If you heard Mario (of ‘Super Mario Brothers’ fame) was getting involved in education, your first thought would be that he might be teaching a plumbing course. He is, after all, one of the most famous plumbers in the world (even though Nintendo recently confirmed that he no longer works as a plumber). That isn’t the case in the United Kingdom, though. Thanks to an unlikely new partnership with the country’s education sector, he’ll be teaching students computer design skills. 

Mario, the mustached, coverall wearing Italian handyman, is one of the most recognizable fictional creations in the world. Having made his debut as a video game character more than three decades ago, he’s gone on to star in his own feature film, and has been the star of cartoons in his native Japan. His likeness was even used in a mobile slots game called ‘Plumber,’ although it later transpired that the creators of the game had no approval to use the character. Nintendo would later release an official Mario mobile slots game of their own. Like the people who play on LateCasino.com, they don’t like to miss out on money! As a digital celebrity, he might seem like an unusual choice to turn up a child’s classroom – but he’ll be doing so as part of something called the ‘Digital Schoolhouse’ program in the country. 

The UK has recently acknowledged that it’s suffering from a severe digital skills gap. Plans were announced earlier this year to open twelve brand new technology institutes in the country to help address the problem, but that’s just one of several measures that have been approved and implemented by Government agencies. The Digital Schoolhouse project is a not-for-profit initiative which has been set up by the Association for United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment (UKIE). That’s the trade association for the video games industry within the country, and so the initiative is their own attempt to help develop the technical skills of young people by using video games. 

Although specific details of what their proposals involve are scant at this stage, the association has stated that their objective is to teach children skills related to technology, computing, video games development, and esports by organizing ‘play-based learning sessions.’ Nintendo has been called in to assist with the project, and have now been confirmed as the lead partner for the project. They’ll supply hardware (believed to be Nintendo Switch consoles and Super Mario games) to more than fifty different high schools and colleges in the country, beginning next month. Up to 32,000 students are expected to benefit. Their fellow students at schools and colleges who aren’t partaking in the project are expected to be jealous of their peers playing video games during school hours!

As well as the in-class sessions, Digital Schoolhouse will host an e-sports tournament which will be open to every student in all 55 participating schools. The best six thousand students between the schools will be identified, and they’ll go head to head on the popular switch game ‘Super Smash Brother Ultimate’ to crown a winner. While a prize will be available for the winner, attendees to the tournament will also find themselves taking part in an esports career fair. As well as explaining the financial rewards available from becoming a successful esports player, experts will talk participants through the finer points of esports commentary and esports team management, as well as outlining the career path and requited qualifications of anybody wishing to get involved. Whether parents will see esports as a valid career path as much as their children do remains to be seen. 

This isn’t the first year that the Digital Schoolhouse project has been up and running, but it will be the largest so far. It’s also the first year they’ve had a corporate partner the size of Nintendo. Engaging large, familiar companies is seen as key to the UK’ strategy for engaging more pupils with computing and IT classes in school. Although video games are as popular in the UK as they are in most developed nations, the enthusiasm that young people have for video games has not, in the past, translated into an enthusiasm for learning about how they’re made. That’s left the UK struggling to compete in the $180bn global video games market – a situation they would like to improve. 

Based on the latest research into the matter which has been performed inside the country, the move is a timely one. The Open University conducted a study into skill shortages in June of this year, and identified that as many as eight out of ten businesses will encounter digital skill shortages in the next five years. The technical requirements and expectations of modern businesses are constantly evolving, and the number of qualified people emerging through the UK’s university system to fill those roles is insufficient. In the past, companies have hired expertise in from abroad, but it’s unclear how practical that process will be if the country ever completes its protracted exit from the European Union. 

Although their direct involvement in the Digital Schoolhouse program is new to Nintendo, it isn’t their first foray into UK schools. In the past, they’ve also provided Labo kits to students in an attempt to improve the teaching of engineering. By playing with the cardboard pieces of Labo, it was hoped that students would develop an understanding and appreciation of more complex pieces of electronics design. It’s not yet known how effective the Labo project was. 

While some parents and conservative media outlets are likely to report on the news a nothing more that students being given permission to play Mario games when they should be studying more serious subjects, the structured nature of the program will hopefully refine and develop computing skills among the country’s young, and interest them in pursuing a career in an area where the country desperately needs fresh blood. Not everyone who studies video game development will go on to develop video games, but the skills they pick up during the attempt would be transferable to other areas of technical design. If Mario is successful in teaching children how to program and design, we look forward to Sonic the Hedgehog’s inevitable entry into the country’s athletic training schools.