Wallpaper Fistfulofyoshi

For all the bashing of games and its alleged detrimental affects, it’s definitely clear that gaming can have therapeutic effects. The idea that video games cause violent behavior has been consistently debunked, video games are used to help people with PTSD recover, and often help children with chronic illnesses manage their conditions and beat depression.

Yet gaming can definitely be addictive as well, where “the happy place” is a place you don’t want to leave (WordPress blogger Vahrkalla recently wrote an editorial on this topic). Over the years, I have had to make conscious decisions to stop playing games such as World of Warcraft and Stardew Valley for their sheer addictive properties, and have had to confront the idea that in the past I would often game to avoid social interaction.

Yet rather than give up games cold turkey, over the years I worked out my own systems for moderating my play time, and discovered the concepts of mindfulness thinking and meditation (I wrote a post on a Stephen Universe episode that handled the concept of mindfulness very well). With my adult life and relationships, I can’t play every game I want to, nor can I watch every movie or read every book, but perhaps that makes the discovery of a new and fantastic game even more beautiful.

My NES has been boxed up for a couple of years now, but every once in a while I have the itch to do a Super Mario Bros. 3 speedrun. I’m sure I will someday soon – but in the meantime, there’s a huge world out there to explore, and plenty of other games to play.

Has gaming helped you with anxiety or depression? What is your “happy place” game? I would love to hear from you in the comments! If you enjoyed this post, I encourage you to follow Nerd Speaker on Twitter and Facebook for more delicious nerd nuggets.

Koopalings Bowser Super Mario Bros. 3 Manual

19 Comments

  1. This was a lot of fun to read.
    I don’t suffer from anxiety or depression, but I do use video games to help me work out stress. After an especially difficult day, I like to hunker down with Pokemon or Harvest Moon and just get lost in the game’s world for a little while.

    • Thanks for the comment! Video games are great for stress – they boost your endorphins and transport you away from whatever is bothering you. I love Harvest Moon, which is why I got into Stardew Valley so hard, which then consumed my life for two weeks and I had to quit 🙂

      • My friend, who also loves Harvest Moon, got into that game too. Fortunately for me, she’s doing a Let’s Play of it, so I don’t have to worry about getting sucked into it. Can’t get sucked into what you don’t play yourself!

  2. I love pretty much all Mario games, both old and new. Super Mario 3 and Super Mario 64 are my favorites. Oh, and while not strictly a Mario game, per say, I love Super Smash Bros. I can’t help it- there’s something therapeutic about those epic brawls. 😄

    • You’re telling me! When Smash Bros. comes out for the Switch, I will be a happy, happy man.

  3. Super Mario Bros 3. is one of the best games of all time. There’s something very addictive about it. Like crack, but better. From playing it as a kid up until now, also 32, it’s like a dear old friend who visits once every now and then.

  4. Such a great blog to read, definitely relate! No matter what my mood gaming helped pull me out of reality and then back as a happier person. I’m glad Super Mario Bros 3 was your happy place game, it’s such a good game!
    I’m not sure if I have one specific game… I could never get mad when I’m playing a racing game like Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing or even Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing.
    SMITE, a MOBA I’ve been recently playing has introduced “adventures” and the most recent one is a Mario Kart-like racing game, it’s fair to say every 40-minute conquest game would be topped off with a 4-minute race!

  5. Thanks for the shoutout! 🙂

    I’d say that a few years ago when I used to play Minecraft it would give me a sense of mindfulness. Zen in games is an interesting idea, one that I haven’t considered all that much.

    • No problem, I was in the middle of writing that post when I saw your addiction post, figured I’d link you up! Gaming is just one of many activities that helps people centre themselves and calm down, but I am not going to do any extreme sports anytime soon :p

  6. Chris Scott Chris Scott

    As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, gaming was for a long time my medication. But while it would allow me to escape from the real world and my illness, it also could occasionally have detrimental effects on my personal life. Being medicated now, I can take gaming more as a hobby than as a lifestyle and I think it is for the better. I still use it to escape but its less necessary for me.

    Anyway, I went off on a tangent there. You should get that NES out and do a nostalgia run.

  7. Great post! I can definitely say I wouldn’t be who I am today without video games. They have helped me get through many of life’s trials 🙂

  8. This is far superior to most Mario games, especially because of both 8-bit graphics and gameplay. I’m surprised that retro games do not get as much respect, thanks to modernists. There are reasons why SMB3 gets universal acclaim. 🙁

  9. Loved this Post! Super Mario Bros 3 Is most definitely my favorite 2D Mario game! I never tried speedrunning before though. Maybe Its just not in my personality…

  10. […] 2. The words “mindfulness” and “gaming” usually don’t appear together in the same sentence. However, mindfulness and gaming are two highly compatible concepts, as discussed by Jay Borenstein in On mindfulness and gaming: why I main the monk class. In the post, Jay talks about the significance of monks in fighting games, from the attention that they bring to the concept of harmony in the face of violence, to finding harmony in difficult times. (Another well-done post from The Nerd Speaker that I would recommend is Zen and the art of Super Mario Bros. 3 Speedrunning). […]

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