'Dr. Mario' Tackles the U.S. Healthcare System in Satirical Take on Game

A satirical video game inspired by the iconic Nintendo title Dr. Mario is shining a light on the state of health insurance in the U.S. today.

The apparent inconsistencies of the U.S. healthcare system have proven a regular topic of debate on social media, whether it's comparing the prices of an uninsured hospital stay in America with one in Europe, or horror stories of patients receiving bills running into six figures.

Now New York-based copywriter Steve Nass and product designer Ivy Hu have weighed into the discussion with Dr. Mario Insurance, a browser-based send-up of the classic 1990 action puzzle game Dr. Mario.

A screenshot of 'Dr Mario Insurance.'
A screenshot of 'Dr Mario Insurance' - Steve Nass has created a satirical version of the classic Nintendo game to shine a light on the issues around health insurance in the U.S. Steve Nass

A falling block puzzle game not entirely dissimilar to Tetris, in Dr. Mario, the aim is to destroy the viruses on screen by aligning them with matching-colored vitamin capsules which are tossed into play by Mario himself.

Once a virus is matched with a capsule, both disappear.

In each level, the aim is to eliminate all of the viruses on screen in order to advance to the next stage. So far, so easy, but Dr. Mario Insurance comes with a killer twist.

Before starting the game, players are asked to provide their real-life healthcare insurance information by selecting from four different health plans and filling out their deductible in U.S. dollars.

Once the game begins, players with a higher deductible will find themselves tasked with removing more viruses and dealing with more pills flying into the screen than those who have a more preferable healthcare plan. As a caption on the title screen explains: "the worse your insurance is, the harder the game is."

Nass told Newsweek the idea initially started out as a bit of a joke.

"We just thought it would be funny to add actual health insurance bureaucracy into the classic game," he said. "But we are strong supporters of Medicare for All and think this game does a good job of illustrating our point of view."

He said the game highlights the alarming situation faced by many needing medical treatment.

"The quality of your insurance can often dictate the quality of care you'll receive," Nass said. "With people putting off surgeries or even declining ambulance rides over cost concerns. That shouldn't be the case."

According to Nass, the original version of the game was made deliberately more complicated to try and replicate the real-life experience. But that was scrapped.

"Originally, we wanted to make the insurance section much more time consuming," he explained. "Basically asking you to fill out all the information required on a real medical intake form. Stuff like your insurance ID, social security number, etc. But, we realized no one would feel comfortable giving that info to a random game on the internet."

In the end, they decided to simplify things and focus on people's deductibles.
"While there's a lot of factors that go into determining the quality of your health insurance, your deductible plays a large role in how much a hospital visit is going to run you," he noted.

He ultimately hopes their efforts shine a light on what they view as a broken system.

Nass said: "In America, there's really no scenario where you can interact with a doctor without bringing your health insurance into it. Right away that's putting up barriers and limiting your options, unless you're lucky enough to have great insurance. If this system feels arbitrary and absurd in Dr. Mario, it should feel that way in real life too."

Dr. Mario Insurance can be played here.