It was some years ago now that a group of whippersnappers introduced me to the video game Super Mario Kart. The fun started when they assigned me a screen persona from a comical cast of characters. I was to be Luigi, a plumber with a taste for speed who saddled up a rocket-assisted all-terrain tricycle, careened through a variety of fancy landscapes, squealed and muttered in dialect, and headed for the finish line. As the Luigi avatar, I came in dead last, and not just in the first race, but in every race. True, the game had empowered my wily opponents to blast Luigi off the course in a distracting way. But even after I learned to defend Luigi from RPG’s, my self-satisfied sub-teen opponents had me at a baffling disadvantage. Getting so thoroughly creamed meant that I was missing some insight about driving itself—and this despite having passed my road test sometime during the first Nixon administration.
Super Mario Figure, Luigi, 2006, Subarudo
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester NY
After amusing my opponents by bringing up the rear several games running, however, a very peculiar thing happened amid the screeching tires, explosions, and flashing light. Something basic in my vision shifted, some fundamental insight altered, the sound effects seemed to dampen, and the action seemed to slow as if I were seeing faster. As if perception itself had altered. I won the next race and the next one after that. As I bowed out of the game, I wondered what was up.
Here’s what was up, but to explain, I need to recall the climactic scene from Star Wars and tell you about a peculiar bicycle ride.
First, remember the scene where Luke Skywalker aims to drop a photon charge down the intake tube of the moon-sized Death Star? Pursued by Darth Vader, Luke’s lost his wing man to fire from a couple of evil Tie Fighters. Even worse, Luke can’t think. The best electronic system in the galaxy is flooding him with too much information. He’s in a tight spot. Luckily and just in time, the resonant, rescuing voice of his old Jedi master comes to him. “Use the Force, Luke,” Obi-wan Kenobi intones in surround sound. (Except, because it’s Alec Guinness it comes out “Lyuoooook….”) And then Obi-wan says, “let go….” He means let go of thought. A strange thing happens as Luke calculatingly moves his targeting computer aside and closes his eyes to let the force be with him. With the chatter in his head quieted, the torpedo is away and on target and the Death Star soon explodes in a most just and agreeable way.
And now I hear a resonant voice saying “Scott, what about the bicycle?” Ok, here’s the thing about the bicycle. Recently I experienced something similar to Luke Skywalker’s revelation, not in an X-wing fighter, but on a long bicycle ride. The kidney-jangling road had offered only one smooth path, the painted stripe at the verge. Staying within this six-inch line, correcting left and right left me riding uncertainly, like a beginner. But then, a peculiar thing happened. I soon discovered that looking too closely at the stripe was forcing me to see it as a tightrope rather than a guideline. Before the path could be easily followed, I had to let go and remember that I already knew how to ride a bike. And when I did, my perception quickened, seeming to slow the action as it had during the video game. In a spatial version of the same profound insight, the stripe itself seemed to widen, allowing the miles to pass smoothly underneath.
Super Nintendo Super Mario Kart
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY
In a similar way, driving Luigi’s kart successfully had required seeing beyond the two-dimensional screen image and directly into the whole of the cartoon landscape. Before I could stop shoving the cart mechanically around a flat electronic space, I had to recognize a depth of vision.
And thus for playthings and for most things, if you want them to go, you need to let go.