In side-scrolling video games, you move from to left to right. You don’t question it, you just accept it. The rule became ironclad so quickly that even in the ’80s games started subverting it to mess with players, like how Metroid hid secrets in that forbidden backwards direction called left. Why, though? It’s not because we read from left to right. After all in Japan, where many of these games come from, sentences are vertical and go from right to left. So, what’s the real answer? A new study hypothesizes that scrolling from left to right simply makes more sense to our brains.
In his paper “Why Super Mario runs from left to right” published in the academic journal Perception, psychologist Dr. Peter Walker of Lancaster University discusses his findings on how humans interpret certain kinds of motion in animated images. After analyzing thousands of images, videos, and even typefaces, Walker observed several clear patterns. First, viewers tend to conflate leaning forward with speed and movement, whether it’s a character facing their environment or even italicized letters. Second, “widespread evidence for a left-to-right bias could indicate a possible fundamental bias for visual motion.” Oddly enough, though, this only applied to moving images, not still ones.
Mario moves from left to right because that looks more correct to us on a subconscious level. It’s not the most earth-shattering explanation, but sometimes we take the most important artistic discoveries for granted because of how effortless and organic they seem, even though it took tons of design and experimentation to reach that point.
A notion that seems obvious now certainly wasn’t back when Nintendo crafted the first Super Mario Bros. in the ’80s and established a kind of gaming grammar. One story says Miyamoto was inspired to make a side-scroller by looking through a train window and watching mountains move by. However, the real genius of Mario isn’t just in how it taps into our natural perception but how the game uses that connection, through its level design, to intuitively teach players nonsense like “mushrooms make you big” without depending on awkward tutorials the way modern games do.
Check out the above video from Extra Credits for more insight on the masterpiece that is level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., especially if you’re an aspiring game developer.