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John Green reviews a kart racing video game series and a vast expanse of salt-encrusted earth located in the desert of northwestern Utah.

Thanks to Backblaze for sponsoring this episode: http://backblaze.com/anthro

 (00:00) to (02:00) Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. My name is John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the video game series Super Mario Kart and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But first a quick thank you to the sponsor of today’s episode, Backblaze. You can back up everything on your computer for just five dollars a month at backblaze.com/anthro; that’s backblaze.com/anthro.


Okay, let’s begin with the video game Super Mario Kart, which was first released for the Super Nintendo in 1992. Super Mario Kart was initially slated to be a racing game with Formula 1-style cars, but hardware constraints on the Super Nintendo forced the designers to build tightly woven tracks that folded in on themselves—the kind that only go-karts can navigate, and so it became a kart racing game, in which characters from the Mario universe squat atop karts, kinda like I do when I try to ride my daughter’s tricycle.

Players can choose from among eight characters in the Mario universe—Princess Peach, Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Jr, etc, and each character has their own strengths and weaknesses—Bowser, for instance, is strong and carries a high top-speed, but accelerates very slowly. Toad, on the other hand, is quick and handles well, but has a lower top speed. Once you choose a character—I recommend Luigi—you’re pitted against the seven other drivers in a series of increasingly surreal tracks. You might navigate a regular pavement go-kart track, or a ship of ghosts, or a castle, or the famed Rainbow Road, on which the driving surface is many-splendored and there are no walls to keep you from falling into the abyss below.

 I was in tenth grade when Super Mario Kart was released, and as far as my friends and I were concerned, it was the greatest video game ever. (02:00) to (04:00) We spent hundreds of hours playing it; it was so interwoven into our high school experience that even now the soundtrack of that game takes me back to a linoleum-floored dorm room smelling of sweat and Gatorade, sitting on a golden velvet couch that had been handed down through generations of students, trying to out-turn my friend Chip on the final race of the Mushroom GP. We almost never talked about the game while playing it—we were always talking over each other about our flailing attempts at romance or the ways we were oppressed by this or that teacher or the endless gossip that churns around insular communities like boarding schools. We didn’t need to talk about Mario Kart, but we needed Mario Kart to have an excuse to be together, three or four of us on that couch, hip to hip, the incredible—and for me novel—joy of feeling included.


Of course, like the rest of us, Super Mario Kart has changed a lot since I was in high school. In the recently released Mario Kart 8, your cart can fly and go underwater and drive upside down; you can now choose from among dozens of playable characters and cart styles. But the game at its core hasn't changed that much, mostly, you win 2018 Mario Kart games in the same way you won 1992 ones: by driving in the straightest possible line. There is a measure of skill involved—you can carry speed better thought corners by drifting, for instance, and there’s some strategy to passing. But Mario Kart is almost ridiculously straightforward.

 Well, except for the question boxes, which make Mario Kart either a brilliant game or a problematic one, depending on what you think games should do. So as you navigate a track in Mario Kart, you may pass over or through question boxes, at which point you receive one of several tools: You might get a banana peel, which you can drop or throw onto the track, and then if someone hits your banana peel, they’ll spin out.  (04:00) to (06:00) Or you might get a mushroom, which you can use to get a one-time speed boost, or a red turtle shell, a kind of heat-seeking missile that will go looking for the kart in front of you and hit it from behind, causing that kart to spin out. Or you might get the coveted lightning bolt, which causes all your opponents to become miniaturized and very slow for a period, while you remain as big and fast as ever. In the new editions of Mario Kart, your question box might even provide you with the chance to become Bullet Bill for a while, a speeding bullet that corners amazingly and destroys every kart in its path. Recently, I was playing Mario 8 with my son, and because I am in my 26th year of regular Mario Kart play, I was leading the game comfortably, but then on the last lap he got Bullet Bill from a question box and proceeded to blow right past me, destroying my kart in the process, and I ended up finishing fourth.  


The thing about the question boxes is, they know if you’re in first place. If you are, you’ll usually get a banana peel, or a coin, which are minimally useful. You’ll never get one of those sweet bullets. But if you’re in last place—because, say, you’re an eight-year-old playing a grizzled Mario Kart veteran—you’re much more likely to get lightning or a bullet or an infinite supply of speed-boost mushrooms. If you’re good, you’ll still usually win, but luck plays a significant role. Mario Kart is more poker than chess.

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.

 And in that respect, 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. After one of my books became commercially successful, for instance, my bank called me to inform me that I would no longer be charged ATM fees, even if I used an ATM from a different bank.  (06:00) to (08:00) Why? Because 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.  


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. But to me 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. I like Mario Kart because it acknowledges luck without dismissing skill. In an age of extremes in gaming and elsewhere, Mario Kart is refreshingly nuanced. I give it four stars.

 Back in 1835, the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle lent the manuscript for the first volume of his sprawling history of the French Revolution to his friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle was hoping for helpful comments on the manuscript, but instead John Stuart Mill showed up a few weeks later looking, as Carlyle would later write, “the very picture of desperation.”  (08:00) to (10:00) Mill explained that his maid, mistaking the only copy of Carlyle’s manuscript for waste paper, had thrown it into the fire. In the end, Carlyle wrote the second and third volumes of his history of the French Revolutionbefore returning to the first, and rewriting it from scratch. Backblaze is an excellent way to prevent this from happening today—books you’re writing, pictures, videos, projects, everything is backed up securely; Backblaze has restored over 29 billion files, and it’s only five dollars a month. You can even restore by mail with a hard drive containing all your data. Don’t be forced to rewrite your whole history of the French Revolution. Make sure you visit backblaze at backblaze.com/anthro to let them know we sent you and so they’ll continue to support the podcast; plus you’ll get a free fifteen-day trial. Once again, that’s backblaze.com/anthro. Thanks again to Backblaze; now back to the show.


Okay, let’s move on to the Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast expanse of salt-encrusted earth located in the desert of northwestern Utah.

I recently found myself at a casino in West Wendover, Nevada, which is near the Salt Flats. I was playing three-card poker, a game in which the casino has a 2% house edge, which is to say that you lose your money, but if you bet modestly, you can lose it slowly.

For some reason, I really like casinos. I recognize that casinos prey on vulnerable people and enable addiction, and that they’re loud and smoky and gross. But I can’t help myself—I like sitting at a table and playing cards with strangers. 

 On the evening in question, I was playing with a woman from West Texas named Marjorie. She told me that  she’d been married for 61 years, and I asked her what the secret was and she said, “Separate checking accounts.”  (10:00) to (12:00) I asked her what brought her to Wendover, and she said she wanted to see the Salt Flats. And the casino, of course. She and her husband gambled one weekend a year. I asked her how it was going, and she said, you ask a lot of questions.


Which I do, when I’m gambling. I don’t know why. In every other environment, I am extremely averse to encounters with strangers. I don’t talk to my airplane seatmates, or the guy sitting next to me in the hotel bar, or my Uber drivers, but put me at a three-card poker table and suddenly I’ve got more questions for Marjorie than Robert Mueller has for Donald Trump.

The other person at my table, 87-year-old Anne from central Oregon, also wasn’t much of a talker, so I turned to the dealer, who was basically required to talk to me as a condition of his employment. He had a handlebar mustache, and a name tag identifying him as James. I couldn’t tell if he was 21 or 41. I asked him if he was from Wendover. “Born and bred,” he answered. I asked him what he thought of it, and he told me it was a nice place—lots of hiking—great if you like hunting and fishing. And the salt flats were cool, of course, if you liked fast cars, which he did.

And then after a moment he said, Not a great place for kids, though.

Do you have kids? I asked.

“No, he said. “But I was one.”

 There’s a certain way I talk about the things I don’t talk about. Maybe that’s true for all of us—we have ways of closing off the conversation so that we don’t ever get directly asked what we can’t bear to answer. The silence that followed James’ comment about having been a kid reminded me of that, and reminded me that I had also been a kid. Of course, it’s possible that James was only referring to Wendover’s shortage of playgrounds—but I doubted it. I felt a weight descending—that old Faulkner line that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.  (12:00) to (14:00) I played out the hand, tipped the dealer, thanked the table for the conversation, and cashed out my few remaining chips.


The next morning I drove out to the Bonneville Salt Flats with my wife and some friends. Until 14,500 years ago, what is now Wendover was deep underwater in Lake Bonneville, a vast salty lake that covered 19,000 square miles, nearly the size of Lake Michigan. The lake has disappeared and reformed a couple dozen times over the last five hundred million years; what remains of it at the moment is known as the Great Salt Lake, although it’s less than a tenth as great as Lake Bonneville once was.

The lake’s retreat left behind the salt flats, a 30,000 acre expanse, far flatter than a pancake, snow-white, the ground cracked liked dried lips and utterly empty. The ground was caked in salt, and crunched under the weight of my feet, and I could smell the salt. I kept trying to think of what it looked like, but my brain could only find highly figurative similes—it looks like driving alone at night feels; it looks like being alone in a crowded airport, watching other people’s reunions while your flight is delayed. Melville called white the colorless all-color, said that white shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and the Bonneville Salt Flats are very white.  

 Of course everything on Earth is geological, but at the Bonneville Salt Flats you feel the geology. You know this land was once five hundred feet under water, and that it will be again in the fullness of time. Wendover is a desert, but even so, its buildings and its traumas and its memories will all drown someday. (14:00) to (16:00) In the age of the Anthropocene, we tend to believe despite all available evidence that the world is here for our benefit. So the Bonneville Salt Flats must have a human use; why else would they exist? Nothing can grow in that dry, salty soil, but we find uses anyway—since 1910, a long stretch of the flats have been used as a kind of drag racing strip. In fact, a land-speed record there was set in 1970 in a rocket that went 630 miles per hour. Racing season can still attract thousands of people to the flats, but these days they are, above all else, a backdrop—for movies from Independence Day to The Last Jedi, and for fashion photo shoots and Instagram posts. While I was at the Flats, I was one of several people trying to angle a selfie to make it look like I was alone in that vast emptiness.


 But after walking for a while, I really was alone. At one point, I thought I saw a shimmering pool of water in the distance, but as I approached, it proved to be a mirage—an actual one. I’d always thought they were just fictional devices. As I kept walking, barren mountain ranges looming above me on all sides, I thought about James, about being a kid, about how alone you can feel as a child when you realize that no one can really protect you, how bone-deep scary it is to know that adults are wrong when they try to reassure you. The other day my daughter asked if I would die, and I said yeah but not soon, and she said, how do you know not soon? And I don’t know. I don’t know. I want the world to be safe for her, and safe for the child James was and I was--but the world isn’t safe. (16:00) to (17:48) That heartbreak—wanting to give people you love what you can’t give them, what you can’t even give yourself—that’s what the Bonneville Salt Flats looked like to me. I give them three stars.


Thanks for listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, and edited by Stan Muller. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed@gmail.com, or find us on Twitter or Facebook. One last thing: if you’d like to help our podcast, please tell your friends about it, or write a review. We really appreciate your feedback, and will be back on the last Thursday of next month with two new reviews.

My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: On the castle levels of Super Mario Kart, you have to dodge barriers called Thowmps, which are based on a spirit from Japanese mythology called nurikabe. Nurikabe are walls that block travelers. Thanks again for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed; we leave you with the sound of a drag racer on the Salt Flats.