Behavioral Science UX Deep Dive: The Hidden Mario Kart Techniques within Duolingo

The Race

“What!? How did you win!? I was in first and you were in last the whole time! What happened!?”

The Mechanics of Mario Kart

Mario Kart is a simple but amazing go-kart-style racing game. For anyone who has ever played Mario Kart, you know how addicting it can be even though it’s fairly simple. You race around a track and each player is able to grab weapons.

What was it about this activity that kept us so engaged?

For example, you can pick up a banana peel, which you can hold onto and then use it when another player is behind you to make them slip on it.


One feature of Mario Kart is the use of various power-up items players can grab by driving into item boxes laid out on the course. These power-ups include mushrooms to give players a speed boost, Koopa Shells to be thrown at opponents, banana peels, and explosive boxes that can be laid on the course as hazards.

Often referred to as rubber banding, this gameplay mechanism allows other players a realistic chance to catch up to the leading player.

Rubber Banding

A popular feature in game design to increase engagement and retention, Dynamic game difficulty balancing (DGDB), also known as dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) or dynamic game balancing (DGB), is the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time based on the player’s ability, to avoid making the player bored (if the game is too easy) or frustrated (if it is too hard).

Duolingo and Rubber Banding

Duolingo leverages this approach, ensuring users don’t fall too far behind the group or get too far ahead.

Dynamically adjusting my league ensures I am always competing against other users who are within the same activity range as me.

If I fall into the bottom five of any league, I am placed back to a less competitive league. Effectively, Duolingo is using the same game-balancing technique as Mario Kart by shifting me in and out of groups based on my relative performance.

Decoding the Why — How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design.

In this article, I shared an excerpt from my book, Decoding the Why.

Decoding the Why Book

Entrepreneur blending behavioral economics, data and technology to help changemakers inspire and move people to action. Co-founder @creativesci & member @yec.

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