Aerodynamics Exhibits Left-Wing Bias?

by John Holbo on May 3, 2010

I don’t want to take this Mario Kart socialism complaint too seriously, but it does seem worth mentioning that the feature of the kart peloton the author objects to as socialistic is also a feature of any peleton in the actually existing physical universe: namely, it can be smart to let some other sucker take the lead.

But it is gross injustice for the universe to burden natural leaders with higher rates of physical taxation, as it were. Abolish the draft! (No wonder the damn Europeans love cycling so much.)



arthegall 05.03.10 at 1:15 pm

the feature of the kart peloton the author objects to as socialistic is also a feature of any peleton in the actually existing physical universe

You mean, peleton in the actually existing physical universe involves giant prize boxes which grant you superpowers? That sounds awesome.

In all seriousness, you haven’t picked a very big target here. Of more (sporting/political) interest would be why so many conservative Americans seem to prefer the socialist systems of American sport (salary caps! luxury taxes! delayed free agency! controlled drafts!) instead of the manifestly more capitalist systems in place in most European sports. I think this was discussed a bit in the D^2 soccer thread below.


John Holbo 05.03.10 at 1:21 pm

Yes, I was going to mention the NFL and NBA drafts – which are much more aerodynamically dramatic in their socialistic effects.


Substance McGravitas 05.03.10 at 1:30 pm

This is why we should all be infuriated by the lack of a good-ole American video game programming industry.

Also: when will Americans start getting McDonald’s franchises?


Gareth Rees 05.03.10 at 1:31 pm

A game designer who cycles writes:

The analogy with a cycling peloton is a bit weak (at least where professional cycling is concerned) because cyclists are involved in a more long-term game than a single race. Professional cyclists race with each other many times in a season, so although a cyclist who didn’t take his turn on the front could gain an advantage in one race, his competitors would quickly identify him as a shirker and find ways to make life hard for him in future (not supporting him in breakaways, or chasing down his every attempt to make a break).

Video game designers have to make a choice: you can design a competitive game so that skill is properly and fairly rewarded, or you can design it so that all the players can have fun and a chance to win, regardless of their lack of skill. There are many games of the first type, and not so many of the latter, but only the latter are suitable for me to play with my six-year-old nephew.


Glen Tomkins 05.03.10 at 1:35 pm

Crony capitalism and socialism

The smartness of letting some other sucker take the lead is a crony capitalist idea.

Now, an actual organized and planned pelleton, where a society of riders take turns in the lead, each according to his means, then cede it to others on the team, each according to his needs, that’s socialism.


politicalfootball 05.03.10 at 1:36 pm

Crooked Timber and Wikipedia show their elitist/ European bias by using cycling as the iconic example of drafting. Real Americans know this phenomenon is central to NASCAR racing. (Wikipedia finally manages to mention this, but only after discussing Formula 1. Buncha commies, I tell ya.)


John Holbo 05.03.10 at 1:42 pm

As a (former) avid cyclist and on-again/off-again spectator of the pros, I am aware of these elements of the sport, Gareth. And I didn’t really mean the point too seriously. But an important feature of Mario Kart is that it actually isn’t interesting only to play with 6-year olds (although I am a current, regular player of Mario Kart with a 6-year old.) In general, competition that places a delicate balance of burdens and advantages on those in front, producing strategic and tactical complications when considering how and whether to take the lead, is not less fun than competition that does not involve such delicate burdens. See also: multi-player Risk.


Tom Elrod 05.03.10 at 2:24 pm

The original Mario Kart for Super Nintendo was much less “socialist” and much less fun. If you took an early lead you were pretty much guaranteed to win. Newer versions may seem less fair, but Holbo’s right: there’s actually a lot more strategy involved now. It’s not always fair, but it makes for a great party game.


chris 05.03.10 at 3:18 pm

There’s a term for that kind of comeback-encouraging feature which I forget at the moment, but the actual reason for it is the one described by Tom @8: it keeps the game competitive even after someone takes an early lead. They can’t just cruise the rest of the way.

This is sometimes criticized as making the early part of the race irrelevant or even counterproductive, if the advantages you gain from being behind are big enough. If you win at the finish line by “losing” in the middle of the race, that’s a somewhat weird strategy.

In any case, it’s only an “industry standard” among silly-racing games like Mario Kart. For anyone who actually *objects* to the fact that the race is not always to the swift, but time and chance happeneth to them all, well, if you want Gran Turismo you know where to find it.


chris 05.03.10 at 3:20 pm

The analogy to economic systems is so silly I forgot to mention this, but: if there were a Capitalist Racer, the people in the lead would get the best powerups. And some players would start with huge head starts *and* superior performance carts.

Few, if any, people would enjoy playing that game from one of the non-favored positions.

Life isn’t a game, but if it were, it would have balance flaws big enough to drive an entire racing-game character lineup through.


Gareth Rees 05.03.10 at 3:42 pm

There’s a term for that kind of comeback-encouraging feature

I’ve always heard it called catch-up, but it doesn’t get discussed all that much because the capitalist ethic (“for whosoever hath, to him shall be given”) is normal and widespread, while the socialist ethic (“all must have prizes”) lurks in the “party game” niche.


John Holbo 05.03.10 at 3:49 pm

“you can design a competitive game so that skill is properly and fairly rewarded, or you can design it so that all the players can have fun and a chance to win”

I’ll just pick on Gareth’s assertion a bit more, because I think it’s sort of interesting how this claim is superficially plausible but – on reflection – not. Games of chance are not ‘unfair’, and games in which, say, the 2nd and 3rd most powerful players are typically incentivized to try to drag down the leader (Risk) are not ‘unfair’. We don’t want to talk about the nature of fun competition as though it’s always a matter of the loneliness of the long distance libertarian, as it were.


Zamfir 05.03.10 at 3:52 pm

Aerodynamics is the schoolbook example of a complex system, and as our conservative friends like to remind us, you cannot control a complicated system by simple means. You must rely on the invisible hand to guide you to optimal outcomes.

That’s why a I always laugh at those silly engineers who develop elaborate theories and use soviet-style computer models to centrally plan their shapes. They keep tuning the curves and adding little wings and all kinds of other ‘regulations’ of the airflow. But if they had only read Hayek, they would have known that no top-down approach can capture all the dynamics of the flow.

To celebrate the free market, I have wrapped my car in plastic sheets. The invisible hand blows it in the perfect aerodynamic shape better than any designer ever could, and my top speed is now higher than ever, and growing by 8% each year!


John Holbo 05.03.10 at 3:54 pm

“the socialist ethic (“all must have prizes”) lurks in the “party game” niche.”

I have to say, Gareth, using ‘socialism’ as an synonym for ‘strategy’ will not get you onto the podium, even in MarioKart.


Gareth Rees 05.03.10 at 4:21 pm

loneliness of the long distance libertarian, as it were

This seems far from apropos to this discussion: wasn’t Sillitoe’s character making the point that sporting contests, and the social cachet that goes with winning them, are worthless? The nihilistic ethic, if you will. Certainly that’s a respectable philosophical point of view, but not one that is showing any signs of taking over the video game industry.


John Holbo 05.03.10 at 4:31 pm

Gareth, you were the one who brought up the importance of ‘long-term racing’, weren’t you? My point is that you are writing as if the only ‘fair’ competitions, the only sort in which ‘skill is properly rewarded’ are the long-distance runner-type competitions. I am pointing out that this is not plausible, and that it doesn’t make sense to equate strategy games with socialist games. Do you agree?


Gareth Rees 05.03.10 at 4:59 pm

you were the one who brought up the the importance of ‘long-term racing’

Only in the context of expressing unhappiness with your analogy between Mario Kart and a cycling peloton, not in general terms for all games everywhere.

you are writing as if the only ‘fair’ competitions

Maybe I should have scare-quoted “properly and fairly”? There’s a widely held viewpoint that video games should be pure tests of skill, the Platonic form being a game in which the stronger player can quickly and ruthlessly pwn the weaker player every time. (A view perhaps best expressed in David Sirlin’s book Playing to Win.)

I don’t agree with this view, but it does influence many game designers, and explains, to some extent, why video games that mix skill and chance to the extent that Mario Kart does are fairly rare.


chris 05.03.10 at 5:41 pm

@17: It doesn’t have to be quick. Chess and go are respected games of skill in which a stronger player will almost always win, but most games take quite a while.

Of course, many players do not like to continue playing a game in which they are already behind by a hopeless margin. There is a long tradition of resigning lost (but not formally finished) games in chess, go, and quite a few other games — but not Mario Kart, where not only is the game short enough that you might as well finish, but you’re not really “out of the game” until it ends.

(The debate on the role of chance in games is not limited to video games — the same arguments probably came up in chess vs. whist debates before the first computers ever booted up. Many popular non-video games combine skill and chance, e.g. bridge, poker, mah-jongg, Monopoly, Risk, Settlers of Catan, etc. But most of those don’t have a comeback-assistance feature like the one discussed here.)


Dennis 05.03.10 at 5:46 pm

Jumping in here quickly on the topic of David Sirlin’s book, one might point out that what Sirlin would say here is that the rules of a game are simply the rules of that game and that the presence or absence of catch-up mechanisms do not appreciably reduce the “game of skill” aspect of the game — randomness does that. This is particularly noteworthy in Sirlin’s case since one of his big projects over the last few years was the rebalancing of Super Puzzle Fighter II, a competitive game whose very strong catch-up mechanism he particularly admired in Playing to Win:


Stuart 05.03.10 at 5:56 pm

Surely it depends on your target audience – games designed like Mario Kart are not popular for people of relatively equal skill to play (or usually not for long) , and for the last few decades this group of people has been the dominant group buying video games so the market has mostly catered to them. Of course by catering to this group with the vast majority of games it also worked to largely shut out others that have less time to play and build up skill/experience in each game, especially as they wouldn’t have the transferable skills/experience on similar previous games.


Substance McGravitas 05.03.10 at 6:10 pm

it also worked to largely shut out others that have less time to play and build up skill/experience in each game



alex 05.03.10 at 7:11 pm

That’s all very well, but the really important question is, can anybody here spell peloton correctly more than once?


Matt McIrvin 05.03.10 at 7:26 pm

Many game reviewers have already semi-seriously complained that Mario Kart Wii is Communist or anti-meritocratic on this basis. Some go so far as to say that the game has no skill element at all, which is a gross exaggeration.

I find that many of the people saying this just haven’t mastered the defensive use of green and red shells, which are the primary items you get if you’re in the lead. When dragged behind or orbiting the lead vehicle, they serve as partial shields. They don’t provide a universal defense against all item attacks–nothing will protect you from a detonating blue shell except being sufficiently far away from the lead racer–but they can still give the player in front a significant edge. Similarly, there’s a trick to avoid being maximally inconvenienced by the earthquake-producing POW Block.

There’s also one unlockable character, Rosalina, who has excellent stats and can be accessed much more easily if you’ve also bought Super Mario Galaxy. If that isn’t capitalistic I don’t know what is.


Matt McIrvin 05.03.10 at 7:43 pm

Oh, yes, and banana peels can be used similarly to shells. Not fake item boxes, though.

In TVTropes terminology, the extreme poles of conflict discussed here are the “Scrubs” (people who complain that any reliable winning technique used by the highly skilled is “unfair”) and the “Stop Having Fun Guys” (elite players who consider the reward of supreme skill to be the point of a game, and hate it if the noobs get to have any fun). Even among Mario Kart Wii players, there’s a similar debate over the legitimacy of different control schemes: the most elite players tend to use joystick-based controllers that give them an advantage over Wii Wheel users, who sometimes complain about this in Scrublike fashion.


jackd 05.03.10 at 8:27 pm

Yep, cycling would be a very different sport if there were the occasional smart bomb that targeted the leader. Thinking of this possibility now has me wondering when a live-action version of Mario Kart will appear as a reality TV program.


Simstim 05.03.10 at 8:50 pm

Well, it’s not a reality show but there is this:


james 05.03.10 at 9:29 pm

Capitalist fans of the NBA / NFL tend to view the league as the base product and teams as individual components of that product.

Concerning the difference between soccer drafts vs. NBA / NFL. Most sport fans tend to be favor the team that is considered the ‘hometown’ team at the time the fan started following the sport. This can even change if the fans hometown changes.

Hypothesis: The US fan is more likely to move around the country more than the European fan. This would then encourage a league system that benefited all teams equally, because the fans are more likely to switch teams they favor.


elm 05.03.10 at 9:30 pm

twelve traditional Mario World characters, from Toad to Princess Peach, and from Luigi to the lowly Koopa Troopa (see above), awkwardly perch atop under-sized go-karts

What tripe.

First, the game features 26 characters, not 12. It’s hard to take the author seriously if he hasn’t bothered to unlock a single hidden character (several are available in the 50cc difficulty level).

Second, the game features a variety of different karts and motorcycles, not all of which are undersized.

Thirdly, the character pictured is the Koopa Paratroopa (Red), not the Koopa Troopa. Basic fact-checking would have revealed that the Koopa Paratroopa was playable in Mario Kart: Double Dash but not in any other Mario Kart games.

Finally, the single banana, green shell, or even the fake item box are very useful items for the first-place holder, as they can intercept projectiles (most-often red shells) or damage a racer trying to pass you. (And if the Bullet Bill really is Frost’s favorite item, as he claims, then he really needs to practice more.)


william u., microhydrodynamics nerd 05.03.10 at 9:41 pm

Incidentally, the peleton effect is known in microfluidics, where it leads to clustering of capsules in channel flow ( or longitudinal density waves in a moving droplet “crystal” (


James Wimberley 05.03.10 at 10:04 pm

This comment thread strongly suggests we are all doomed.


Kenny Easwaran 05.03.10 at 10:37 pm

I assumed the mention of a “left-wing bias” in aerodynamics meant that there was some sort of pitch or yaw effect in the game whereby the carts are always going counterclockwise around the track, as the left wing always overtakes the right wing. And I assumed that the reference to eliminating the draft just indicated that air currents can be unfair.


Steve 05.04.10 at 12:03 am

I’m living proof this isn’t true. A couple of years ago, I used to regularly play Double Dash with three guys who lived together, and played the game regularly between themselves. Obviously, they were a lot better than I was. If this ‘socialist’ critique made any sense, you’d have expected me to win circa 25% of races. In reality, it was closer to 2%. There are plenty of elements of skill (drifting, shortcuts, circuit knowledge, ‘not crashing’, etc) outside of the weapons.


John Holbo 05.04.10 at 3:37 am

Yes, as I tell my daughters: if you expect me to solve all your problems for you all your life like a great big Bullet Bill (daughters make sad eyes) … aw, who wants to order pizza!

I agree with elm that a single banana or green shell is a formidable weapon in the hands of one who knows.


elm 05.04.10 at 3:42 am

Steve: The more-likely explanation is that the author consistently loses to his fiancee. Obviously she can’t be better at it than he is (video-game skill resides in the penis) so the proper glibertarian response is to complain about sozialism (which is easier than admitting that he stinks at Mario Kart).


JoB 05.04.10 at 7:28 am

I need to warn everybody of the use of cycling metaphors in politics; there is a definite risk for politics to become nothing more than cycling metaphors, as show by my countrymen.


ajay 05.04.10 at 12:54 pm

35: there is a definite risk for politics to become nothing more than cycling metaphors

Man is born free, but is everywhere in Lycra.


Walker Frost 05.04.10 at 1:04 pm

This comment thread has brought me joy like acquiring the three red-shell halo in 3rd place on the final lap.

I do lose to my fiancee, often. Fortunately, for those of you worried, neither of us will lose sleep over whether or not our contingent political preferences are loosely propagated in a kick-ass video game. But it’s scarily fascinating that we live in a world where some people do.

And, elm, its 12 characters per race. Have you ever come in 26th place? But hats off to you for identifying Paratroopa Koopa. I muddled that detail because I liked his red guard shoes.


JoB 05.04.10 at 1:14 pm

ajay, there is not one local politician here that has not been in Lycra on some front page or other.


nutellaontoast 05.05.10 at 6:19 pm

“nothing will protect you from a detonating blue shell except being sufficiently far away from the lead racer”

Jumping in rather late, this is not true. A properly timed mushroom evades a blue shell, though it is rare to be in first with a mushroom, though possible (usually from being in second and overtaking. I sometimes hang onto mushrooms in such instances for this very reason)


Anon 05.06.10 at 1:33 pm

I know this thread is dead, but I’m shocked that you got through it without anyone mentioning that Mario Kart Wii has OPTIONS. You can, in fact, turn off all the power ups entirely. Or you can distribute them (if I recall correctly) “random”(ly), “aggressive”(ly), or “balanced”. I forget what the default is, and I think I generally played on aggressive, but it is absurd to complain of socialism in a game that so clearly and easily allows you to opt out of the system.

Also if you want war do one of the battles!

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