Rubber Banding Mechanics: Does the Best (Wo)man Always Win?

I find it hard to believe that there is a person on the planet who doesn’t, or wouldn’t, like Mario Kart.

Those who have played it before are always willing to play it again, and those who play it for the first time always want to, or at least are compelled to, often by other people. After all, it is particularly non-threatening. For the seasoned gamer, the nostalgia and familiar characters related to Mario Games plays no small part in their appeal, and for everybody, the cartoon-y graphics, simple controls, bright colours and “cutesie” aesthetic give them a degree of accessibility.

Mario Kart in most of its incarnations is arguably the King of the rubber banding mechanism.  Although in the newest version (MK8) the rubber-banding is less pronounced, we opted to play the retro Mario Kart: Double dash on the trusty Nintendo Gamecube, with its clunky plastic controllers and its tiny, tiny discs.

Rubber banding is a game-balancing mechanism where players in the lead are essentially handicapped and those that are not doing so well are given bonuses.  Mario Kart is famous for its inclusion of this mechanic, in that players in the lead get less powerful power-ups than those that are behind.  This was exemplified in one race of the tournament, where a player who had played the game for the first time ever that evening actually beat another player, who was very experienced in more realistic driving games.  This is not to say that complete gaming illiteracy can produce a win with a rubber banding mechanism – you can’t just bash buttons repeatedly against your face and still magically win – but Mario Kart goes a ways in levelling the playing field between more and less experienced players.


IMG_1465[Is this complex mathematical formula calculating the Event Horizon of a Black Hole? Almost. It’s our tournament scoreboard. Credit for the Image to @JLMittelmeier]


In our discussions after the tournament, this is something that we agreed is actually expected from Mario Kart, and indeed we love the game for it.  After all, it is no fun and actually pretty boring to be beaten in any type of game, over and over again, by a player that is better than you.  If you think you have no chance at all to win, the odds are that you probably won’t play it all that much, but Mario Kart circumvents this precisely because of its rubber banding mechanism.  It has replayability because of this mechanism as well as because of the luck element involved – this means even when you lose, you don’t feel angry about it as you know this is the nature of the game.  Plus, racing a kart driven by a dinosaur or a moustached plumber with no neck – the lack of realism in the game – makes a loss ok, more so than with more realistic driving games.


We also played a dice game called Heck Meck,

a (probably) Swedish game using die and tiles.  There are tiles numbered between 21-36 on their top half, and on the bottom half that have “worms” that relate to their value.  By this, I mean the ’21’ tile has one worm, and the 36 has 4.  The fiction of the game is that the players are chickens trying to get the most tasty worms for tea.

The aim is to have the most worms at the end of the game.  To obtain a tile, and hence those coveted and yummy worms (at least by some, see below….), you roll and keep (i.e. do not re-roll) all the die with the same numeric value (all the 1s, 2s, etc), and repeat this process, re-rolling all the die you have left over, without taking a numerical value that you have already.  For example, you might roll and take all, but only, the die showing ‘4’s on your first roll, meaning you cannot take ‘4’s on any subsequent rolls until the end of your turn.  On the 2nd roll you make take the ‘5’s, and the third all the ‘3’s. Easy yes? Surely you can get a mollusc cocktail each time….  Not quite.  You see, on the die themselves there is a ‘worm’ in place of the 6 – a measly little worm that doesn’t count in terms of your score at the end of the game, but it does allow – or the lack thereof prohibits you – from taking a tile.  In other words, you can have 36 in numeric value on the die faces, but without at least one worm (worth 5 in value, incidentally) you will be sans tile, or in other words, go bust.


So although the aim is to have the highest number possible on the combined die, and take a tile as your reward, you must have a worm in the hand (and not two in the… can?) to be in with a chance at a prestigious and glorious victory. However, the game includes targeted interaction where you can steal other people’s tiles if you roll the exact number of their tile on the die.  Although this doesn’t in a strict sense create a rubber banding mechanism in itself, it does mean that the person(s) that visibly have the most tiles and appear to be winning are the ones that you aim to steal from, and this brings more balance to the game.  There is, of course, a luck element involved in that you are rolling a dice, and chance is what a dice is particularly good at.  But it was certainly interesting to note how the elements of chance and targeted interaction worked together in our sOUgame session this evening.

For example, at the start of play when most of the players were unfamiliar with the game, there was much collaboration involved in terms of both the rules (“is this right?”) and also the play of it (“is this a good move?”) but this was to be expected.  However initially during play, even when a player rolled an exact value (28) and were within their rights to steal this tile from another player, they chose not to – instead opting to be ‘nice’, instead taking the lower value (27) from the tile pool, something allowed within the game’s rules.  I see this as potentially being for one (or both) of two reasons.

1) There was an element of social negotiation, in that the player in question, being unfamiliar with the other player, was unsure how they would react to such blatant and outright pillaging.  This could have been awkward, and no one does awkward like the British so perhaps the player didn’t want open this can of, ahem, worms.

2) The player in question was aware that taking the ’28’ tile would award them 2 worms at the end of the game, but the ’27’ would also award them 2 worms, so why create a conflict when this makes you a target?

Stealing a tile from another player instantly marks you as a player that deserves to be stolen from, something that became immediately evident when it became almost a greater achievement to steal a tile from the player that opened pandora’s worm farm than to obtain one from the tile pool.  Though conversely, stealing another player’s tile means they have less worms than you and is thus a sound tactic, as it might hinder them and help you win…. or at least that is one way you could play the game.


That’s if you’re not nice.


Theft of tiles amongst players more familiar with each other was swift and immediate, so I’m more inclined towards (and perhaps would like to believe) in the former explanation, or at least that there are nice people gamers in the world.  Though, as play progressed and familiarity with the game and each other increased, the egregious theft of hard-earned tiles also increased, and rightly so, given that we were many players meaning “legitimately” gained tiles from the tile pool became increasingly hard to obtain.  As we were a few in number, it is also fair to say that that players who were at the beginning of the turn order had an easier time of it, in that they had more tiles in the tile pool available to them when they took their turn, as well as the ability to take a tile with a lower value than their die from the tile pool rather than needing to roll an exact number to be able to steal one.

Some might say that the early bird catches the worm. (Pause for groans).

There was a certain element to our play tonight, however, that was surprising (and if I may say apologetically, pretty amusing) in that one of our number appeared to have a phobia of worms – even the cartoon worms represented in Heck Meck, with smiley faces, eyes and the like.  So strong was this phobia was that the player had to roll the die wearing gloves, in that they had a real repulsion of handling the die, despite the fact that they were evidently and categorically merely pictures of worms.

Here you may have to indulge me for a moment, as I’d like to return to Bateson (1987), mentioned in passing in the last blog.  You see, Bateson was a psychologist and talks about aspects of play as “denoting” something. So in play terms, “these actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote” (185).  So, the nip of a puppy denotes a bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by a bite, i.e. an aggressive and serious act. The puppy is not actually “biting”, but what it is doing *looks* like it is biting: it’s a fictional bite, in that it is not “real”. It looks like it, but it’s not.

Have you ever seen a dog try and play with another dog, but the other dog gets unnecessarily aggressive? This is an example of where this meta-communication becomes confused, i.e. the other dog has misinterpreted the signals and mistakes those that mean “play” for those that mean “not-play”. [I mean, the other dog might not be in the mood to play so is just warning the other dog to stop being so bloody exuberant ….. but I’m sure you get the picture in that both would be reasons for this behaviour].

In other words, one dog is in the “play frame” and one isn’t – something that happens with humans also, for example, when you’re not sure if someone is joking with you or not (“Is this play?”).  But more so, Bateson is talking about humans in this paper, and about how distinguishing between these frames, of drawing categories between different logical types, can be difficult for certain types of people.  Although he talks most prominently about people with schizophrenia finding it difficult to distinguish between these different frames, I think the phobia we saw could fall into this category of frame confusion, albeit at a much, MUCH reduced scale.  The tiles and die denoted “worms” to the player, but rather than them responding to these denoted worms as denoted worms (a “nip”) and that these represented worms did not denote what they stand for (i.e. “real” worms), the player had a similar response to them as if they DID denote what they stood for.  This is not to say that the player thought the cartoon worms actually were real worms – the exact opposite is true, something that clouds the application of frame confusion here.  But that their response to the denoted worms was similar as they might have been to real worms…..

So far, I fear this is becoming a bit complex and will result in me having a cranial haemorrhage, so I will return to Bateson with another example that will hopefully clarify some of the meaning here.  Bateson also states (188-9) that this relationship can be reversed.  Imagine a nightmare, where you are falling from a cliff.  Your response to this nightmare – even though the actual falling from a cliff is fictional, and not “real”, nonetheless it still evokes a feeling of fear, i.e. “The images did not denote that which they seemed to denote, but these same images did really evoke a terror which would have been invoked by… a real precipice” (189).

In Bateson’s cases, the theory doesn’t quite fit in terms of our player and their response to the denoted worms, in that they were aware that they were not real worms but had a similar response to them, unlike in a nightmare where (for the most part) you are not aware that it is a nightmare, or that the player had a frame-confusion about whether the worms were ‘real’ worms, which they didn’t.


So much for clarification.


Much as I’d like Bateson’s theory of frame-confusion to fit in our case, I can’t help the feeling that I’m trying to shoehorn it, but I appreciate the mental free-spill being indulged.  It has also been pointed out to me that frames in a play sense, really, work more in the social construction of an experience i.e. in terms of (mis)meta-communications between players, of which this actually wasn’t.  It was perhaps more related to individual perception, i.e. the player’s phobia caused a misreading of the affordances of the light related to the denoted worm, meaning their response was similar to that of a real worm. As wonderful as it would be to get into the nitty gritty of Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception as an explanation for this phenomenon, this is perhaps best saved for another time.

To conclude, in regards to Heckmeck, the roleplay elements were lacking, in that no one really identified with their chicken-self and threw themselves into the character, which was a shame.  But it was certainly fun to play it and produced some interesting questions that have only begun to be answered.  In terms of Rubber banding mechanisms, did the best player win? In Mario Kart I think we could all agree that the winning player was a consistent winner, i.e. they weren’t constrained too much by the rubber banding mechanism so as not to achieve the victory that they probably (it wasn’t me so….) deserved.  The rubber banding mechanisms however did even the playing field, meaning that all of the players felt they were in with a chance, and were happy to keep racing. Though this might be a conclusion that is only be applicable to Mario Kart, it’s one that is fine by me.

Good game, guys, good game.


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