Donkey Kong

Allan H. Harvey

I'm a few years too old to have been influenced heavily by video games in my youth. Someday I'll tell my grandchildren about playing Pong and Space Invaders, and they will react like I would to somebody who had driven a Model T. But I didn't grow up on the games, and to this day they don't have much appeal for me (perhaps because I'm not very good at them). One of the early video games did, however, offer some imagery that has stuck with me.

Everybody knows Mario. The Super Mario Brothers games have been a big deal for many years. But Mario made his debut in an early game called "Donkey Kong." As I recall, Donkey Kong featured a big gorilla at the top of a building. You controlled a little man (Mario) who tried to get up to the top of the building. The problem, of course, was that the gorilla was rolling barrels down the staircase and putting other obstacles in your path.

If you're like me and don't have much confidence in your video-game ability, your style of play reflects it. You focus on the obstacles, spending all your time dodging them while hoping for a spare moment to make some forward progress. You survive for a while, but inevitably you die without having gotten much of anywhere.

I've also watched people who know how to play the game. Their focus is not on the obstacles, but rather on the goal at the top. They move forward and manage somehow to take the obstacles in stride. And they win.

The analogy to life should be obvious at this point. This is still something I struggle with -- learning to keep my focus on the things God calls me to rather than on all the obstacles life offers. But in thinking about this parallel, I decided that there is one important difference. Mario is all alone. We aren't. God is not just some distant goal we are moving toward; he is a present reality running along with us, both directly and through other people he places in our lives. Alone, we will inevitably lose to the gorillas of life. But with God, ...

I originally had another ending to this article that talked about moving forward and confidently winning. Then I realized I didn't believe what I was writing, and that it probably wasn't even true. I "lose" a lot, but that doesn't mean God isn't with me. It just means that God has given me the freedom to live, and fail, in this obstacle-strewn world. It also means that God has a different view of winning and losing; most of us would count getting crucified as "Game Over," yet it was His greatest victory. Maybe for some people walking with God really is like a smooth player racking up big points. But for me, it's more often like God picks me up when the barrels roll over me, redirects my hazy vision to the top, and gives me the strength and encouragement to keep stumbling forward. Maybe it's important to recognize that God makes us into winners, even if we don't seem to be scoring many points.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written for "Crossings" newsletter of Bridges ministry, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, 1997, based on thoughts written down in 1993 or 1994.
Page last modified September 9, 2000