Tag Archives: innovation

QWOP, GIRP and the Construction of Video Game Realism


1: A Problematic Concept

Whenever mainstream news outlets mention video games I cringe. I cringe because every time traditional news outlets move beyond their traditional territory and reach out to an unfamiliar cultural milieu in an effort to appear plugged in, they invariably wind up making both themselves and that cultural milieu look awful. The awfulness comes from the fact that journalists in unfamiliar territory tend to take authority figures at face value and, in the world of video games, this generally results in precisely the sort of hyperbolic bullshit that makes video game journalism such an oxymoron. Continue reading QWOP, GIRP and the Construction of Video Game Realism

Path dependency: why we still use rockets

Very interesting piece by ubergeek Neal Stephenson over at Slate, where he wonders why it is that we’re still stuck in the rocket paradigm of space launch tech. In two words: path dependency.

To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:

1. World’s most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman

2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time

3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator

4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system

5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability

6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline

The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.

Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.

It’s this sort of thinking that makes Stephenson’s novels so fascinating to me… and, I fully expect, what makes other people bounce right off them. To Stephenson, everything is a system, and a system is a sort of story. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Anyway, the point is that for all our talk – and worship – of innovation, we’re mired in a whole interconnected set of path dependencies, a kind of civilisational stasis where we don’t do amazing new things so much as we find new ways to do the same things we’ve always done, only bigger, faster and with greater consequences of failure.

… the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance. Those are places we need to go if we are not to end up as the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century, and yet in spite of all of the lip service that is paid to innovation in such areas, it frequently seems as though we are trapped in a collective stasis. As described above, regulation is only one culprit; at least equal blame may be placed on engineering and management culture, insurance, Congress, and even accounting practices. But those who do concern themselves with the formal regulation of “technology” might wish to worry less about possible negative effects of innovation and more about the damage being done to our environment and our prosperity by the mid-20th-century technologies that no sane and responsible person would propose today, but in which we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.

A fascinating and provocative read: go see the whole thing.

Viral media governed by Game Theory?

We talk a lot about the “viral” way in which trends and topics spread around the intermatubez; it’s a useful metaphor because it’s one we have a precedent for. But as with with most things, it’s not quite so simple as all that; Ars Technica reports on research that shows meme transmission can be modelled pretty successfully by the confusing (yet surprisingly ubiquitous) principles of Game Theory:

The popularity growth of things like websites or gadgets is often described as being similar to an epidemic: a network with a lot of connections between people increases exposure and then adoption, as do links stretching between dissimilar groups. When the trend in question spreads to a node with a lot of connections (like a celebrity), its popularity explodes. While this is fitting for some cases, in others it’s an oversimplification—a person’s exposure to a trend doesn’t always guarantee they will adopt it and pass it on.

It is not only the intrinsic value of a new technology (or other types of innovation) that makes it attractive. It is also the number of friends who have adopted it,” Amin Saberi, one of the authors, told Ars. In instances where there is incentive to make the same decision as people around you, the authors of the paper argue, the spread of innovations may instead follow rules of game theory, which differ in big ways from the rules of viral or epidemic trends.


The model seems to apply less to individual pieces of content, where simple exposure is enough to create huge growth. On the other hand, it could explain, for instance, loyalty to sites that distribute that content, like Digg and Reddit, or to particular genres of memes. The authors say it also crops up in choices that influence social connections, like the choice between voting Republican or Democratic, or to adoption of technology, like choosing between Verizon and AT&T.

Dr. Saberi gave the following example: “the reason I am using Facebook as opposed to another social network is not just its quality… it is also because I have a lot of friends who are using it”; he notes this could also apply to operating systems. Likewise, while there are many reasons to choose one cell phone carrier or another, features like free calls or texts within a network can influence a group of friends to migrate to the same network as each other.

Far from a complete explanation, then, but still an insight into the complexity of emergent behaviours at societal levels.

Back to the future with Sir Clive Sinclair

If you’d asked me what the twenty-tens would look like back in 1985, I don’t think I’d have said “1985”. But that’s the oroboros of culture for you, I guess; not only are the streets of big cities packed with preening hipsters dressed exactly like the alpaca-esque post-punks I used to be somewhat intimidated (yet subliminally inspired) by as they lurked moodily around the local war memorials, but Sir Clive Sinclair – the chap who gave his name to the ZX Spectrum computers that lurked in the corner of every second British kid’s bedroom around that time – is once again making a bid to populate the urban streets of Britain with what is in essence an electric-assisted bicycle in a plastic shell.

You’ve got to admire Sinclair’s classic British pluck, really; the C-5 remains an iconic example of duff eighties futurism, a gloriously eccentric failure and testament to well-meaning but ultimately misguided innovative engineering. The C-5 was ugly, fragile, and more than a little silly. So, has Sir Clive learned from the mistakes of the past?

The Sinclair C5, circa 1985:

Sinclair C5

The Sinclair X1, circa 2010:

Sinclair X1

I’m going to go with “no”. Once more unto the breach, wot? Ours is not to reason why…

OK, I’m being a little over-snarky here, perhaps; I’m a big supporter of urban cycling and alternative transport, and I’d love to see the take-up on affordable and predominantly human-powered urban vehicles increase dramatically. But – and please forgive my cynicism – I don’t think that thing’s gonna do it. [images ganked from Gizmag]

Daddy, where does innovation come from?

Plenty of folk have been linking to this excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist, and with good reason – it’s a provocative piece that plays to advocates (and opponents) of free trade, open exchange, copyright reform and much more. The basic thesis? The one persistent factor that has encouraged innovation and new ideas is the freedom to pass them around and build upon them.

You should read the whole thing, as Ridley takes down in turn the usual answers offered to the question of innovation’s source – science, capital, IP, government. But here’s some stirring stuff from the conclusion:

We may soon be living in a post-capitalist, post-corporate world where individuals are free to come together in temporary aggregations to share, collaborate, and innovate, and where websites enable people to find employers, employees, customers, and clients anywhere in the world. This is also, as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller reminds us, a world that will put “infinite production ability in the service of infinite human lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, greed, envy, and pride.” But that is roughly what the elite said about cars, cotton factories, and (I’m guessing) wheat and hand axes too.

Were it not for this inexhaustible river of invention and discovery irrigating the fragile crop of human welfare, living standards would stagnate. Even with population tamed, fossil energy tapped, and trade free, the human race could quickly discover the limits to growth without new knowledge. Trade would sort out who was best at making what; exchange could spread the division of labor to best effect, and fuel could amplify the efforts of every factory hand, but eventually there would be a slowing of growth. A menacing equilibrium would loom.

In that sense, Ricardo and Mill were right. But so long as it can hop from country to country and from industry to industry, discovery is a fast-breeder chain reaction; innovation is a feedback loop; invention is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Equilibrium and stagnation are not only avoidable in a free-exchanging world. They are impossible.

What are your thoughts – is Ridley on to something here, or just grandstanding to libertarians, valleygeeks and copyleftists?

It’s clear that Ridley feels economic equilibrium is something to be feared, and on that point I’m not entirely sure I’m in agreement with him… chasing after perpetual growth has been a pretty messy business in the long term, after all. But I can’t fault his thoughts about innovation. I wonder if it would be possible to entirely disconnect innovation from a money economy? Impossible right now, sure, but in a hypothetical post-scarcity future it might just fly.