If we want to reduce global inequality, we could learn a thing or two from Mario Kart

For Boston University researcher Andrew Reid Bell, the popular Mario Kart is much more than a racing video game. In a new study, Bell argues that the principles of Mario Mark can serve as a useful guide for creating more equitable and favorable social and economic programs for low-income farmers.

Image credit: Flickr / Yamashita Yoel

“Farming is an awful thing to have to do if you don’t want to be a farmer. You have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an agronomist, put in a bunch of labor…and 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 said in a media statement.

For Bell, agriculture was once a path to prosperity for the world’s poor, but that’s no longer the case. He traveled across several countries in southern Africa and found small-scale farmers currently face many challenges and life is a perpetual uphill battle for them. New mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty are needed. This is where the Mario Kart metaphor enters the stage.

In the game, when players drift to the back of the pack, they get power-ups such as bananas or green shells that can help them get back into the race – making cars at the front slower while boosting those at the back. Those on top of the race can also get power-ups such as stars and mushrooms but they are much less effective. The worse you’re doing in the race, the more likely it is to get a bonus.

“In any room of professionals or decision-makers, anywhere in the world, someone or their kid plays Mario Kart,” Bell told Vice. “That makes it potentially powerful, because the same people who might launch the next social or environmental program are people who can relate to Mario Kart. It shows us this important social feedback mechanism that’s rare in practice.”

Of course, using the concept of rubber banding to help agricultural families and communities who are in need is much more complicated in the real world than in the game. Still, Bell is optimistic about the prospects. Governments could create a program through which a third party would pay farmers to adopt better agricultural practices – a concept known as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

Ecosystems support plant and animal life by maintaining the overall balance in nature. When functioning well, ecosystems also bring multiple benefits to people. These benefits range from the provision of basic commodities, such as food and fuel, to spiritual benefits – for example, the visually pleasing landscapes that we all enjoy. PES can support farmers who take care of those services for everyone to enjoy.

Bell acknowledges that a big challenge would be finding companies willing to pay for ecosystem services and linking them with the farmers who are open to changing their agricultural practices. The good news is that the more people that participate in such programs, the more that will likely join – a concept that Bell calls as “crowding in” in his paper.

He highlighted that the adoption of mobile phones has significantly increased in most of the world’s developing places. This could help governments and organizations find individuals that are searching for a better livelihood through more sustainable agricultural practices. Still, the access to mobile devices is still far from ideal.

“So many of the things we do in practice—think, reinvesting profits in a business, paying for schools with local property taxes—are reinforcing loops that tend to increase gaps between groups, and it’s really helpful to have this shared, relatable gaming experience to build on,” Bell told Vice.

The study was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

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