What Marbles Teach Us About Humans

Jacky Tang
5 min readJun 9, 2019


Recently I started watching competitive marble racing. Yep, you read that right. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d definitely give it a watch. It’s fascinating. The creator has constructed a full blown set of Olympic style events called the Marblelympics, complete with an opening ceremony, qualifiers, and a whole slew of very creative events.

The most interesting part are the teams. Yes, there are teams with professionally made logos, sections in the crowd cheering them on, and even individual marble athletes. My favourite are the O’Rangers because I like orange. Over the course of the events there has been a bit of a meme involving the Oceanics. They are the one of the worst performing teams, yet they have a solid following. #TidePride

Seems kind of silly that some marbles are gaining a fanbase, yet that’s exactly what’s happening. I actually found myself literally laughing out loud when the Oceanics made it to the finals in the recent Hubelino Maze event only to get edged out to 4th place. It’s pretty rare for me to laugh by myself, but it was so ironic that they were finally getting a shot at a medal only to lose yet again.

Why would I have such a reaction to a set of four cloudy blue marbles? I must be losing my marbles (sorry, not sorry, I had to).

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed a teacher named Jane Elliot conducted a very powerful experiment. She separated her class apart by eye colour. She told them that everyone with blue eyes to move to the front of the class, while the brown eyed people had to go to the back. Not only that, she gave the blue eyed kids privileges over and above those of the browned eyed. She set up discrimination through its core foundations, arbitrary classification and power. But that’s not the end of the experiment. The next day, she told her whole class she made a mistake and it was really the brown eyed people that were superior, and flipped the classroom around. Emotions were all over the place at this point. Some kids started acting like jerks. Others cried. Of course, because of ethical considerations she ended it soon after, and asked the kids how they all felt as they debriefed.

You might think that these were just little elementary school kids. That mature adults wouldn’t act the same way. Yet there are countless experiments that show that well meaning, otherwise normal, adults also fall prey to arbitrary groupings. Another famous classic experiment is the Stanford Prison Experiment. Regular university students were randomly split into prisoners and guards. Less than a week later they had to shut it down because it was getting to violent and abusive. Other experiments showed that people can be split up by flipping a coin, wearing different coloured shirts, or assigned to different teams. Despite such mundane, meaningless categorization the ingroup-outgroup dynamics always followed, and along with it power dynamics. Us vs them. We are better. We root for our own.

And it’s not just power. Sometimes the simplest of things even affect the overall performance. For example, red teams tend to perform better than blue teams. People who own red or yellow cars tend to get into accidents more frequently, and usually have higher insurance premiums because of it.

Inherently, none of this should make any sense. Why would being on team heads or team tails make a difference? Yet, people can’t help but think that way. It is innately human to categorize things and prioritize them in some kind of hierarchy whether we want to or not. As much as I want to root for the ideal of equality among genders, races, sexual orientation, etc. we just aren’t wired to think that way. There will always be something as meaningless as colour or name that will automatically throw off the balance.

What really fascinates me about the Marblelympics is that these things aren’t even alive! It’s basically high school physics all over again. Newton’s laws of motion. Literally balls rolling and bouncing off of stuff. But just because there is a scoring system and medals on the line, all of a sudden there are winners and losers. Assuming all marbles are made equal, none of it should matter because it’s all pure probability, pure chance (although I have a feeling some marbles are heavier than others, so basically they have good ‘genes’). Still, some teams reach the podium while others don’t.

Watching these marbles do their thing makes me consider how much of life really comes down to luck. We don’t choose the genes we inherit. We don’t choose the family we grow up with, or where we are raised. To some extent, we don’t even choose the schools we go to, because of distance, cost, admissions, etc. Going into more controversial territory, we don’t choose our personality and our intelligence either. We have the brain we are born with, and it sets us on a certain path.

Might get some hate here, but even in the world of sports, real human sports, how much of it is due to chance? Sure the athletes all train hard, but not all humans are equal and not all lives are equal. Some may have better genes to begin with that give them stronger or more flexible muscles, better recovery time, more mitochondria, faster growth. Some might have more money, better equipment, better trainers, less stress, more mental stability. In team sports, it can come down to the draft picks, group chemistry, the crowds, the lifestyle of the city, the community, maybe even the weather.

There are so many different factors at play at any given time that it is extremely difficult to parse them apart from one another and say that this specific thing is what will lead to a better outcome. Yet, like the marbles, there are still winners and losers. And, like the Marblelympics, people will take sides and root for their team. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but maybe it’s not worth rioting and burning down parts of your city when your team loses. If anything, we maybe able to learn some good lessons from these all-star marbles. That whether our team wins or loses, it’s all in good fun and it’s not worth putting others down. Cheer for your side. Just don’t be a dick. And lastly, it’s only fun when everyone has the same opportunity to win, so it’s ok to be a dick to cheaters.



Jacky Tang

A software-psychology guy breaking down the way we think as individuals and collectives