I try to be very careful when mixing gaming with education. These are two of my major interests but not every student will appreciate gaming references punctuating every lesson. Nevertheless, a comparison between video game and subject matter is sometimes too tempting to pass up. In the case of the infamous King Henry VIII, there is a clear and definable connection with the affable Super Mario.

I'll admit, the two characters are quite different at first glance. Whilst the two men are portly in stature, one is a high-jumping plumber and visitor of a magical kingdom, whilst the other rules over a much more traditional kingdom, occupying his time with women and wars with France. If you dig a little deeper though, you'll soon realise that these two people have a lot in common. Those similarities make for a great lesson.

Let's put this into context. The below activity takes place in a year 12 A level class (ages 16-17) at the end of a year of studying the reign of Henry VIII. This is therefore revision, and not meant to teach the topic. Whilst I imagine pieces of this comparison would facilitate learning during the course, the whole lesson works best once the students have a grasp of the subject material. Oh, and this lesson is a lot of fun; you'll be surprised by just how much the students get out of it.

[Education Warning – reading further may lead to minor amounts of learning.]

The Premise:

Over the course of an hour you introduce Mario, other characters in his games and features of those adventures. Treat the games as if the students have never heard of them (there may be one or two who have never played) and then get them to work out what the connection is to the subject they are studying. At each stage there are certain facts you want them to bring up, but they'll add their own interpretations that you can build on.

A little background reading:

Most readers will be aware that Henry VIII was King of England and is mostly famous for his six wives. What is less well known is why he went through so many marriages, when a king can have all the mistresses they want. The main reason is simple – he needed sons. One primary responsibility of a king is to ensure his family line continues to rule long after he is gone. That means making babies is top priority (and boy babies are preferred in the 1500s). To employ an old phrase, Henry needed "an heir and a spare" to guarantee the success of his dynasty. Unfortunately, his first wife wasn't delivering the goods (pardon the expression) and Henry sought out a second wife to achieve this. He would later seek out a third wife for the same reason. His third wife died giving birth to a son, and so Henry needed a fourth wife, and so on. Whilst this alone makes Henry's reign a compelling, intriguing and sordid soap opera story, the methods by which Henry secured his first divorce are what really cemented his illustrious place in the History books.

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The Catholic Church in the Sixteenth Century was fervently against the notion of divorce. Unless you could convince the church and its leaders that your marriage was wrong in some way, you were together for life. When Henry realised that his efforts to get his first marriage annulled were failing, he sought out other methods to get his divorce. In the years that followed, Henry would pick apart the Catholic Church in England, sever all ties with the Pope and reshape the religious landscape of England. With himself at the helm of the Church of England he had the authority to divorce Catherine of Aragon (wife #1). He also made himself wealthier and more powerful than ever before, which is nice for him.

So how does Mario help revise and memorise this story? The lesson follows the following steps.

Lesson Title: "Mario's Great Matter"

The lesson begins with the students organised into small groups. Each group gets a pack of pictures face down on the desk, a big sheet of paper to write on and some glue to stick the pictures down. Alternatively you could print each picture on a page and have the students write around them (this is a bit wasteful though). As you introduce another part of the Mario universe they will turn over the next picture. After each 'introduction', the students will stick the picture down and then write around it. So it begins…

1) This is Mario

This is Mario. He's a very popular man who spends his time running around the mushroom Kingdom, usually chasing after girls. He has a job to do but you rarely see him plumbing. He can jump quite high and is a good fighter. He can be immature at times and if he ever gets hurt in his adventures he tends to wail and flap his arms around. He also spends a lot of his time go-karting and fighting in Super Smash Bros tournaments.

Possible student responses:

Whilst most of Henry's portraits show him to be a chubby old man, in his youth he was a fit and handsome gent. He was also a stubborn, eccentric, overly passionate youth who was quite spoilt even compared to other kings. He had actually been second in line to the throne, but his older brother Arthur died young. This left Henry with an overactive need to prove himself at all times. When he wasn't chasing after young women he could be found jousting, hunting wrestling and generally being a show off. He was very used to getting his way.

2) This is Pauline

This is Pauline. Long before he was really famous Mario was chasing after this woman. It wasn't easy for him – in his first game Mario had to leap over obstacles to reach her, and a big gorilla blocked his way. Mario eventually succeeded and for a time he was happy with this woman. Pauline herself is quite plain, and by current standards she's fairly boring and hasn't aged well.

Possible student responses:

Mario had trouble marrying his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had originally been married to Arthur, Henry's older brother. Marrying her was Henry's best course of action because of her ties with Spain, so Henry approached the Pope (in this case that's Donkey Kong) to request special permission to marry his brother's widow.

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For a time the two were happy together. Catherine gave Henry a daughter (and a son who unfortunately died in infancy). As time passed however, Catherine began to age. Her looks faded and her chances of producing children dwindled. Henry began to grow restless and sought out other 'possibilities'. An alternative wife presented herself, younger and much more appealing…

3) This is Peach

This is Peach. She is a princess from the Mushroom Kingdom. She's Mario's objective in most of his games. Whilst at first this might make her seem weak and vulnerable, she is a very capable character, with hidden strengths and abilities. Mario goes to great lengths to impress Princess Peach. She much more visually appealing than Pauline and wears finer clothing. Despite being a possible love interest of Mario, she is always very careful not to get to close to him. The best reward Mario gets from his adventures is a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the head. Nothing more.

Possible student responses:

This is where we make our first distinction between Mario's world and Henry's. Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, is not a princess. She is from an important English family, but she is in fact a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon when she appears on Henry's RADAR. She was very appealing to Henry – much younger and more attractive than Catherine, she always wore fine French-style clothing and was quite pleasing to the eye.

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Henry could have sought any woman to make his new wife, but he wanted Anne. We have to give Anne credit for very effectively manipulating Henry. She's seen various woman chased by Henry, bedded and then immediately forgotten (one of which was her own sister) and was extra cautious with her approach to the king. She gave Henry enough reason to chase her and find her irresistible, using love letters and small tokens of affection, but was very clear that she would not be his until they were married. For a man who lived a life where he got everything he wanted, this turn Anne into an obsession for Henry, and drove him closer to breaking the English church away from Catholicism.

4) This is Bowser

This is Bowser. In almost every one of Mario's adventures, Bowser has been the main antagonist. He is the main reason Mario has to hop, skip and jump to extraordinary lengths to reach Peach, who Bowser is keeping from him. It's feasible that without Bowser's intervention, Mario would be able to get close to Peach without any problems. He is a very powerful individual and in charge of an impressive kingdom of his own. His supporters are also very dangerous.

Possible student responses:

I do realise the slightly disrespectful tone of comparing the Pope to Bowser (and comparing the previous Pope to Donkey Kong). Yet the comparison is essentially sound. The Catholic Church was an incredibly powerful entity in the 1500s, and the Pope's decisions and actions could influence the politics of an entire continent. So when Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment that effectively ended any chance for Henry to remarry. The Catholic Church stood between Henry and Anne Boleyn. If Henry wanted to get close to Anne, he would have to go to more extreme lengths…

Further Thoughts

…and so the lesson goes on. These four points make up roughly twenty minutes. I've only really touched on a fraction of the ideas and inferences that the students should pull from the activity, thought they usually find many more. There are several more features that follow – references to Yoshi, Fire Flowers and the way Mario destroys blocks – but this post would be twice as long if I went through the whole lesson. I'll probably go into more detail next week.

Your Thoughts?

What are your views on this little activity? Can you see how it could be developed further? Can you see any other connections that could be made between Mario and Henry? On the other hand, do you disagree with revision activities like these? Maybe you have ideas of your own you'd like to share below.

Thank You For Reading

I've written about being a Gamer-Teacher (amongst other things) on my blog. Click here to take a look. I'm on Twitter too if you want to contact me.