Dungeons and Dragons

I was sad to read of the death of Gary Gygax, co-creator (with Dave Arneson) of the legendary role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.  I was first introduced to the game when I started college at MIT in 1978.  There, I learned that many of my classmates were already seasoned players from their years in high school.  (I guess they were early adopters, considering that D&D had only been published in 1974!)  Although I was never a player myself, in college I was surrounded by the rule books with “Gary Gygax” imprinted on the cover, so I immediately recognized his name atop the obituaries this past week.  If you haven’t heard of the game, you should know that in addition to sales that topped $1 billion, and 20 million players, D&D had a cultural influence far beyond the numbers.

The major national newspapers covered this passing (see articles in WSJ, NYT) .  I’m noting it here because, after a bit of research, I’ve learned that D&D emerged from the same innovation process that I’ve seen everywhere in today’s economy.  Although Gygax certainly deserves to be recognized for his important role, he was not the sole creator of D&D; it emerged from a long series of collaborations, from an almost invisible community of like-minded wargamers.  Innovation always works this way: Even though one person often gets credit for an invention, all innovations emerge from groups.  In Gygax’s case, the group included dedicated wargamers who lived around Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.  Many different Lake Geneva groups came together to play wargames, with names like the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association and the Midwest Miltary Simulation Association.  There were so many groups that in 1966, they formed an umbrella organization called the International Federation of Wargamers (IFW), with separate chapters for different periods of military history—the “Castle and Crusade Society” for medieval wargaming, for example, and the “Armored Operations Society” for World War II wargaming.  IFW became nationally known by sponsoring an annual convention of gamers called GenCon, and publishing a magazine of wargaming called The Spartan.

These communities of hobbyists had been experimenting with medieval wargames using miniature figures, just like D&D, for years.  The first published set of rules appeared in 1967—for a game called Siege of Bodenburg, created by Henry Bodenstedt and published in Strategy & Tactics magazine, a wargaming fanzine created in 1966 by Chris Wagner.  (Wagner created his fanzine to compete with the magazine The General, published by the wargame-publishing company called Avalon Hill starting in 1964.)  The wargamers around Lake Geneva read these rules, and a couple of them began experimenting with their own variations.  In 1971, two of them—Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax—published their own set of medieval wargaming rules; they called it Chainmail and sold it through a company called Guidon.  Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was gaining a cult following at the time, and sales of Chainmail were surprisingly strong.  A third Lake Geneva wargamer, Dave Arneson, began experimenting with his own variation that he called Blackmoor.  When Arneson and Gygax began collaborating on the next generation of medieval wargame, they took most of Blackmoor’s features intact.  They intentionally named the main characters after those in Tolkien’s trilogy—orcs, ents, hobbits, wizards—to tap into its popularity.  (A lawsuit from Tolkien’s estate later forced the game’s publisher to rename some of these characters.)

I love stories like this one, because they show so clearly how innovation emerges from a collaborative process.  In my book Group Genius, I tell many similar stories—for example, how Monopoly emerged over a 30-year period from a national community of Quakers, frat boys, and economics professors.  Dungeons & Dragons was a collective creation, emerging from an unsung, almost invisible collaborative web.  With the help of Gary Gygax, this emergent phenomenon was disseminated far beyond the Lake Geneva community to become an international phenomenon.  When the International Federation of Wargamers faded from history in 1974, its passing was not noted—there’s no such thing as an obituary page for groups.  So we use the obituary pages to remind ourselves of the true nature of creation by recognizing those individuals who played key roles within genius groups—like Mr. Gygax, who died March 4 at age 69 at his home in Lake Geneva.  It’s all about collaboration; as Gygax himself said in a 2006 interview, “The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.”  Rest in peace.

Measuring Innovation

A long-awaited report on how to measure innovation in the U.S. economy has just been released by the U.S. Commerce Department. The report is called “Innovation Measurement: Tracking the State of Innovation in the 21st Century Economy”. I first learned about this high-profile initiative last October; a press release revealed that a panel of CEOs and academics had met in Washington DC to discuss how to measure innovation in the U.S. economy. When I say “high profile” I mean folks like Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Medtronic Chairman and CEO Art Collins, IBM CEO Samual Palmisano, and Harvard economist Dale Jorgenson.  The original press release said that the panel’s recommendations would be published in November; perhaps only an innovation junkie like me would be checking every week since then!

To measure the impact of innovation on the economy, analysts often use a measure called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). Any growth in TFP is assumed to result from innovation. Of course, the problem is that productivity could grow for other, non-innovation, reasons (for example, if existing innovations are diffused more broadly, TFP would grow even without new innovations). Other common measures of a country’s innovation have their own problems. You could count up the number of patents; but, patents alone don’t translate into successful innovation. You could count up the number of professionals working in R&D and university research labs; but as with patents, that’s a crude measure that doesn’t directly track successful innovation.

In the end, the panel’s report doesn’t tell us exactly what to do.  Panel member Ashis Arora, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon, said that “The current advisory panel did not opt to recommend an index, because there is no serious evidence on how different measures of innovation should be combined, either at the organizational level or at the aggregate national level.”  However, Commerce Secretary Gutierrez outlined a plan for moving forward: a better measure of the impact of high-tech goods and services (to be developed by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics); a better way to measure productivity increases that result from innovation investment (to be developed by the BEA); and new data collection efforts to measure the role of basic research (spearheaded by the National Science Foundation).

A longstanding problem has been getting different government agencies to share data with each other.  The stumbling block has always been confidentiality concerns.  Secretary Gutierrez announced his intention to work aggressively with the relevant agencies to try to find a way to share the relevant data while addressing confidentiality concerns.  That’s going to require working with a wide range of agencies including the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Census Bureau, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.  That’s a pretty tall order, but if that could happen it would result in a much better picture of national innovation.

Quote of the week:

“I don’t think people appreciate how much money, time and good technical research goes into what we do. Sometimes, people think the idea is the thing. I think the idea can be the easy part.” Dr. Darryle Schoepp, of Eli Lilly, in an interview about new drug development quoted in the New York Times (Sunday, February 24, 2008, Business section p. 10).