Far More Playgrounds: A Conversation with Alyse Knorr

Alyse Knorr is an assistant professor of English at Regis University and editor of Switchback Books. She is the author of the poetry collections  Mega-City Redux (Green Mountains Review 2017),  Copper Mother (Switchback Books 2016), and  Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books 2013), as well as the non-fiction book  Super Mario Bros. 3 (Boss Fight Books 2016) and the poetry chapbooks  Epithalamia (Horse Less Press 2015) and  Alternates (dancing girl press 2014). Her work has appeared in  Alaska Quarterly Review Denver QuarterlyColumbia Poetry Review,  The Greensboro Review, and  ZYZZYVA, among others. She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she co-founded Gazing Grain Press.

Below, Knorr talks with  Cartridge Lit contributor Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes about the Nintendo marketing machine, queer and female representation, the “Mona Lisa” of gaming, and more.

I saw you do a reading from your book,  Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3), at AWP in LA in 2016. Before your reading, Gabe Durham, editor of Boss Fight Books, commented that while they knew there’d be a book on SMB3 eventually, they hadn’t planned to do one so soon after the Super Mario Bros. 2 book, which had come out the season before. However! Your plan was so fully realized, he couldn’t say no to your pitch. Could you talk about your initial pitch for the book and how it changed (or didn’t!) as you wrote it?

One of my favorite things about Boss Fight Books is that each author takes their own unique approach to game writing and creative nonfiction. This meant I felt free to pitch a very hybrid blend of personal memoir alongside in-depth journalistic and scholarly research for my book.

A few things changed from pitch to final draft along the way. For instance, while I was hoping to talk to a current Nintendo employee, they’re a notoriously hush-hush company so this didn’t work out. However, I was incredibly lucky to be able to speak with Howard “The Gamemaster” Phillips and Gail Tilden, two important Nintendo employees at the time Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3) came out. Their interviews were hugely helpful for providing insight into the SMB3 era, and into what made this particular game so special.

As a whole, my research process gave me an even deeper enjoyment of and appreciation for SMB3. When I first started writing the book, I thought I already knew every single in-game secret and Easter Egg, but my research revealed way more—like white mushroom houses, coin ships, and a trick for how to determine which direction a mushroom will veer toward after it pops out of a question mark block. I was also surprised to discover how pervasive SMB3 has been in my life. In my pitch, I focused on my relationship with my father, who taught me to play SMB3 before I knew how to read, and on how the game provided an outlet for my budding lesbian identity. As I wrote the book, however, I found even more connections to my own life, like the role SMB3 played in my relationships with my little brother and with several friends.

Finally, as I interviewed a number of gaming experts and read dozens of reviews and analyses of SMB3, I became obsessed with a question that I hadn’t included in my initial pitch: how and why did this game achieve the cult status it did? Is SMB3 truly “great,” or is all the hype just nostalgia? The answer I learned is: both. It is the “Mona Lisa” of gaming, as far as level design, flow state, cutting-edge features, replayability, and even music are concerned, but there are also many factors (see below) that make it a perfect object for nostalgia. And this combination is why it’s such a fondly remembered, cult-status game.

The question of nostalgia is a huge point in your book, as  SMB3 is a game that’s integrated itself into the collective consciousness of both gamers and non-gamers alike. Even I, who am notably terrible at this game, can hum the tunes and tell you all about the various enemy sprites more than I could any other game from this era. While I think it’s obvious why this game is so meaningful to those who played it rigorously (It’s innovative! Adorable! Bright!), could you talk more about how this game was able to create nostalgia for those less dedicated? Do you think there are any current games or franchises that might create this nostalgia for the youth today?

A perfect storm of influences makes SMB3 so powerful as an object of nostalgia for an entire generation. First off, any beloved game or toy is going to produce intense feelings of nostalgia, because it’s associated with pleasant feelings from childhood. There’s a whole new Netflix series about this out now called The Toys That Made Us. But according to Phillips, SMB3 is a particularly resonant object of nostalgia because it’s such a colorful, cartoonish, “cute” game—its joyful, goofy tone perfectly captures the innocence of youth in a really meaningful way.

We also remember SMB3 so well because it’s a masterpiece of game design. The tunes stick in your head because genius composer Koji Kondo wrote them to do just that. You remember the enemies so well because they were engineered to be funny, adorable, and memorable—the Koopalings are all named after rock musicians, for crying out loud! At the time of SMB3’s release, game developers were still a little spooked by the huge Atari Crash of 1983, so Nintendo was operating an intense quality control system. They simply weren’t putting out bad games.

Another huge nostalgia factor was SMB3’s marketing campaign, which was utterly massive. In the era of SMB3, Nintendo of America had recently hired a new head of marketing and significantly stepped up their strategies. The campaign for SMB3 created an unprecedented level of hype. Eleven months after SMB3’s release, it was still the second highest-selling toy in the U.S., with the NES console itself in first place. The game was marketed like a Blockbuster movie, with TV commercials and a TV show; McDonald’s Happy Meal toys; and a ton of merchandise, memorabilia, toys, and clothes. This was also the heyday of Nintendo Power magazine, the Nintendo-published magazine that served as a powerful advertising tool. SMB3 was the first game to get its own dedicated issue strategy guide from Nintendo Power, which made everyone hungry for the game itself to come out. And we can’t forget The Wizard, a Fred Savage kids’ movie that was essentially, in the words of David Sheff, a 90-minute SMB3 ad that audiences paid to view. What all this adds up to is that for many of us, our SMB3 nostalgia is not only for the game itself, but also for the feeling of anticipation that led up to it.

Finally, the game’s timing made it essentially ubiquitous for American children. It’s easy to forget that in 1990, Nintendo was at the absolute peak of its reign over the video game industry, controlling 80% of the home console market. One in three American homes had a Nintendo console. So when Nintendo released a new game in this era, everyone noticed. And, according to Tilden, this was exactly Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa’s strategy: for everyone to be playing the game at the same time, talking about it on the playground, and spreading the hype. For this reason, even if you didn’t have an NES or have SMB3, you probably played it at a friend’s house or heard folks talking about it at school. And if not that, then you probably heard a commercial or caught a glimpse of the TV show or saw a kid wearing a T-shirt. Perfect storm.

It’s hard to imagine another game ever achieving this same exact combination of nostalgia triggers, but I suppose it could happen. In general, I think game and toy nostalgia for today’s youth is going to feel different from ours, because they’ve grown up with the internet where they have their own niches—there are far more playgrounds for them to talk on now.

It was so meaningful to me, as someone who’s dressed up as Link from the  Zelda series for Halloween at 12, 20, and 28, to read about your experiences of the game through a queer and female lens. I felt a deep sense of dread as I read about your performance at holidays, as you opened presents meant for who your relatives all thought you should be, not who you actually were (why can’t we just listen to our children?), though your own patient parents felt like a thrilling victory. But, and I apologize here for this bit of a tangent, while one could argue that  SMB3 is in many ways for anyone, it still has the princess as not only locked up and unattainable, but as part of a mysterious chase. Which is to say, it’s incredible that you found yourself in that game, but I feel like that discovery was partially out of your own wonderful imagination. Could you talk about how your imagination had to realign what you were given to fit your needs as a kid, without queer or even female representation there for you?

I’m always amazed at the creative ways that girls and queer people can imaginatively locate ourselves in male-dominated, heteronormative, and cisnormative narratives. It’s why subtext and camp are such significant elements of queer culture. And SMB3 fits perfectly with this campiness—it’s full of performative elements like all the costumes, the theatre curtain that lifts up at the beginning of the game, the “off-stage” area at the end of every level, etc. Miyamoto himself has confirmed that all of SMB3’s characters are just actors in a play. This was a lot of fun for me to think about in terms of Butler’s theory of gender performativity, and the ways I have performed or failed to perform my assigned gender throughout my life. After all, when I was a girl, dresses felt like as much of a costume for me as Mario’s Tanooki suit.

So as a kid, I definitely had some of those negative experiences of feeling forced to perform a gender role that was constraining to me—including, like you mentioned, my big fake smile whenever I received a Barbie at Christmas. But what was important for me about SMB3 was that it was a “safe” environment where I could perform my homosexuality by chasing/desiring the princess. I had this limitless free space in which to explore. And while I felt most connected to Mario, the princess-rescuing hero, I also related, subconsciously, to Bowser’s monstrosity and to the princess’s trapped status. So when me-as-Mario would defeat me-as-Bowser-the-monster, it was, on some level like I was overcoming my shame about being some kind of unnatural creature. And when me-as-Mario rescued me-as-trapped-princess, it was like I was overcoming the ways that society had “damseled” me and prescribed me gender roles that didn’t felt like they fit.

So I inhabited these self-generated, imaginary narratives in SMB3, with me as the hero, but I did this in other kinds of play, too—I was always Simba and not Nala, Robin Hood and not Maid Marian. And while I would have loved to have had Rey or the girl Ghostbusters growing up, I don’t regret that I didn’t, because it fine-tuned my imagination in ways I’m really grateful for. Until we get better gender representation in games, at least we have folks like this dude who will hack into the code and make the changes themselves.

What was your favorite thing you learned in doing this deep dive of research for this book? Was there anything you learned that you couldn’t quite fit into the book?

My favorite discoveries all revolved around hardware, since this was the element I knew the least about as I began my research process and this was the info I found most difficult to dig up. What’s so special about SMB3 is that it debuted late in the NES console’s life, so the developers really had to get creative and milk the console for all that it could do. This resulted in cutting-edge new features like screen-splitting (for the status bar at the bottom of the screen), diagonal scrolling (for those maddening sky levels in World 5), parallax scrolling (for the 3D effect that lets you drop behind the screen when you crouch on a white block), and animated tiles (for the moving question marks on blocks or the zooming card strips in the Spade Panel mini-game). Even Kondo got super creative with the hardware, using a certain sound channel in a really clever way to get it to produce more complex drum sounds. If you want to know what makes SMB3’s soundtrack so special, it’s all in the drums.

I found especially meaningful the fact that the game designers and software engineers saw the technical constraints of the era as a fun challenge rather than a frustrating limitation. In much the same way that a poet like me gets a kick out of the tight constraints of the sonnet form, SMB3’s team often found that working with such a tiny amount of memory (the Word Document I’m typing this in is five times the size of the original Super Mario Bros. file) often led to especially creative solutions. They truly loved the challenge and saw it as a way to show off their skills.

I did end up with a lot of extra material—my final draft probably incorporated about a third of all the fascinating research I found. This is fairly typical of my writing process—I like to write long and cut. I found way more scholarship on gender, sexuality, and gaming than I was able to use, and on the history of Mario as a character and Nintendo mascot. I also had to cut a playthrough of SMB3 in which I taught my wife Kate how to play the game, which was really funny because she didn’t grow up with video games and enjoys teasing me about my obsession with Mario. I couldn’t put her playthrough anywhere in the book, but I loved doing it and have some very special memories from that experience.

Finally, I found a ton of super fun images, GIFs, trivia, and tips and tricks that just couldn’t fit anywhere into the book, so I put all of it up on this Tumblr. Enjoy!

I know, as someone who has read all your books, that you are also a poet! What else are you writing right now that we can look forward to? Do you plan to work on anything video game or pop culture related (like  Mega City Redux) soon?

Thanks for asking! I’m currently at work on two very different projects—the first is an opera libretto about the life of Christine de Pizan, the world’s first professional woman writer. After she was widowed at 25, Christine took up her pen in order to provide for her mother and three children. She became hotly engaged in debates with misogynist writers, writing long defenses of women that ultimately culminated in her 1405 allegory The City of Ladies, in which she dreamed up a world where women can live safe from sexism and gendered violence. In my book of poems Mega-City Redux, I imagine taking a roadtrip with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Dana Scully to search for the modern-day version of the city. What I’ve discovered after publishing that book, however, is that I’m still very much fascinated by Christine, and I want to share the story of her life and work with others. I’m writing the libretto by collaging together her original writings (in Middle French) and translating the resulting collage into modern French.

I’m also working on a project called “Wolf Tours” that blends fiction and poetry to comment on eco-tourism, cultural appropriation, and depression. It’s a series of poems in the voice of a pack of wolves that runs a touring company. I’m having a lot of fun imagining what these wolves would sell in their gift shop, or how they would write a magazine ad for their company (poorly, it turns out).