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Today's game industry through the lens of human history Exclusive
Today's game industry through the lens of human history
May 31, 2013 | By Kris Graft




The rise and fall of human societies just might inform us on how the future of video games is going to shake out.

In the anthropological history book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond thoroughly explains how the geographical availability of domesticable crops and animals essentially determined which societies would conquer, and which would be conquered.

The book is about 500 pages long, but basically the parts I'd like to focus on for the purposes of this article go like this:

  • Humanity arose somewhere in Africa and spread across the planet.

  • The Fertile Crescent afforded early hunter gatherers the right kind of domesticable crops and environment to become farmers.

  • Eurasia was home to a larger amount of domesticable animals than the New World. These animals could be raised and selectively bred as a natural resource, and as muscle power for heavy work, like plowing large crop fields and transporting food.

  • The abundance of food and stationary nature of farming led to a larger, denser population than hunting and gathering societies.

  • A large, dense population with means of efficient food storage and manufacturing meant that not everyone had to be responsible for obtaining food to live--people started to use their extra time to specialize their skills.

  • Among other things, people would tinker, make stuff; they would invent (incidentally, Diamond argues that invention is typically the mother of necessity, not the other way around).

  • Aside from rampant disease (and subsequent immunity of survivors), large populations also led to a larger pool of minds from which innovation can arise.

  • Innovations typically originate in one society and diffuse into others. (Geography played a major role in how well technology diffused.)

  • Additionally, though they have distinct differences, I'm relating innovation and creativity closely here, so bear that in mind.

So what does this have to do with video games? It wasn't until the proliferation of digital platforms and increasingly efficient game creation tools that the video game industry has been able to establish and leverage the strength of a large, dense population of content creators -- i.e. the inventors, the innovators, the creators and the tinkerers.

Lonely Island

Just like in the ancient Fertile Crescent, we're seeing a population explosion. But not all game platforms are positioned to reap the benefits of this large population. We've talked about how Microsoft is disallowing self-publishing on Xbox One, apparently continuing to be highly selective of what games get on its console's digital storefront, and picking from a limited population of content creators.

Steam's model isn't effectively leveraging the benefits of a high population of developers. Even with Greenlight, Valve rules an island through which (and to which) innovation has difficulty diffusing. (Valve has said however that it does plan to open up Steam, somehow -- Gabe Newell seems to have always at least recognized the power of the crowd, even though his company hasn't exactly figured out how to leverage that power in terms of creation, curation and distribution.)

Human history has shown that these types of closed ecosystems make initial innovation and the diffusion of innovation extremely difficult. Next thing you know, hostile Spanish conquistadors are on your doorstep.

More Than Just Large Populations

Of course, just because a "society" has a large amount of people doesn't mean it will automatically dominate the world, although that helps immensely. If the future of the video game industry follows the course of human history, we'll see that a society can become dominant with the right mix of a large population, a culture that enables and encourages competition, one that rewards and recognizes innovation, and one that has "consumers" willing to buy into these new innovations and creations. The more unfortunate societies will either be wiped out by innovation such as guns (and germs, the nasty ones that Eurasians evolved thanks to living closely with domesticated animals and one another) or assimilated into a more dominant society.

Again, it's important for a platform to support a large population, but that alone does not automatically lead to success. Diamond's book asked an important question: Why did Europe, and not China, end up sending ships over to the New World, dominating its people? Geographically, China, with its relatively open land, latitudinally-oriented layout (innovation has a hard time diffusing across treacherous equatorial environs) and populated cities was a continent perfect for the rise of innovation that would lead to world domination.


A National Geographic video of Guns, Germs and Steel, featuring Diamond. The book is better.


Actually, China was home to a lot of innovations, including huge seafaring fleets, with ships up to 400 feet long and total crews of up to 28,000, that were used in trading across the Indian Ocean. This was all happening decades before Columbus' adorable fleet of three ships crossed the Atlantic. China was the technological leader of the world in the early 15th century.

So what happened to China, which seemed to have an upper hand on Europe, and poised for domination of distant lands? Well, a few things, but one of the main points relevant to this discussion is that a small group of China's leaders completely screwed it all up (that is, if "screwing up" means not being first to the New World, killing the majority of its inhabitants). A power struggle ensued in the early 15th century between two factions of the Chinese courts, Diamond explains. One side was closely associated with those large fleets of ships and innovations in seafaring. The other side was not. So when that other side ousted the sailing faction and took control of China, it stopped sending those fleets, forbade shipping over the sea, and even dismantled shipyards, isolating China and killing off a formidable innovation in one fell swoop.

China likely had its opportunity to be the dominant society, but a small group of leaders lacking foresight ruined that opportunity for an entire civilization, for generations to come.

In video games, the platform's owners, that small group of leaders, need to make the correct decisions -- i.e. the decisions that will facilitate and encourage competition, innovation and creativity.

Some of these "correct" decisions that would pertain to large populations of game developers would involve implementation of great discovery systems and effective curation of the best content. As the population of game developer societies explodes, we've all seen what a mess some digital storefronts have become, as gems are lost among the garbage.

Picking the Right Real Estate

One of the main points that Diamond argues is that the rise and fall of human societies was not dictated by differences of "race." We're all human, with human brains and bodies, and over the course of our history, people made do with the geographical hand they were dealt. Some ended up in a place where hunting and gathering was the best way to sustain life, due to the resources available. Others ended up where farming was more viable. As Diamond puts it, being the conqueror or the conquered boils down to "accidents of geography and biogeography," or "differences of real estate."

Or, in video game development terms, just because you made a game for the successful PlayStation 2 doesn't mean that you're that much better than the poor sap whose game was canned when the Dreamcast keeled over. There were some definite differences in real estate there, and certainly a society that was the conqueror, and one that was the conquered.

Game developers don't need to rely on a dice roll or an accident to determine which real estate they'll make their home. They can evaluate which platform offers the best resources, such as tools and engines, developer support and facilitation of creativity and innovation. Game developers need fertile land in order to thrive, just like ancient humans.

And the land needs to be maintained and cared for properly in order for it to stay fertile. There is such a thing as overpopulation (and of course citizens of societies should factor in blue and red oceans). The Fertile Crescent isn't so fertile these days, because its caretakers just didn't take care.

The Early Curators

To morph this analogy a bit with a focus on curation, we can look to ancient civilizations again. Whereas hunter-gatherers relied on natural selection to provide patches of the tastiest nuts and berries, farmers, who won the geographical lottery, were near easily-domesticable vegetation, and practiced artificial selection (a.k.a. selective breeding). They chose the biggest, tastiest, most resilient of their plentiful crops, replanted the seeds, and repeated this process over thousands of years. Those ancient farmers were the curators who discovered and delivered the best of the breeds, providing them to the consumers. It's an important role that helped set the course of history. It helped determine who were the "winners," and who were the "losers."

We're seeing companies like Sony, Nintendo, Valve, Apple and Google (plus Android-based platforms like OUYA) realize the power of a large population of video game developers, and each are reacting to that realization in different ways. Not all game developers even within an overall "successful" society will survive: Not everything that's good for the society is good for the individual. Some might die from intense intergroup competition within that society, others might die from some virus contracted from a pig. But those who are left will be part of a world-leading society. That is, if human history is any indication.

Painting cropped from "Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru," by John Everett Millais


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Comments


Axel Cholewa
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It seems to me your forgetting about the players. Are they part of the population? Because it reads like your only talking about game devs. For example, you compare engines, dev tools and dev support with crops, and the ones that "feed on it" are obviously not players.

So what are the palyers? Are they food, too? This would be flawed, because food rarely decides who it feeds.

It seems to me (correct me if I'm wrong) that you came up with this analogy in order to say: "Well, MS, you need to pay more attention to us indies, otherwise your platform will go down!" But if they win over the consumers, they don't need to care about indie devs.

Kris Graft
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Hey Axel,

I do mention "consumers" a couple times here in the analogy, and you can consider those the players. Consumers live in the same society as the producers, and are part of the population. And you're absolutely right -- if consumers in a society altogether reject a new technology (for example), then that technology goes away. Even if something bigger and better comes along, adopting the new and "better" thing needs to be more beneficial than continuing to use the old and "worse" thing. So yes, consumer adoption is required for success.

The engines, tools and support are all part of what make the "real estate" more fertile, giving its population a better chance to thrive. As I said though, you also need the leaders and progressive culture to allow a population to thrive and be successful. But the prime real estate is the starting point.

Also, this analogy applies not only to Microsoft, but also to platform holders like Steam, as I mention. And although indies play a large role in this analogy, it's not just about them. All developers are part of this population.

Thanks for reading!

Axel Cholewa
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Maybe Iīm nitpicking. Itīs just that something about this analogy makes me uncomfortable, cause I think it wouldnīt survive a detailes analysis. Just a gut feeling.

In general I like it, and I like your conclusion about the curators.

Alex Covic
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Clever piece, Kris!

"Guns, Germs and Steel" is one of those books, I would recommend for everyone, even today. You may find yourself in some "aha"-moments, having things described to you, you thought, you kind of already knew, but have never seen compiled in a coherent context. Or strings of topics matched together in a Spock-alike logical way, for the first time, before your eyes?

Another of my 'universal' favorites is "The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex" by Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel Prize in Physics). And - what the heck - a third one is "Futureshock" by Alvin Toffler, describing our 'modern life' today, in 1970.

Kris Graft
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Thanks Alex! And yeah, that's exactly how I felt when reading the book. The way that Diamond asks very simple questions (e.g. "Why didn't the Incas cross the Atlantic to conquer Spain?"), and chains all of the answers together lets him come to some really mind-blowing conclusions. It's much different than any typical history book that I've read.

Of course, I'm not the only one who has applied GGS to business and industry. In a 2003 afterword in more recent editions of the book, he said he was approached by all kinds of businesspeople after the original was published, including Bill Gates, to discuss how to better facilitate and support innovation in large companies. Everyone should read this book. (And thanks for the recommendations!)

Ramin Shokrizade
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The take away that I got here is that if someone proposes a game changing new concept or technology (like Columbus) and pitches it to 20 decision makers, and only one decides to test it, that one decision maker takes the risk but could reap the rewards. If no one accepts the pitch, or if circumstances make that technology temporarily impractical, the idea could be lost for a long time.

While the comparison to Columbus makes me uncomfortable, given how much suffering his technologies brought along with progress, I have to see myself in a similar situation. I developed a technology that people told me was impossible (people still tell me this) and peddled it to most of the industry. Half the industry ignored me, a third told me I was wasting my time, and about a tenth of the industry is now testing my technology. If it proves to have been folly, it will disappear like it should, and I will be a humorous side note. I will be very disappointed if I find out the Earth is flat, and if I am right I apologize in advance for those in the industry whose jobs I make extinct. You know how progress works...

Kris Graft
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Ramin, yes! There are a lot of meaningful analogies to business that I think can be derived from this book, and that's one of them. Whereas China was so politically -- and geographically -- unified that just a small group of people could determine the future of seafaring, Europe was politically -- and geographically -- fragmented enough so Columbus could change allegiance multiple times until he got Spain's leaders to agree to fund his little expedition (it's also kind of notable that Spain rejected his first pitch, but he went back and tried again, with success). A certain degree of fragmentation can have its benefits.

And yeah, I totally get the unease with the comparing success to wiping out indigenous peoples. I thought about that a lot while writing this.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Kris, your article reminds me very much of my "Moneyballification" paper from last year (http://gameful.org/group/games-for-change/forum/topics/moneyballi
fication) where I describe the barriers to innovation, both in general and in our industry. Sorry I'm not trying to derail your article, but when I went back and read Moneyballification just now, the similarities were a bit eerie.

Kris Graft
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No problem Ramin. I'll check out your paper :)

Richard Black
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Well the chief barrier to innovation is convincing those already entrenched to make use of it. America for example may have made the first inroads into television, telephones, cellular phones, public internet, etc. the list goes on. Those that followed made better inroads within their own nations learning from the initial successes and failures.

Now you often have much better and faster internet outside America as well as better television quality. Could America upgrade or innovate again? Of course. But the conglomerates already making money off of whats established simply lack the impetus to do so. If you're already making a substantial profit on a service, why upgrade the service?

Game development doesn't seem much different. If you have an established formula to follow and produce a reliable source of income the impetus to change isn't terribly attractive. Trailblazing is a risk, following someone elses successful trail may not be without risk but it certainly has a lot less of it and a certain amount of assumed reward.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Richard: I have to agree. In my dealings with the major players in the industry over the last year or two, I think you might be surprised to see which of them are still willing to innovate, and which of them are just camping their current technology. Given the length of major projects, even if a company makes the choice to innovate, it can take well over a year before those chances reach the market. A lot can happen in this time.

Those that wait for innovation to become "safe" before they upgrade will eternally be one generation behind.

Bart Stewart
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I also liked this piece a lot. It can be fun and instructive to bang two explanatory systems into each other and look for analogies.

What books like GGS try to get at are, I think, actually two questions:

1. How do groups make progress (or stop making progress)?
2. When competing groups meet, who wins, and why?

For me, GGS was a provocative book, but not a fully satisfactory book, because I think Diamond puts too much weight on environment and not enough on the innate characteristics of societies. The China example actually points this out strongly: despite biogeography benefits, it was internal culture that decided how that clash of civilizations played out.

This is why I consider Carroll Quigley's _The Evolution of Civilizations_ to offer a better model for understanding those two questions about how societies change. Among other things, TEOC points out that 1) societies advance when they produce a surplus beyond what they consume; when some in that society can accumulate (and control) some of that surplus; and when accumulated surpluses are reinvested in innovations benefiting the whole society, and 2) producing societies with a working "instrument of expansion" (for generating surpluses) dominate and may even absorb any other kind of neighboring group.

I think that model more accurately explains how and why human history has worked out as it has: it's not so much what you're given to start with as what you choose to do with it. Access to resources certainly matters -- but character matters more.

There are obviously some social implications that can be read into that. ;) One is the point you made yourself, Kris, that including more people allows more potential innovation. It's fascinating to see you on *exactly* the same page there as Julian Simon, whose _The Ultimate Resource_ and other publications showed in detail how the apocalyptic warnings by Malthusians like Paul "Population Bomb" Erlich were not just wrong but badly counterproductive policy. People create problems, of course, but people also solve problems.

Looking specifically at game development, the analogies of TEOC and TUR seem to be:

1. Tools and processes that lower the cost of development increase the population of developers. That improves the rate of progress by maximizing potential innovation.
2. Which platforms are available and the specific features of those platform is less important (contra Diamond) than that such systems exist. As long as lots of people who want to make games can get to at least some of those systems, then innovation leading to consumer-benefiting progress is possible.
3. The systems that do the better job of reinvesting accumulated benefits back into the producing society, which promotes innovation, will tend to do better over time than the systems that artificially limit who can participate in innovative activity.

So I think we come to similar conclusions. But the mechanics explaining those results are different, implying somewhat different ideas about the best policies for supporting progress in game development. I'd be less concerned with trying to change Microsoft's mind than with highlighting where participation is -- and has pretty much always been -- easiest (*coughPCcough* ;). Those aren't mutually exclusive, but the emphasis matters when resources are finite.

Anyway, great article, and thanks for tolerating the wall-of-text it inspired.

Kris Graft
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No need to thank me for reading a thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it.

I really had to refrain from talking more about innovation itself, and its adoption. I pretty much just talk about the rise of innovation here. But Diamond's commentary about when a society adopts or rejects a technology can absolutely be applied to the video game industry, particularly with console or platform transitions.

I touched on it when I talked about how a new tech can't supplant old tech by just being "better." The advantages of adopting the new tech must outweigh the advantages of just sticking with the old "crappy" tech. See what I'm getting at?

Anyhow, keeping an eye on past and current patterns and extrapolating the future is a pretty handy (and interesting) practice.

Thanks again for the comment, and for the book recommendations.

TC Weidner
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Interesting article. As I hold to the perspective that our history and our current situation as a species is a complete failure I am not sure what it foretells of where gaming is heading.

Humans have trashed its planet, continually killed one another over myths, and the heartless and the rich have continually dominated those more humane and fair in a society for millenia. I look around at this world, see that 15 million children starve to death each year, not because there isnt enough food to go around, there is, its just that we dont care. Half the humans on this planet have to try to live on less than 2 dollars a day, and I could go on and on.

I just hope gaming's future turns out better than humanity, Humanity took a wrong turn a long long time ago.

Ramin Shokrizade
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The discussion that a society really advances once they exceed their basic survival needs to the point where they can specialize and start "inventing" was made in detail by Adam Smith in his 1775 "Wealth of Nations" book. Interestingly, if you read the second section of that book, he describes in a very matter of fact way how lords would regulate the labor supply in their fiefs by adjusting the infant mortality rate. They did this by carefully rationing the amount of food the serfs would get so that just enough children would die without killing off the adults.

Adam Smith is not considered a radical, he was just a scientist that explained systems as they are, doing his best not to add moral judgments. My girlfriend, the CEO of a fashion apparel company in New York, was the last to employ domestic clothing sewers on the East coast, until the government wrongfully shut her down for "being a sweatshop" even though she paid $15 per hour. She tells me that now in Myanmar the clothing sewers are paid $37 per month. Guess where your cloths are being made? Welcome to globalization.

I once did the math and figured out that for every 10,000 new humans we add to the planet, something like 19 existing species go extinct (including insects). While humans may have it rough, this is of course of their own making and the other species on this planet have it a lot worse.

TC Weidner
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@Ramin, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

It would be an interesting discussion, on just what is actually considered "advancement".

John Gordon
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I saw the "Guns, Germs and Steel" documentary on Netflix. It's my favorite!

When I think of analogies from this, I think, "What do gamers need to survive and thrive" and "what do developers need to survive and thrive"? Gamers need games to survive and thrive. That is what sustains them. So gamers will naturally want to go where there is the most games (and the most variety). Right now I think that would be the mobile/tablet platforms.

Developers survive and thrive on profits. Without profits developers cannot continue to make games. And with excess profits game studios can take on either bigger projects or more projects. What platform is the easiest to make profits on right now? I honestly have no idea. All of the platforms look difficult for making profits right now. I'm not sure which would be the path of least resistance.

Heng Yoeung
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Kris,

Another book which you might be interested in reading is Fritjof Capra's book, The Turning Point. Capra is a Western educated theoretical physicist whose original book, The Tao of Physics, draws parallels between the insights of Eastern mystical tradistions' veiw of ultimate reality and modern-day partical physics' insight. He's really not the only prominent theoretical physicist who draws these parallels. In the early days of Quantum Theory's formulation, many scientists including Bohr, Heisenberg and others (essentially those outisde of Einstein's camp of determinists) came to the same conclusion. The conclusion was that reality at the Quantum level is nondeterministic because subatomic reality exhibitst duality such as concurrent states of being a wave and a particle. This is a contradiction; something cannot be at the same time stuff and nonstuff or here and there. And so, Bohr's formulatoin of the idea of complementarity of subatomic reality, basically a scientific term of the Chinese Yin Yang. The idea is treated as well by David Bohm's book Wholesness and the Implicate Order, the idea being that the microscale contains the macroscale and vice versa.

Anyway, his recent book is a bit more ambitious. His thesis is that our Western society is on the brink of a turning point, a point of transformation. The reason is that the old way of viewing the world is fundamentally inadequate. The idea was that of Descartes and Newtonian mechanics, the idea of absolute space and time, of a mechanistic and reductionistic reality. That it is inadequate can be seen in the way our society is broken and no one knows how to repair it: our economy, for one, sees skyrocketing medical costs while wholesale health hasn't improved much; our environment is slowly being poisoned; our foods are progressively unorganic and less nutritous; our political think tanks cannot come to grips on international policies, for example, nuclear disarmament, etc.. In short, our society must learn to adapt or its collapse will be inevitable.

The point that's relevant to this particular discussion has to do with presumptions underlying our worldviews. In the Turning Point, the presumption was that the world behaved in a way described by Descartes. (Don't put Descartes before the horse, they say, sorry for the pun.)

In the same way, there is a presumption underlying your piece: that the evolution of civilizations put forth in the book GGS mirror the rise and fall of modern day's business models of innovation.

I'm not saying that your piece is wrong or inadequate in its presumpitions. I'm just saying that it is apparently different from MS' point of view (or any console maker's point of view) on how to conduct business. In the end, you may be right that MS strategy is lacking. Time will tell. As I've said before, MS will be profitable in this generation as it intends. The reason I think this is because MS' strategy for the XB1 is targeted towards sports enthusiasts and Halo (Halo-like) games and accessories. (I'm Hank Hill. I sell propane and propane accessories.) This is MS' way of adaptng the business model towards the near future as it envisions. I think this is certainly viable given the changing demographics of gamers coming onto the scene of the videogame industry within the past decade. When you really think about it, videogames haven't changed terribly since it's inceptions in terms of gameplay mechanics or the genres being expressed. Halo is essentially a 3d space invaders with a story, in my view. So, more of the same, but with better graphics fidelity and realism is really the way it's been since consoles appeared. Times may need a changin' for you, Kris. Time, however, according to Einstein dilates with respect to a frame of reference. Times ARE a changin' for those late teens to early thirties.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Heng: When I was building my virtual economic models, at some point I realized I would have to study conventional economics (and I did). This was for two reasons:

1. Find out what language was already in use, so that I could keep those words and terms when I wrote, and thus not have to "reinvent the wheel" with most of my terminology,

2. Find out why "real world" economics DOES NOT work so that I would not carelessly reintroduce the same logic flaws into fresh virtual worlds.

Starting from scratch means you don't have to perpetuate old errors. In building our modern economy, it has been rare that we have started fresh, since this causes a period of anarchy. Instead we just layer on top of the old, and perpetuate those archaic systems which are inefficient by design for the purpose of creating wealth stratification. Now we have made such a science of wealth stratification that anyone can be a king in time with enough computers manipulating exploits in our current economic models.

I also noticed in my studies that it is painfully difficult for people to think in a way that they don't have words for. Words tend to precede complex cognition. Thus building into a new direction, without the language to support that direction, is so difficult that it is rarely done.

Lastly, I will point out that any system that affects man puts some people into the position of "winners" and others as "losers". Even if a new system comes along that yield a huge net benefit to society, if it threatens the "winners" under the previous system they will act violently to oppose change. You saw this with the USA for decades asserting that it was justified in invading Russia (which we actually did) or China or their systemic allies because we had to stop Communism because it was less efficient than free market capitalism.

This rhetoric persisted until just a few years ago, when it became obvious that a system based on something other than a free market economy was out performing our system. Still we embrace the old system, to the death. Now to be fair, the Chinese don't really have Communism either, anymore, they are using somewhat of a hybrid system. My point here is that it is always more effective to use what is most efficient, instead of dogmatically clinging to one system or another like it is a religion. China may have an entirely different economic system in 20 years. But at least they are willing to change it when it is obvious the old system has failings.

This is how it is in my economic models. I don't hold up one model or another as "best" and insist people use it. I identify the strengths and weaknesses of each system, and build hybrids to match the unique characteristics of each virtual world. There is never one best way that applies to every situation, this notion is generally propagated by those that only understand one way.

TC Weidner
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Tao of Physics.. loved that book

Michael Joseph
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kudos for presenting a rather outside the box perspective on the platform wars...

if i understand the analogy correctly, platforms are like nations and using history as a guide, moderate governance/NON tyrannical regimes tend to triumph. The China example citing the shutdown of fleets shows perhaps that it was Chinese tyranny that killed the possibility of expansion to the "new world."

likewise, tyranny (or the perception thereof) in England resulted in the loss of colonies that became the USA. (to digress a bit, it suggests perhaps that it won't be until tyranny is really felt that the USA will suffer major problems... so no time soon I think)

moderate governance with plenty of freedom is a good compensation for not being able to predict the future.

(it's also a good reason for employers to respect their employees or else they ensure those employees will take their good ideas and go somewhere else)

did Microsoft win the OS/2 war by being less tyrannical than IBM? Did Apple's app store which allowed 3rd party developers to profit (sometimes very handsomely) help it reach an early lead in the smart phone race?

But what about Linux? One could argue that Windows was never perceived as tyrannical enough to promote a large enough exodus to the new nation of Linux. Of course Linux has also always had the problem of being a fractured mess (materially and ideologically)... how many people really want to sail their ships into the waters of anarchy?

good governance, high level of freedom for the inhabitants == place where people will migrate to?

it's nice that in the virtual space that is IP and technology, new nations sitting on new land masses can spring up overnight.

anyway, an interesting analogy that sparks some new analysis.

Michael Joseph
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almost forgot, in a similar vein of tyranny causing a nation's growth to be stunted, Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson often relays his theory about fundamental Islam (tyranny?) taking hold 1000 years ago in the middle east and stifling their progress.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vfOpZD4Sm8&#t=2911s
(48 minutes 30 seconds in)

he first talks about all the scientific advancements made by Arabs and Persians prior to 1100AD and then why it all virtually stopped. (disclaimer: im not vouching for his theory which is interesting but provcative, and I know there have been scholars who've criticized it, but it's just a theory...)

EDIT: updated link to relevant time in the talk

Axel Cholewa
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For me, the most interesting aspect here is that "invention is typically the mother of necessity". This points out, I think, one of the big flaws of our current economic thinking: Ouya wasn't made because the majority of gamers demanded it, but it might turn out that when the Ouya's there, the majority might actually buy it.

Richard Black
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I generally dislike treating history like a story you can shape to fit your own motives and goals. It's to me much like listening to people twist a quatrain of Nostradamus into a shape they think must fit some event that justifies what they already want to think. There's a lot to learn from history but trying to make it conform to a narrative structure so that you can fit a beginning and ending into your flow and derive some moral or philisophical meaning is likely overreaching. Outside of a lab, in reality, there are always more forces in play than you are ever likely to realize.

That's not to say environment didn't play a roll in individuals societies motives and develepment. What animals were available and how prone they were to domestication, what minerals or materials, the vagaries or disease I'm sure all played roles. So, I'm sure, did an awful lot I doubt we'll notice or make sense of in retrospect - so I doubt we should get too full of ourselves making assumptions regarding them. People have been pretty much the same for a long time and that's about all we can count on, as we're often selective what history we even talk about. Hell the Native Americans had a city larger than London in the 15th century and if Columbus hadn't introduced an apocalypse of disease on his little exploratory tour to decimate more than 90% of their population colonization would probably have looked a lot differently in retrospect. They'd already deforested enough of the continent to affect climate in Europe and had rendered a few species of wildlife, shellfish, and edible fauna extinct.

People make use of what they have available though and they innovate to make thier lives more convenient or solve the problems that come along. I remember a recent anthropology or sociology experiement to introduce metal to an island dwelling fishing culture that lacked any ore previosly. With no instruction on what to do with it they quickly began to tinker and start replacing their tools with newer ones and figuring ot more efficient ways to go about their daily chores including building boats and felling trees. You can relate that to game development if you like or utilize the archeological concept of adoption. There's a battleship curve you usually find with anything, any innovation or creative change, where it begins tapered with discovery and first implementation and then balloons out as it spreads. The curve widens as more and more people pick it up because it works, or it's cool, or they just like the look of it and then finally tapers back off as something else replaces it or it just looses popularity because it's overdone. They had fads in the ancient world too as simple as a new pattern etched into pottery that everyone decided to like until it got boring because everyone was doing it, that seems particularly relevent to a lot of game clones that pop out regularly.


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