Choose your driver: How Super Mario Kart helps explain Bourdieusian sociology
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Johnson, K. (2021) Choose your driver: How Super Mario Kart helps explain Bourdieusian sociology. In: Barnes, N. & Bedford, A. (eds.) Unlocking Social Theory with Popular Culture: Remixing Theoretical Influencers. Springer, pp. 101-111.
Playing Super Mario Kart, driving around the Mushroom Kingdom, I suspect that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu must have been a consultant at Nintendo. Bourdieu’s theorising of fields of power and social distinction inform contemporary understandings of institutional structures, the accumulation of different forms of capital, and hierarchical social status. Mario’s iconic and influential video game replicates some of the fundamental points in Bourdieu’s literature, via the common factors of life goals, challenging environments, gathering resources and group ranking. The theoretical framework derived from Bourdieu has been applied to understandings in education and politics, occupational therapy, health and nutrition, and beyond. Notably, while video games would have been classed as an illegitimate or ‘low’ form of culture by Bourdieu, his framework is one of the most cited in sociological understandings of the relationship between cultural consumption and social groups. In Bourdieusian terms, the coins and power-ups [economic capital] collected while karting around the tracks [fields] of the Mushroom Kingdom [society] require players to develop expertise [cultural capital] in how and when best to use them. Doing this effectively, to win races and achieve the prestige [symbolic capital] of top ranking, depends on [habitus] a combination of the experience of the driver and the capabilities of their kart, and their competency in the driving conditions of the track. This chapter will explore how gamers are performing a scaled-down version of our everyday process of social distinction. Bourdieu probably would have hated it.