Lessons from playing Super Meat Boy with my son

Before we begin, please note that none of this is to be taken as parenting advice. This is just a story of an experience that I've been having with my son and what I've learnt from it and what I feel like he's learning from it albeit more implicitly.

How we got here

My son has started playing Super Meat Boy. Yes there's a lot of blood, but the concept of a slab of meat crashing into a cog and popping and immediately reforming at the start of the level doesn't feel gruesome. It's more cartoonish. We are all more amused by it. I do avoid any cut scenes though since the content there is definitely a little bit more offensive than what I'd like to explain to him right now (middle fingers and little bits of potty humour). Anyway. That's not the point.

Super Meat Boy (henceforth SMB) is a difficult game. From the IGN review

Super Meat Boy is an extremely difficult game. Make the slightest mistake and you'll have to restart the stage over from the beginning -- there are no checkpoints. You might die a hundred times before you are finally reunited with Bandage Girl and the game gleefully keeps track of every death in the Statistics menu. It's such a tense experience my hands hurt after a while and I couldn't get a good grip on the controller any longer because of the sweat. But you have unlimited tries and most stages take less than a minute to complete once you know what you're doing. When you are triumphant you are rewarded with a replay of all your attempts running at once -- dozens of Meat Boys flying across the stage and being eviscerated by traps.

And my son is having a go at it. It's obviously quite challenging for him and a single level can easily take him a hundred times to get through. It's been a fascinating journey watching him acclimatize to this difficulty. In the process, he's learnt so much (implicitly) and so have I. And I thought I'd share them here.

The lessons

When he first started playing he would often scream in frustration and even cry. I never pushed him to play more. I wasn't about to turn this into some kind of discipline bootcamp. I'd calm him down, usually with a big hug, and we did other stuff. He'd eventually come back a day or two later and say "daddy can I play again?" to which I'd say sure. And then he'd pass the level he was stuck on.

Lesson: Frustration is fine. Pausing isn't giving up. Take a step back and return to a tough problem when you feel ready and take it on again. Also, when you are really down, you can't go wrong getting a hug

At one point, the game became too difficult for him. There was a level he'd been playing for well over a hundred attempts and he was ready to give up. I respect that too. But he also asked if I could complete it in his place to which my answer was, "sure, I can do that but it's not much use to you". It's true. SMB has been made very cleverly where each level will add pieces from a level before it so if you haven't learnt how to complete a prior level, it's entirely possible that you won't complete the ones after. And that's exactly what happened. He completed one level more, and then he was stuck with even more difficulty. At this point he realised that if it was him who wanted to play and finish the game, he'd have to go back and figure it out on his own. He did that, and made it through.

Lesson: There are virtually no shortcuts. Not if you want the pleasure from having achieved your goal.

That level he was stuck on though? Level 9. He didn't just get through it on will power alone. First, when he asked me to complete the level for him, he got to see how it was done. When stuck, there's no shame in asking for guidance. But that wasn't it. He went back to level 1 and played it up to the level he was stuck in. This time, his play was much better than his first run through. But he was still stuck. Instead of asking anyone to complete the level he asked me to teach him what he was doing wrong. I pointed out that he was rushing the jumps and SMB has a mechanic where if you release the jump button mid flight you drop. So you need to hold it to really do the wall jumps.

He went back to level 1 for a second time and started over. This time I noticed him taking on some of the basics I taught him. When he wasn't sure of a section, he went back to a safer area and practiced his jumps before giving it a go. This time, when he made it to the "impossible" level, he cleared it. Took plenty of tries, but he made it.

Lessons: when stuck, reach out for guidance. When really stuck, go back to the fundamentals. Chances are you are missing something there and retraining it is a great way to get better and also to get that mental reset

Did I mention that SMB is difficult? Well it is. And my son got to a level which was impossible for him to complete. This had nothing to do with fundamentals. SMB's levels have a fiendish design pattern: they have multiple "stages" of increasing difficulty to get through. You got through the flying spiky wheels by jumping over them at the right moment? Good for you. Now have more of them but flying from both sides at the same time with one of them at ground level and the other at jump. Good luck timing that. And if you get hit? It's back to the start.

So the two of us talked during lunch. While his mouth was full of rice and curry, I answered my son's queries on how to get through the level. The answer I gave him was to get good at each stage of the level and work through it piece by piece. Forget the double sided flying wheel bit. SMB is designed so that each mini stage within the level, once completed, has a safe spot to wait on. I advised him to focus on getting to each of those spots instead of thinking of the level as one whole. And once he was there, catch breath and then think of the next bit.

That was level 15. He returned to it today, and he smashed it.

Lesson: Look for opportunities to break a big problem into small ones. Each time you get through a stage, catch your breath, review what's ahead, and then go for it.

The above lesson has applications across all age groups. For adults it's obvious. But even for very young children, learning to read is best done like this. Break words into 2-3 letters, sound them, and then put it together. Solve it piece by piece

An interesting dynamic arose during all of this. When he first started playing I sat next to him. This was for unavoidable reasons. He was doing his first proper game on the PC using a controller and there was a chance he'd need some help in adjusting. This turned out to be true. From time to time I needed to help him adjust his hand so that he was gripping the controller in the easiest position, and I needed to peep over and let him know he was smushing button B instead of A. Also, I needed to show him the basic mechanics of the game which were jumping, sprinting, and wall jumping.

The downside of this initial time together though was that my son became far more likely to turn to me and complain about the level. At all times, I gently offered him the option of stepping away, but since he kept declining I decided to change my approach. Once I was confident he knew a few basic basics, I stepped away to let him play alone. At first, there were calls to come and look at what was happening every few minutes. But eventually, he became accustomed to handling the game on his own. What happened after that surprised me. The likelihood of him getting frustrated while on his own was minimal. But when I stepped into the room to chill and watch him, he seemed to become more vocal and kept turning to me to "get him through the level". We already covered how that was approached. But the point is, left to his own devices, he seemed to gain more confidence in himself and was far more likely to try and solve levels on his own.

Today he made it to Level 19 without assistance.

Lesson: Give someone the tools to solve their challenges. Step back, and watch them solve it. Be there if they really need help but don't BE THERE. Odds are, the person will find resilience within themselves and will eventually complete the work on their own. It's likely that they'll find greater fulfillment that way too.

Conclusion and the final lesson

Of course, except for the bit on breaking a level down into pieces, I haven't really said any of these ideas to my son. I'm not about to lecture a 5 year old on the nuances of resilience and personal growth 😅. In fact, I only thought of these lessons after reflecting on the experience. My hunch is, when my son grows older, if he were to read this post he'd probably say:

"I honestly thought we were just playing for fun dad".

To which I would say. "Ah yes. And there lies the final lesson."

And the lesson is: No matter what the challenge is, if you have the privilege, don't forget to have fun while dealing with it. That's when you grow the most.

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Posted on May 02 2021 by Adnan Issadeen