Jumping is a mechanic so pervasive that we rarely stop to think about it. It has gone from the defining trait of a genre (platformers) to being included in all manner of action games, adventure games, and first-person shooters. As a means of traversing space it is nearly universal in video games, but in every day life it is nearly absent. How often does an average adult actually jump over something? Adult jumping is limited to hopping over puddles, which is a far cry from leaping over pits and on to platforms suspended in midair. How has this mechanic become so ubiquitous in video games?
One potential answer lies with imitation. While they were not the first video games where you jump over enemies and onto platforms (an honor which may fall to Donkey Kong), the Super Mario Brothers games on the NES were hugely successful. This success spawned a wealth of imitators, leading to countless games where jumping over things was the primary means of interaction. That the Sega Genesis came with Sonic and the SNES with Super Mario World only further ingrained platforming in the gaming consciousness. While the success of these games may help explain the ubiquity of jumping today, there is the still question of how the mechanic came to be in the first place.
Because early video games were two-dimensional, they were limited in choice of perspective. For the most part they had to be a top-down view, as in Adventure:
Or a side view, as in Pitfall:
Top-down games had odd perspective issues in that characters were typically drawn as seen from the side, not from above, as in Dark Chambers:
In a side view perspective game featuring a human avatar, you run into the problem of movement. In shooters like Defender the ship can simply fly in all four directions, because (in theory) that's how spaceships move. But a person is bound by gravity, and simply walking back-and-forth along the ground is not terribly interesting. Burgertime solves this by having multiple platforms connected by ladders: if an enemy is approaching, you can spray them with your pepper, or try to out maneuver them by moving to a different platform. The pepper only sprays directly in front of you; doing nothing but would get old fast. The fun of the game comes from the multi-layered levels. On the other hand, in games like Donkey Kong and Pitfall jumping is the main method of avoiding hostile entities. In other words, jumping provides another way for a gravity-bound person to move vertically, hence making use of the limited 2D space. Of course in the real world we avoid things like rogue barrels and hostile mushrooms by simply walking around them, so jumping in a 2D game might also be thought of as an abstraction of depth.
Of course all of this is highly circumstantial and somewhat arbitrary. Besides, board games with jumping long predate video games and have developed all over the world. In his fascinating book The Oxford History of Board Games, author David Parlett devotes an entire chapter to games where one piece captures another by jumping over it (the following information is taken from Parlett's book). According to Parlett, the earliest game known with this mechanic is Alquerque: the game is described in a manuscript written in 1283, and may be the game called Qirkat mentioned in Kitab-al Aghani, an Arabic book of songs and poetry probably written before the author died in 976. Alquerque is largely accepted as the predecessor of what is called Checkers in the United States, and Draughts (or a variation thereof) in Europe. However, similar games have been found all over the world. Games such as Konane (Hawaii), Siga (Egpyt), Dablot Prejjesne (Sweden), Tobi-Shogi (Japan), Kolowis Awithlaknannai (Mexico), and Koruböddo and Lorkaböd (Somalia) all feature jumping capture.
The long popularity and widespread use of jumping indicates that the mechanic itself has some sort of intrinsic appeal. People tend to have positive associations with height, a topic explored by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson refer to such associations as "Orientational Metaphors." For example, in Christianity Heaven is described as somehow "above" the Earth (as in the geocentric model of the universe that long dominated European thought). Our language expresses the same idea, with phrases such as "jumping up and down," "on cloud nine," "free as a bird" or simply "things are looking up." The opposite is true: Hell is underneath the Earth, we feel "down in the dumps" or "under the weather." (There are of course a few exceptions, such as "I'm down with X" or "high on Y," though whether these are positive or negative phrases depends on who you ask.) This psychology is not limited to humans: many dog behavior experts say that when your dog jumps on you she is being dominant, trying to put you in a submissive position within the pack. In season two, episode three of The Dog Whisperer ("Buddy the Animal Killer"), Cesar Milan recommends stepping over your dog to assert your position as pack leader. In his words, "over means dominant."
When a game piece jumps over another, it is in a superior position than its Earthly (boardly?) victim. The act of jumping your piece over your opponent's has an intrinsic satisfaction regardless of the in-game effect; this simple pleasure is extremely evident when watching beginners play Street Fighter. They jump frequently, almost constantly, relishing the motion: kicking your opponent is less satisfying than leaping into the air and then kicking him. That jumping leaves you extremely vulnerable is fairly obvious yet totally ignored. In his new book Game Feel, Steve Swink presents a picture of Super Mario Brothers tracing Mario's movements: his jumping creates a curved, arcing line. For Swink the shape of Mario's jumps have an intrinsic aesthetic quality: "Whether it's the motion of the avatar itself, animation that's layered on top of it or both, curved, arcing motions are more appealing" (306).
There is more to jumping than psychology and aesthetics, however. In many games jumping is fun because of the associated risk. In a Mario game a mistimed jump will send you into a pit or cause you to collide with the enemy you intended to stomp on. In the old Sonic games your speed increased that risk, as a single jump could carry you through several screens worth of space, leaving you unable to tell where and on what you will land. This may be the reason the new Street Fighter player jumps so insistently: they are playing to have fun, not to win. Jumping can mean power not just over an opponent but over the environment itself: would Master Chief seem so powerful if he could not jump over a small rock or fence? The ability to jump in a first-person shooter gives the player more control over the environment, which makes the game feel less linear: jumping out of a window is more satisfying than backtracking to look for stairs. Jumping was frequently used in later 2D beat-em-ups to create the illusion of 3D space. In these games the player primarily moves in four directions: left and right, towards the player and away. Jumping adds height, so the player now feels like they are playing in three dimensions, as in Battletoads. The same could be said of first-person shooters: without the ability to jump you feel stuck to the ground, as though you are a 2D entity in a 3D space.Battletoads
That jumping has been a part of games for so long indicates that it appeals to players on a very basic level. When studying video games it can be easy to forget that games have thousands of years of history behind them, and that is a long time for a mechanic to remain fun. Jumping's prevalence also suggests a strategy for inspiration: do other common themes in language, myth and psychology exist? And if so, can they be adapted into a game?