How to Lose "Super Mario Bros."

Patrick LeMieux

How to Lose "Super Mario Bros."

Single channel color video, stereo sound

640 x 400 pixels


In 2003, Alex Galloway produced a digital record of a full playthrough of Super Mario Bros. Galloway began by simply playing through the game while recording a video of his hands while digitally sampling controller input. The frame-wise input was formatted as guitar tablature and hosted alongside these “tutorial” videos at Radical Software Group and Rhizome. Titled How to Win “Super Mario Bros” or RSG-SMB-TAB, Galloway’s piece operates as a conceptual artwork in which control is reduced to linear patterns of input and then recast as a guide for novice players alongside video demonstration. Galloway’s ASCII satire of the typical Game FAQ walkthrough deploys a conceptual aesthetic in which textual instructions take the place of the art object.

To begin learning How to Win “Super Mario Bros.”, excess parts of the tablature were edited out and an original java applet was written to convert Galloway’s input to a standard the tool-assisted speedrun movie format for playback on an emulator. Because Galloway recorded his input at around 180 frames per second, there was some necessary translation to get his gameplay to synchronize with the 60 frames that the Nintendo Entertainment System processes per second. With these kind of digital forensics made sensible, Galloway’s lesson could be enacted in a new performance titled How to Lose “Super Mario Bros.”

How to Lose does not operate in terms of mastery but functions precisely because Galloway's challenge will never be beaten and cannot be wholly consumed. Performed live on, How to Lose documents a series of attempts to follow Galloway’s impossible guide. Even with the exact record of frame-by-frame input, the speed and the scale of Galloway’s play obscures understanding. Play is located in the gap between the conscious, narrative experience of the game and the digital mechanisms and computational processes constitutive of that experience. In order to learn “How to Win”, Mario must be “lost” within this exercise in failure.