My two nieces, Rowan (5) and Riley (3), come over to our house to play 1-2 times a week usually, and my mom (their Nana) watches them. Sometimes though, they like to go to my room, where they hammer out tunes on the keyboard and get me to go play with their Legos. One time though, I was playing my NES, and they were both pretty interested- Rowan wanted to play and Riley seemed OK with just looking at the colors on the screen, so I started Rowan playing Super Mario Bros (1).
"Why would you want to start with Mario 1?" you might be asking. I had actually thought this through before. I figure that if they were started on newer games, like New Super Mario Bros for Wii, a couple of negative things would happen. First, that game is significantly more complex and would add time to the learning curve for a girl who had never played a platformer before, much less any video game not on a touch-interface / tablet. Second, the newer Mario games always have nostalgic little callbacks to the older games that newer gamers probably miss, and third, if you start people off with that style of graphics, they may not appreciate any previous games as much because they look "worse." That last one kind of stuck with me; if she played a later game first and this happened, she'd have nothing to look forward to past the newer 3D mario games. If she started with the original game, now there are 15+ sequels she can play after that, each one changing the formula a little and adding to it.
I had tried to get Rowan to play this when she was 2 1/2 but she couldn't grasp the significance of what was happening onscreen, just that she could push a button and make Mario jump. I figured that she'd have to wait a couple more years before "getting it," and I also didn't want to try to make her play it before she felt ready.
I started up the game and pressed "start," then handed her the controller. She ran into the first goomba immediately. "That's ok, she doesn't really know the controls," I thought. I showed her how to jump, and that she could jump on enemies. Then I had to show her that she could hit "?" blocks, and that some of them had powerups/mushrooms and some just had coins. Then to explain what the mushrooms DID and why you'd want to get one ("no, they're not the same as goombas, they're good mushrooms"). She also doesn't have a lot of hand-eye coordination/timing built up because she's never really played games that require those things. Man... I didn't realize how much work this would actually be. We take a LOT for granted once we learn things.
Occasionally she'd hand me the controller so she could see how I played. I didn't really teach her how to run because the game doesn't really require that yet (not until later stages), and it was already a big learning curve on top of that. After a large amount of deaths to enemies and falling into pits.. suddenly she had beaten 1-1 and was on to 1-2. She can now play about half of 1-2, but she can't make it over some of the pits in that stage.
She definitely surprised me a couple times. Her dad picked her up later that day, and while she was playing, one of us mentioned to the other that Big Mario can break blocks, which she overheard and just started doing on her own. She intrinsically knew that stars were good (props to Miyamoto there) and also figured out how to go down pipes, though she was a little freaked out the first time she saw that (it makes the same sound as when you get hit after being big; maybe she thought that's what was happening).
All of this has made me realize something - she started out initially trying to approach the first stage as a memory game, kind of like any one of the edutainment games she was playing on iPad at the time. Gotta remember that this goomba is HERE, gotta use the same strategy every time, gotta get the mushroom that is in this specific "?" block, but not explore and see other "?" blocks. Eventually she started to branch out a lot more. Videogames kind of make you do that, at least good ones, because you will get similar situations (it's a goomba!) but in different environments (there's only 1 block to move in, how do I kill it without getting hit?) It makes it interesting to watch and see how a kid learns this stuff for the first time. Hopefully she'll learn even more in the next few months. Maybe I'll get to see her beat the entire game one day.
Oh and the 3-year-old? Press right -> die. Repeat. Forever. She still has a lot of fun watching Mario die though!