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‘Mario Kart’ might teach us how to solve poverty

Published Apr 11th, 2021 9:02AM EDT
mario kart economics
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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Looking for solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems like poverty, environmental sustainability, and agricultural struggles in developing regions can be absolutely mind-bending. There are so many factors to consider that the sheer scope is overwhelming, and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to solve these kinds of issues. Sometimes it’s better to boil things down as much as you can and come up with a model that is applicable to both small- and large-scale problems.

A new paper by Andrew Bell, an assistant professor at Boston University College of Arts & Sciences and economics research, argues that perhaps a video game has some of the answers we’re so desperate to obtain. The game? Mario Kart. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s actually not nearly as silly as it sounds.

One of the things that makes Mario Kart so appealing to gamers of all skill levels is its accessibility. You don’t have to have lightning-fast reflexes or spend hundreds of hours with the game to know how to play. It’s a simple racing experience, but the power-up system is what really makes it shine, and that’s the part that Bell thinks might be a good model for tackling major economic problems.

In the game, the power-ups you receive are random, but only to a point. If you’re in first place during the race, your power-ups will be limited. You might get a banana peel to set as a trap for those behind you or a green shell that has to be aimed precisely in order to hit an opponent, but these are lower-tier power-ups that don’t give you a dramatic edge.

If you’re at the back of the pack, however, you’re offered more powerful boosts to keep you in the race. This could be a golden mushroom that dramatically speeds up your kart for a limited time or red shells that automatically track their targets so you don’t have to worry about aiming. It’s a system that is known in the gaming world as “rubber banding” and it helps keep races tight and fun for everyone, even if they’re having a hard time.

This principle could be applied to economics, with the idea being that those that are struggling the most also get the most help. In agriculture, for example, family farms that struggle to keep up could be matched with companies in such a way that both would benefit. An example is given in which a power company might team up with local farmers in places like Cambodia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and reach an agreement where the farmers would tweak the way they farm so that it reduces soil erosion, affording the company an opportunity to build a dam that would generate electricity in an environmentally-friendly way.

The farmers would be compensated, the land would benefit from less destructive farming practices, and the company would produce green power for the region. It’s a system that lifts everyone up, rather than “boosting” one group at the expense of the rest. It’s real-life rubber banding.

Of course, the concept of helping those in need has been around… well, pretty much forever, and as Bell says, it’s increasingly difficult to determine which individuals or groups are most in need of help. Still, it’s an interesting paper and it provides a really simple way to understand why we need to lift each other up when times are tough.