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Today's game industry through the lens of human history

The rise and fall of human societies just might inform us on how the future of video games is going to shake out, says Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft.

Kris Graft

May 31, 2013

8 Min Read

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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