A Class Analysis of Super Mario's Mushroom World

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/03/2011 12:01:00 AM
I was visiting the Yahoo! website when I came across an interesting-sounding feature on "Video Game Myths Revealed." Apparently, some folks with too much free time on their hands have made the preposterous (mock?) argument that Super Mario is a Stalinist communist based on the original Super Mario Brothers title. From the above video clip, they cite the following:
  • he wears a lot of red;
  • he gets more powerful with mushrooms (hippie/drug culture reference);
  • he wants to overthrow King Koopa AKA Bowser (instead of Tsar Nicolas II);
  • he pulls down the flag and raises one with a red star at the end of each stage;
  • he has a strong semblance to "Uncle Joe" Stalin with his luxuriant moustache;
  • he is super, while Stalin fronted a superpower
While this urban legend may sound plausible to some, a more careful analysis leads us to an entirely different conclusion. Not one to be outdone in silliness, let me try and shed more light in two ways. First, the Nintendo franchise is much broader than Super Mario Brothers I--a single entry in a vast if conflicting catalogue which Nintendo does not provide an official narrative to. Second, I will use a Marxist class analysis to determine the hierarchy in this familiar if understudied world. To be sure, class warfare is rife even there.

Who knows, I may even submit an article to The International Journal of Computer Game Research [!] if enough people take this silliness seriously. I must reiterate though that this is a preliminary sketch given limitations in the source material. Here are the main talking points:

Mario is a royalist fer crying out loud, not a communist - Let's talk about virtual geography and using the appropriate level of analysis. The Mushroom Kingdom where Princess Peach lives is but one of the many monarchies situated in the wider Mushroom World. Among others, there's also Sarasaland where Princess Daisy hails from and the Dark Land which the aforementioned Bowser reigns over. Applying Marx's theory of historical materialism, this situation is a product of material conditions in the Mushroom World. To wit, this world is in the feudal stage featuring rival aristocracies. The unique thing, however, is that this all transpires in a post-industrial mindscape. Alike in classic balance of power politics, Princesses Peach and Daisy naturally align against the rising power of Bowser and his "evil" machinations. (Although the Mushroom Kingdom is said to be one of the largest, its military expenditures pale in comparison to those of the Dark Land.)

In a crude Marxist sense, the predominance of Mushroom Kingdom dwellers Peach, Mario, Luigi, etc. in Nintendo games and its corresponding implications for revenues drives Bowser to seek its conquest time and again by kidnapping Princess Peach. Which, of course, has the paradoxical effect of increasing royalties to the Mushroom Kingdom since Nintendo must publish yet another "Bowser kidnaps Peach; Mario must rescue" title as a result. Alike dollar hegemony in our world, this is the central political-economic tension in Mario's.

Mushroom World has a speciesist bias that leads to obvious inequalities - There is, unfortunately, not an uncommon anthropomorphic form of discrimination in make-believe worlds. Why must humanoid characters have predominance over other sentient beings who seem as capable as they are? Toad is a case in point. In Super Mario Brothers II, Toad actually has the greatest abilities alongside Mario, Luigi and Peach. Yet he continues to be marginalized and has not received a (semi-)starring role since 1988. Rather, the commodified depiction of Toad as a category of lookalike serfs in the Mushroom Kingdom continues his exploitation despite possessing extraordinary talents we occasionally become aware of.

Thus, Bowser's continuing obsession with kidnapping and marrying Princess Peach is his attempt to reduce speciesist bias by hopefully siring more human-like offspring instead of, well, Bowser Jr. (who doesn't get far like his dad in genteel society or aristocratic circles). Bowser = Middleton? Just a thought. Instead of trying to marry up in this messed-up virtual arena, Donkey Kong has chosen to live in a non-imperialist realm elsewhere in Mushroom World. Still, the oppression becomes intolerable that Donkey Kong too has had to resort to kidnapping Mario's girlfriend in the eponymous video game--but only for that instance and not with Bowser-like determination. Nevertheless, if you are in search of a real revolutionary in Mushroom World, it would be Donkey Kong and his nephew Diddy Kong. Offhand, I would say that the Mushroom Kingdom has a Gini coefficient somewhere between 0.70 and 0.80, while that in the less hierarchical Kong environs it's somewhere in the range of 0.20 to 0.30.

Mario's fake populist affectations remind me of New Labour architect Peter Mandelson, not Stalin - Let's get this one straight: Mario is a plumber the same way that Sir Tom Jones was a bricklayer. (Both are master showmen feigning humbler occupations.) Having long ago discovered his cash cow potential, this most recognizable and bankable of video game stars is no lumpenproletariat. Again, that would be Toad(s) in the Mushroom Kingdom or Goomba(s) in the Dark Land (who do invade Mushroom Kingdom when Bowser kidnaps Peach; hence the confusion in the clip above). Actually, Mario and his moustache do not so much remind me of "Uncle Joe" Stalin but of Lord Mandelson during his left-ish era. And yes, Mandelson had a nice 'stache during the time he worked as an economist at the Trades Union Congress.

Here's a question for you: in how many games does Mario actually do *plumbing* instead of beating up Koopas and Goombas and all that glamorous stuff? Few and far between. Just as Lord Peter Mandelson would much rather hang out with the likes of oligarch Oleg Deripaska in Corfu than with slovenly "Peace Camp" protesters in Parliament Square, so does Mario have a hankering for the good life. We all know there's a Mario's Castle that literally gives the charade away. And boy is he ever well-compensated; a true petit bourgeoisie even in stature as Princess Peach is taller than he is.

Controversially, Nintendo is the commercial rights holder to Mushroom World - In Formula One racing, Berine Ecclestone invites envy for being the ringmaster to the entire show. Still, you cannot begrudge his skill in marketing the whole enterprise. And so it is in the Mushroom Kingdom as Nintendo has parlayed a thin "Bowser-kidnaps-Peach" storyline into a monster franchise. Just to show you the drawing power of filthy lucre, this collection of antagonists and imperialists collaborate in sporting pastimes if the commercial allure is strong enough: Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, Mario Baseball, Mario Hoops, Mario and Sonic Olympics, etc. all feature ostensibly hostile characters engaging in sporting competition. Indeed, Nintendo has even introduced purpose-built doppelganger villains for pure commercial gain despite the narrative discontinuities of Wario and Waluigi. I won't even get into Nintendo co-opting Sega's characters and wiping out the latter's console-selling aspirations.

Likely, there has been much Disneyfication of Mushroom World. I am sure things such as pixel abortion and pixel euthanasia exist, but they are all sanitized to sell to a pre-teen audience the world over in a formula perfected by that elder stripe of master animator.

So there you have it. Super Mario is not about communist revolution but of rival imperialists--Mushroom Kingdom and Dark Land, especially--contesting dominion over the wider Mushroom World. Do not be fooled by inter-character sports games, either. They're as jingoistic at heart as the 1936 Munich Olympics if you scratch beneath the surface. We all know what came afterwards. Mario--who has a castle of his own, don't forget (not bad for a "plumber")--is at heart a true royalist whose allegiances are strongly conditioned on...material interests.

Next time up (if there ever is one): I will use my namesake Immanuel Wallerstein's work to develop Modern World Video Game Systems Theory where the concepts above will be fleshed out further. Looking back, I've also neglected to explain the enigmatic Yoshi. While you can pretty much figure out which lands will occupy the core, periphery, and semi-periphery, I have yet to sort out Nintendo's overarching spatial configuration in the grander scheme of things. Circuits of capital linking Mushroom World with ours and all that transboundary stuff.

NOTE 1: Forbes values Princess Peach's net worth at $1.3 billion and at #15 on the Forbes Fictional 15. I honestly doubt whether such a paltry sum could maintain the splendour of the Mushroom Kingdom. Moreover, I am shocked--shocked!--by the insinuation that she is divorced from Super Mario. Again, there is no Nintendo game storyline that supports this unwholesome allegation. What kind of girl do you think she is...married to a Windsor?

NOTE 2: Given that I have devoted much space on this blog to sports since we spend considerable time and money following them, I believe we should now devote some attention to video games--the signature form of entertainment in the digital age. There are interesting and surprisingly nuanced boundary-spanning politics in the virtual environments which many of us have voluntarily chosen to enter.