Mario Kart, Luck, and Fairness

All photos and graphics in this post by me.

I recently listened to an episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green’s wonderful podcast in which he reviews different aspects of our human-centered planet on a five-star scale. In this episode, a review of Mario Kart and the Bonneville Salt Flats, I found something that absolutely delighted me: Green’s comparison of the relative roles of skill and luck in the game of Mario Kart and in real life.

In Mario Kart, Green explains, the question boxes that confer power-ups of varying utility to players are aware of and responsive to the players’ relative placements. The player in first place is likely to receive a marginally useful item (banana peel, coin) upon hitting a question box and will almost never receive the most powerful tools, whereas players in the back of the pack are far more likely to receive superlative power-ups (lightning, Bullet Bill) that give them a dominating edge and enable them to destroy the leads built up by frontrunners far more skilled than them.

“And so, depending on your worldview, the question boxes either make the game fair, because anyone can win, or they make the game unfair, because the person with the most skill doesn’t always win,” Green says.

By contrast, he notes, real life is very much not the underdog’s game.

“At least in my experience, real life is the precise opposite of Mario Kart. In real life, when you are ahead, you are given lots of power-ups to get further ahead… [For example,] people with money in the bank get all kinds of perks just for having money in the bank. Then there are the much bigger power-ups, like the graduating from college with no debt power-up. This doesn’t mean that people with good power-ups will succeed, of course, or that those without them won’t. But I just don’t buy the argument that power-ups are irrelevant.”

In Mario Kart, the balance of luck leans toward those in last place. In life, the chips of chance go to those already in the lead. What some critics look at this situation and see, Green says, is a lack of fairness. Some of them argue that Mario Kart should be structured to provide what life lacks: specifically, a lack of bias toward either end of the race; the pack leaders should have the same probability of benefiting from chance power-ups as the stragglers.

“Now, some will say that games should reward talent and skill and hard work precisely because real life doesn’t. In life, there is so much luck — luck when it comes to health and opportunities and relationships and everything else, and the only consistent power-ups disproportionately fall to the already powerful. In games, if we all have the same chance of getting Bullet Bill, no matter whether we’re in first place or last, at least we can for a little while live in a world with a truly level playing field.”

Green’s response to that perspective is that, in reality, true fairness is when everyone has a chance to win — the model provided by Mario Kart, which “acknowledges luck without dismissing skill” and gives practice and talent the opportunity to prevail while providing room for the less skilled to succeed.

Before listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, I already agreed with Green’s assessment of the right model for Mario Kart, without really thinking about it. Especially as a relatively infrequent player of video games whose skills almost always lag behind those of my friends when we play, I implicitly appreciated the opportunity that chance events and favorable power-ups provided to keep me afloat in the game and even give me a shot to win, once in a while.

This episode didn’t change that. But Green’s dissection of the structure of the game and its analog (or lack thereof) in the real world brought up the issue of whether or not that structure is fair, and it forced me to think about why I agreed and why I thought this model of Mario Kart was the right way to go. In doing so, it provided me with a fascinating lens through which to think about the world and prompted me to grapple with the nature of luck, merit, and fairness.

So, what does constitute fairness?

In the context of Mario Kart and its comparison with the real world, fairness amounts, essentially, to the distribution of luck. As we’ve seen, there are three possible ways to distribute the benefits of chance:

  1. Those already succeeding get good luck, those not succeeding get little/no luck (real world)

Each of these versions calls upon a different principle in defense of its fairness, and in doing so highlights things that human beings expect from a system for it to be “fair.”

  1. Hard work and skill should be rewarded.

All of these seem like sound, just premises. That’s because they are. The truth is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. We CAN have systems that follow all three principles. Yet their results (the scenarios of real world, Mario Kart, and Mario Kart 2.0) appear irreconcilable. How is that?

The answer has to do with the way we define luck. For our purposes, luck is more than just the traditional concept of how we are affected by random events resulting from cosmic chance (being hit by a hurricane is bad luck; being born with a natural immunity to a deadly disease is good luck). Luck, in keeping with the way we’ve structured this thought experiment about Mario Kart and life, is simply the sum/net effect of all things that impact our success or life outcomes and that are not in our individual control.

So in Mario Kart, luck is embodied by which power-up a player receives from a question box. Players in the lead receive power-ups that don’t do them much good, like a basic banana peel. They’re not very lucky. Players trailing the pack receive power-ups that give them a leg up against their competition, like a red turtle shell with which to knock out the racer ahead of them. They’re lucky.

The interesting thing about this definition of luck is that it encompasses things that may not be in our individual control, but that can be deliberately engineered by humans to favor one type of person or player over another. The question box, in our example, and the algorithm that determines what kind of power-up it gives to which players, is the product of conscious decisions made by Nintendo programmers.

In real life, this kind of engineered luck often results from government policy. Recently, for example, people with lower incomes have been the recipients of ‘good luck’ because they qualify for direct COVID-19 stimulus checks while people with higher incomes receive lesser direct payments or no payments at all.

Both the question box and stimulus payments are examples of what we’ll call systemic luck, relative benefits or disadvantages that we cannot individually control but that are consistent, predictable and the result of deliberate policy (usually from government or business leaders) designed to benefit a certain group of people.

This is the kind of luck that people often complain about as unjust, in both video games and in life. In Mario Kart, as Green explains, critics argue that skewing power-up returns in favor of whoever is losing is unfair to people who are actually ‘good at Mario Kart,’ because those people (who have skill or practice or both) will be winning more often than not and will thus be at a relative disadvantage in power-up utility. They’re being punished, critics will argue, for having skill and putting in hard work — for being good at playing the game. The only way to really be fair and have a level playing field, they contend, is to make sure that everybody gets the same amount of luck — equal distribution of good and bad power-ups to all players, blind to their relative place in the race.

What this argument misses, however, is that systemic luck isn’t the only kind of luck in life. Remember, we’ve said that luck includes anything that is out of our individual control. While government or corporate policy is one of those things, so are the individual circumstances of our life that we cannot control — like whether or not both of our parents are together, present or even alive for our childhood; whether or not we were born in a country with well-developed health and sanitation infrastructure; whether or not we were born to parents with a high income, low income or no income; whether we were raised in a country with free and compulsory public education; whether or not we were born with a skin color or last name or gender that makes people treat us differently — the list goes on.

This kind of luck — let’s call it circumstantial luck — is out of pretty much everyone’s control. It’s the way the chips fall when you’re born, the cards the universe deals you at the moment of your conception — a hand assigned to you before you’re even a conscious being, with which you must play for the rest of your life.

Let’s look back at our Mario Kart example with this new distinction in mind. Power-ups aside, what factors would we say are responsible for success in this game? Skill? What is skill? Hand-eye coordination? Good eyesight? A good sense of timing? None of these things are really in our control. They’re circumstantial. They’re genetic. What about experience? Practice? Hard work? Yes, the decision to play a lot of Mario Kart to get better at the game is a conscious action within our control. But the prerequisite to that decision is having regular access to Mario Kart and the freedom to choose to spend our time and energy playing it — which some people don’t have, through no fault of their own. In that case, then, even the fruits of hard work are contingent upon even having the opportunity to work hard in the first place. If we look at things this way, it seems that every aspect of success in Mario Kart is the product of some form of luck, systemic (power-ups) or circumstantial (skill / practice).

It may feel a little extreme to apply this kind of strict analysis to Mario Kart. After all, it’s just a game. It’s for fun. But the principle that’s highlighted by this example is what’s important — because it applies in the real world, too, and in the real world it has real consequences.

We might think that policies that direct resources or aid towards groups that are less successful in the game of life is unfair; that it results in an uneven distribution of luck (external benefits outside our control) by giving more of it to one group than others. But what these policies are actually doing is equalizing the overall amount of luck in the world — the combination of systemic luck and circumstantial luck.

Take this example of how that equalization plays out in the real world. Students from lower-income families often receive financial aid to help them pay for college, while students from higher-income families might pay all of their tuition on their own. This isn’t ‘unfair’ because the lower-income students are receiving more external aid than higher-income students. What this is doing is using systemic luck (financial aid) to compensate for pre-existing inequalities in circumstantial luck (family income). In overall luck, then, the students are now equal.

This is the goal of policies that seek to distribute systemic luck to those who are faring the poorest. And when we look more closely, we’ll see that these policies are exactly the kind we’re looking for if we want to see what true fairness looks like. To understand why, let’s go back to those three principles we brought up at the beginning:

  1. Hard work and skill should be rewarded.

The first and third axioms are generally the ones most important to opponents of targeted systemic interventions like financial aid — or, to take a more controversial example, affirmative action. Let’s start with the third one: “Everyone should be treated equally.” Why is it fair, some would ask, to give two groups different (unequal) benefits based on differentiating criteria that neither of them can control?

The answer to that line of criticism, as we’ve seen, is that seeing the favor human systems provide as producing an unequal distribution of luck is missing the bigger picture — which accounts for the combination of both systemic luck and circumstantial luck. While the systemic luck that we engineer to help certain demographics may benefit different people unequally, the reason for that is because those people already had differing levels of benefits from chance — the benefits they were given from the moment they were born.

We tend to ignore circumstantial benefits because they’re not the result of human choice. We think about what it is fair for us (as a society, country, government, etc.) to do, without realizing that what we do or give to people is only part of their life story. Because beyond and before any human involvement, the universe is inherently unfair; some people are born with natural situational advantages or disadvantages in comparison to others.

Just because we didn’t assign those assets or handicaps doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Whether or not you’re born into a family with money is something completely out of society’s control, but something that will still have a significant impact on your life outcome — through, for example, your ability to access quality education and your freedom from having to skip school to work to support your family. What is in society’s control, however, is whether we allow circumstantial luck to define whether people succeed or not; or whether we use what is in our power — systemic luck, such as financial aid — to balance the scales. What we see as human ‘unfairness’ is simply compensation for the unfairness of the universe — which amounts, in total, to net equality.

In this way, the reasoning often used to attack systemic interventions to help the disadvantaged — that everyone should receive EQUAL external benefits (Principle #3) — actually becomes an argument in favor of not only keeping those interventions but arguably making them more aggressive and comprehensive; we’re balancing the scales of OVERALL benefit from luck, and if we strip away the compensating / balancing force of systemic luck then we are leaving people’s fates to the whims of the universe (circumstantial luck).

And, again, the whims of the universe matter. Take from a global perspective, for example, the enormous impact that the circumstantial luck of being born in a wealthy versus a poor country has on a person’s economic life prospects. Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon estimated that 90% (NINETY EXPLETIVE PERCENT!!!) of the income of a person living in a wealthy society like the United States or northwestern Europe is the product of the “social capital” available to them by virtue of being born or living in that country. Moral philosopher Peter Singer, who uses this estimate in his book The Life You Can Save (an argument for increasing our charitable giving to the world poor as part of our duty to lessen suffering), explains it like this:

“Simon was talking about living in a society with good institutions, such as an efficient banking system, a police force that will protect you from criminals, and courts to which you can turn with reasonable hope of a just decision if someone breaches a contract with you. Infrastructure in the form of roads, communications, and a reliable power supply is also part of our social capital. Without these, you will struggle to escape poverty, no matter how hard you work.”

Clearly, the circumstances in which we happen to be born are hugely influential in how many assets we have with which to succeed, and if we want true equality then we need systemic intervention (foreign development aid, domestic financial aid) to fill in the gaps and balance the distribution of those assets (luck) by providing additional resources to those who are born with fewer to begin with.

The last sentence of that excerpt from Singer is also especially important. It brings us back to that first principle, “Hard work and skill should be rewarded.” This principle involves one of the most fiercely invoked concepts in the fairness debate: deserving.

Don’t people who work hard, innovate and create value deserve to be able to get ahead? Isn’t that the basis of capitalism, the fire in the engine of social and economic progress? Or, in terms of our Mario Kart analogy, shouldn’t people who are good at the game be able to win? How is it fair to treat hard-working, successful people the same as lazy, unsuccessful people?

This is one of the most complicated issues in the fairness debate, and those questions (and, of course, their embedded arguments) are often the most difficult for proponents of systemic action to clearly and coherently refute. The reason for that is because the underlying principle (“Hard work and skill should be rewarded”) resonates with almost everyone. It feels right. It feels like common sense.

That’s because it is. The principle itself is completely valid; people who work harder than others should be able to achieve more and be rewarded for their efforts. The problem is with the way it’s often applied to the real world — when it is used as an ostensible indictment of systems that help the less fortunate or those who aren’t doing so well in life.

One of the most pervasive and counterproductive attitudes about poverty, especially about the world’s absolute poor, is that poor people are poor because they are lazy and/or don’t want to work to help themselves. If these people simply worked hard enough, the thought goes, they could make their own way out of poverty and they would have earned their success. Why do they deserve to benefit from a share (i.e. taxed from my income to pay for foreign aid or domestic welfare programs, or donated by me to a nongovernmental aid organization) of my own hard-earned money? Why should the poor receive benefits that I don’t? I am successful because I worked hard, and I deserve to be rewarded.

The problem with that argument, as we’ve seen, is that most of our success doesn’t actually stem from our own efforts, ingenuity or hard work. It comes from that social capital, from being (circumstantially) lucky enough to have been born in an environment with good opportunities and institutions that allowed us to succeed.

For almost the entirety of this discussion, we’ve been looking at luck and factors outside of our control. What we’re talking about now is choice, and things inside our control. People who make good choices should be rewarded, and people who work hard should get ahead. But what we have to recognize is that in order for us to be fairly rewarded for our choices and work, and to “get ahead” for doing so, we all have to start from the same place — because that’s the only way that our success can be a reasonable indicator of our personal choices and actions. And without deliberately employing systemic luck to compensate for inherent situational inequality and level the playing field, the people who get ahead aren’t primarily ahead because of their hard work — they’re ahead because they started ahead, because they won the universe lottery and ended up with a buttload of circumstantial luck.

That’s why what Singer said is so important. Here’s that last sentence, and the two he continued with after that:

“Without [social capital], you will struggle to escape poverty, no matter how hard you work. And most of the poor do work at least as hard as you or I. They have little choice, even though they almost always work in conditions that most people in rich nations would never tolerate.”

Even if all of us put in the same work, without systemic adjustments to help us make up for starting disadvantages some of us are going to be behind for no other reason than that we started behind. For the world’s poorest, working ten times as hard as the average middle-class citizen of a wealthy society would still yield less “success” because their starting advantages are so absurdly meagher in comparison.

That means that allowing for a system without systemic luck to help out those starting in a less fortunate position actually violates the principle of rewarding hard work, because it means someone born into extreme privilege can do very little work and still have unimaginably higher life outcomes than someone born in absolute poverty who literally works themself to death. Thus, clearly the only way to let hard work be rewarded is to make sure we use systemic luck to level the playing field — to give everyone an equal OPPORTUNITY to succeed through their own work and choices. What do you know, that’s Principle #2 (“Everyone should have a chance to succeed.”)

Now, some don’t like the idea of systemic luck for reasons other than fairness — for example, an aversion to big government or to foreign commitments, both of which are often associated with the active employment of strategies such as these.

To those objections, the answer is this: the only way to reduce or even out the distribution of systemic luck is to make circumstantial luck less of a big deal. We can’t, individually, control what circumstances we’re born into. But as a society, what we can do is make poor circumstances both less common and less severe.

That means income equality. That means equitable and sustainable global development. That means the elimination of systemic racism and the barriers it poses to opportunity. All of these reforms can, in the long run, largely eliminate the need for compensation by making circumstantial benefits more uniform for everyone everywhere.

That’s the ultimate goal. But until we get there, the fact remains that some people are going to be severely disadvantaged due to circumstances that are out of their control, and if we want to be fair we are going to have to use systemic luck to make up for it.

We’ve shown how a structure of compensating for circumstantial inequality through systemic luck allows for P3: equality of treatment (by the total luck received from society + the universe), P2: equality of opportunity, and P1: the chance for hard work to truly set people apart. Now let’s go back to those three scenarios for fairness that we started with in the very beginning, and see which of those systems upholds those principles.

  1. Those already succeeding get good luck, those not succeeding get little/no luck (real world)

Scenario 1 was that of the real world, in which — as John Green puts it — “the only consistent power-ups disproportionately fall to the already powerful.” This one is the most blatantly unfair, because it makes the gap in starting advantages from luck (remember, these aren’t things people earned by their own work, but rather things outside their control that happened to benefit them) so ridiculously large that no amount of hard work can ever come close to catching the least privileged up to the most privileged.

Person A’s starting position is so high it’s off the graphic.

So that’s no good (which is troubling, considering this is the way things actually are — but we’ll get to that in a second). Now let’s skip to Scenario 3. This is the way some critics wanted to revise Mario Kart to make it more fair; by making the power-up boxes indifferent to player positions and thus distributing the benefits of power-ups equally to all players. In the real world, this would mean giving the same amount of systemic luck to everyone, regardless of their situation in life.

While this scenario produces inequality that is less drastic than in the first one, it still means that people’s ability to succeed through hard work is contingent upon their starting cards; their cosmic allotment of circumstantial luck. If we’re looking for fair, this is not it.

Now, finally, let’s look at Scenario 2 — that of our cherished Mario Kart world. In this model, the amount of systemic luck you receive is inversely proportional to your relative amount of privilege in life — in other words, those doing swimmingly from the start don’t receive much additional help, and those who start off on a poorer footing are given more help. Systemic luck compensates for circumstantial luck. In this system, you still have to work to get ahead (in Mario Kart, this means you can’t just put down your controller — you have to stay engaged), but everyone has an equal starting opportunity to do so. This is fair.

As John Green puts it, “the real fairness is when everyone has a shot to win, even if their hands are small, even if they haven’t been playing versions of this game since 1992.”

At long last we’ve gotten to why exactly the Mario Kart model is the right system for fairness. But why does this all matter? It’s just a game. Who cares if or why it’s fair?

It all goes back to this line from Green: “Now, some will say that games should reward talent and skill and hard work precisely because real life doesn’t.”

To me, this assumption (by critics, not by Green) that “we should make Mario Kart fair because the world isn’t” is a problem for two reasons. For one, Mario Kart is fair. We’ve already discussed why and how (at length, as you’re probably painfully aware).

But, more importantly, why make video games fair because the world isn’t? Why not make the world fair because the world isn’t? To me that seems like the much more sensible, and additionally the more hopeful option. We don’t need to use utopian video games to escape the real world — we need to use them to inspire us to make the real world a utopia. It reminds me of this lyric from Bo Burnham’s fascinating song “From God’s Perspective:”

“You pray so badly for heaven /

Knowing any day might be the day that you die /

But maybe life on earth could be heaven /

Doesn’t just the thought of it make it worth a try?”

Life on earth can be heaven. And Mario Kart has shown us how.

my english teacher has no thumbs

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