Here is a scenario, which is likely to be familiar to anyone who grew up in proximity to any generation of Nintendo gaming console:
You are playing Mario Kart. Whether expectedly or unexpectedly, you find yourself in first place. You keep going for item boxes, and keep receiving more or less useless things like a single mushroom (or, most recently and most infuriating, a single coin). Suddenly, out of nowhere, a blue shell hits you and you are passed by both the second and third place racers before you can start driving again. It’s not fair! Blue shells are the worst item! They were invented just for this game and just to ruin the first place player’s life!
Now, imagine another scenario:
You are in seventh, through no fault of your own, surely. Nothing seems to be going right. Maybe you have not played in a while. Maybe this is an edition of the game you never had the opportunity to play before (or maybe you have never played Mario Kart at all). You just drove off the edge of the track again because it has no edges and who in their right mind would drive around in space on a track with no edges? You manage to reach an item box and it gives you a triple mushroom boost. You activate it, and you speed past the players in front of you. Now you are in fifth. It is not where you want to be, but it is better than before.
Now imagine the items are reversed; the player in first receives an item that boosts, the player in last receives useless items that barely help at all.
This does not happen, because Mario Kart has a progressive item system. In Mario Kart’s case, as a player becomes closer to the back, the items that player receives become more useful and as a player becomes closer to the front, the items that player receives become less useful. (This is not an exact comparison to a system like progressive taxation, which involves higher tax rates for people with higher incomes and lower tax rates for people with lower incomes, but it is a similar principle). It is based on the assumption that players who are not doing as well, comparatively, may need more help (and once those same players are doing comparatively better, they need less help). There are a number of reasons this may be the case, including making a mistake early in the race, lack of experience, choosing a kart with bad stats, and many more. Should players be unable to recover from mistakes? Should people who did not have an opportunity to play Mario Kart when they were growing up be punished for something outside of their control? The progressive item distribution system addresses these and other concerns in an effort to make the game more fair (and fun) for players of all experience levels.
It may seem obvious, then, that a progressive system is more “fair.” There, however, is an issue of framing involved in arguments about progressive systems. Which end is the default? Good items or useless items? Is one set of participants receiving better treatment than the default or is the other set of participants receiving worse treatment than the default? Is it ultimately fair to treat different people differently? If so, can that unfairness be justified? To what extent?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. They lie at the heart of every debate about progressive systems, be they about item distribution in video games or taxation or something else. But I hope that illuminating one instance in which a progressive system is utilized will shine a light on both the supporting and opposing arguments of such a system.