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Does Mario Kart hold the key to reducing poverty and boosting sustainability?

Andrew Bell, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences assistant recently published a paper that suggests we adopt the principles of the popular racing game Mario Kart to reduce world poverty and improve sustainability.

This classic Nintendo racing game has stirred up competition between generations of children and adults alike, everyone enjoying the excitement of collecting tokens and tools to boost speed or impede the paths of their opponents.

According to Bell, a researcher studying economic principles, Mario Kart isn’t just a frivolous source of entertainment, but a model that we can follow to create more equitable social and economic systems that could help support farmers in low-resource, rural regions of the developing world.

Bell says, “farming is an awful thing to have to do if you don’t want to be a farmer… in so many parts of the world people are farmers because their parents are farmers and those are the assets and options they had.” Coming across this story time and time again while on research trips to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malawi, and other countries in southern Africa was the inspiration behind his research on policies that could bolster development.

Now, you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with Mario Kart. If you’ve ever played Mario Kart, chances are you had fun, even if you didn’t win. And this is because Mario Kart is designed to keep all players in the race. If you pay attention while racing, you’ll notice that the game gives players who are lagging behind the best power-ups that will bump them towards the front of the pack and keep them in the race. Players who are in the lead won’t come across such power-ups, left instead with weaker powers.

According to Bell, this boosting principle is called “rubber banding,” and it’s what keeps the game competitive and interesting, as you never know who could end up at the head of the pack.

The concept of rubber-banding is exactly what Bell wants us to adopt in development. Obviously, it’ll be more complicated to implement in the real world, but he has some practical suggestions. For example, he says that governments could set up a program so that a third-party entity, like a hydropower company, pays farmers to adopt agricultural practices to help prevent erosion, so that the company can build a dam to provide electricity.

Although it is an intricate transaction, Bell says that systems like this, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) have already been able to benefit both farmers and the environment. One of the main hurdles, however, is convincing private companies to take part in the program and pay for ecosystem services, as well as recruiting willing farmers who will change their agricultural practices.

Another difficulty of applying Mario Kart’s rubber-banding strategy is to identify which communities are falling behind in the race, and then figuring out how to assist them in the first place because many members of these communities have been living off the grid until recently. However, thanks to the adoption of mobile phones, even by those in the poorest regions of the world, there is a better chance of expanding these programs to those who need them.

Bell acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done if we are to successfully implement rubber banding as a global economic principle, but he hopes that through the parallels he draws with Mario Kart and development, people will better understand the worldwide benefits of improving environmental stewardship while alleviating poverty.

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