- Video games, is there anything they can’t do?
Ah, Mario Kart. It’s one of the greatest and most frustratingly rage-inducing racing games ever made. I know it was you who threw that blue shell, Kathleen.
Still, despite – or perhaps because – of the intense competitive mindset it fosters, Mario Kart’s eighth incarnation on Wii U and Switch is the 10th best selling video game of all time. But, as it turns out, it can also inspire gentler thinking in people.
According to Andrew Bell, an assistant professor of earth and environment at Boston University, the game could even help us combat global poverty.
“[Mario Kart] has been fun since I was a kid, it’s fun for my kids, in part because anyone can play it,” said Bell.
But, as a researcher studying the principles of economy, Bell sees beyond the game’s fun factor. In a new study, he suggests that the things that make Mario Kart so fun could serve as guidelines for more equitable social and economic programs.
We Lucky Few, We Band of Rubber
Mario Kart’s game design is about as close to perfect as you can get. Even if you’re losing horribly, the game somehow still makes you want to keep playing.
One of the design principles causing this effect is known as “rubber banding.” Basically, when you fall behind in the game, you will get more powerful and effective speed boosts and items that can let you work your way to the top.
Meanwhile, the game hands only the most basic of powerups to those in the lead. You’re already winning, so you should use your own skills to stay there instead of relying on artificial help.
In a nutshell, the further behind you fall, the more help you get from the game to keep you in the race. With enough aid, the imaginary stretched rubber band will pull you back towards the top positions.
From a psychological perspective, rubber banding helps keep even poorly performing players interested in the game. You won’t simply quit the game when you’re doing poorly – the next powerup might just be what you need to win, after all.
Help the Poor to Help Everyone
Bell argues that applying the principles of rubber banding could benefit the entire global economy. With his theory, he focuses on farming and agriculture in particular.
“Farming is an awful thing to have to do if you don’t want to be a farmer,” said Bell.
“You have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an agronomist, put in a bunch of labor. In so many parts of the world, people are farmers because their parents are farmers and those are the assets and options they had.”
Bell says that he has seen this in effect many times during his research trips. In Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malawi, and Pakistan, many poor people earn their living through inefficient farming because they have no other option.
If the global economy was a Mario Kart race, these people are the ones getting pummeled by shells and falling off Rainbow Road, argues Bell. To give them a better chance at succeeding, they need a bit of aid from rubber banding.
According to his theory, by diverting aid to the struggling farmers in poor countries, we would not only be helping them. Just like in Mario Kart, when the losing player gets a bit of aid, the game becomes more fun for everybody.
Bell argues that directing assistance to poorest of the world’s farmer would improve economy in general by helping them produce more food and products. It would also give a boost to sustainability and environmentally friendly farming practices.
Can’t Code Reality
However, reality is not a video game. It’s easy to program Mario Kart to help poorly performing players because there are no repercussions or side effects beyond that one race.
But you can’t solve global economic issues with a few lines of code. Bell admits that implementing a real-life agricultural rubber banding system will be “really, really difficult to do.”
First of all, the resources diverted to the poor farmers have to come from somewhere. They also need to actually go to the farmers and not end up in the pockets of some shady middleman somewhere along the supply line.
Bell suggests using third-party projects and companies to achieve the results he’s seeking. For example, he says a government could set up a hydroelectric power company that strikes a deal with the farmers.
The company would pay farmers to adopt more productive farming practices that also help prevent erosion. In return, the company would be able to set up a dam that produces electricity it can then sell to the farmers.
The issue here, says Bell, is finding companies that would be willing to pay for environmentally-friendly farming. They would also need to be connected to farmers who are willing to change their ways.
That said, such projects have been successful in some parts of the world, according to Bell. He also says that ones the first participating farmers start reaping the benefits, other are very likely to join in as well.
He adds that modern technology, like smartphones, are becoming increasingly common in even poor regions. They will help finding the farmers who are “at the back of the pack.”
Once we know who they are, it will be much easier to contact them. Then, it should be only a matter of negotiation to discover what would be the best way to help them.
“Mario Kart’s rubber banding ethos is to target those in the back with the items that best help them to close their gap—their own ‘golden mushrooms,’” Bell explains.
All politicians and scientists have to figure out now is what the real-world equivalent of the golden mushroom would be.