The birth of videogames and Apple’s first steps, free software’s first steps, and even the platforms that allowed for the organization of tens of thousands of volunteers for the earthquake in Haiti, all have something in common: their creators cited Go as a source of personal inspiration and related it to their form of innovating and thinking. What good is Go to those who change the world?
If anyone is doing serious work on the cool idea that fascinated us all in The Diamond Age, it’s a little company called BrainRush: adaptive games that anyone can create using the platform, thought up so that teachers could help children reach their highest potential. Its creator, Nolan Bushnell, is not a young entrepreneur in search of capital. Although he once was.
In 1972 Bushnell was the first to think that a new kind of games, until then considered hacking, could become a marketable product. With a modest program, Pong, he set a new industry in motion: the videogame. He created a comany and called it “Atari,” highlighting, right from the beginning, how his business philosophy was identified with the spirit of the old game:
It is a game of patience and influence. I think that it is the best strategic game. Its strategy helps the weakest player defeat a much stronger opponent, which Atari had to do with a large enterprise from Chicago during the days of the first little coin-operated videogame machines.
At the time, Nolan was obsessed with applying the concepts of the game to the design of his machines themselves. To make them more powerful and ethereal at the same time, to flee from that terrible heaviness in Go. When the first out-of-order machines started to arrive, and support costs soared, Bushnell reached a conclusion typical of someone who frequents the board: it’s not about placing chips better or of having better chips, it’s about having the smallest number possible of them, of being light. With two spreadsheets, he demonstrated to his team that Atari would save approximately 100,000 dollars for each chip that they simply took off the board.
It seemed like a lovely and poetic approach to everyone, but none of the engineers actually felt like doing it. They had just hired a new guy, worker number 40 at the business, one Steve Jobs. He was so unbearable that he had to go on the night shift so as not to have to socialize with the rest of his peers. It is tempting to imagine, in the nocturnal silence in that rickety suburban office, full of machines to be repaired and smells of soldering irons, Jobs and Bushnell laying stones on the board. Jobs had a friend, Steve Wozniak, who was developing the Apple II at the time. He convinced him to take on the challenge that Bushnell posed: reduce the Pong machines from 100 to 75 chips. Woz, one of the geniuses of his generation, worked for 72 hours straight. In the end, he needed only 20 chips. Atari became the first enterprise with explosive profits in the world of innovation. And Apple learned something important. But that is another story.
At the same time, other entrepreneur, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had inherited a small family business founded by his grandfather in 1889 dedicated to make cards, was looking to turn his business around. He had tried everything: a high-tech sex hotel that went broke, a taxi company that never took off, a machine for making cotton candy at home, a low-cost photocopier for offices, and even merchandising for Johnny Walker. Yamauchi wasn’t a man with just one idea. A sixth dan in Go, the only game he practiced in his life, he did not have a business philosophy, but rather a praxology formed in thousands of hours of games. He knew that it doesn’t matter if you make a thousand plays that lead to nowhere, the important thing is to find the answer that makes sense in the moment when it’s your turn to play, and keeping in mind only what’s on the board. It matters what the other wants. It doesn’t matter what may have happened before.
At the end of the Sixties, he is already aware that what works best is games that he designed on their own template for geeky youth. At the beginning of the ’70s, he imports the technology for ray guns, and he starts to turn old bowling alleys into spaces for role-playing games with ray guns. It is his first big success in a new generation of games. And, in some way, the direct ancestor of the Wii. But the best was yet to come: the first arcade, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Zelda…
Yamauchi regularly met with his best collaborators around a Go board to get to know them better and think about strategies with them. Henk Rogers, the man who made Tetris a global hit, was one of his usuals. While he collaborated with Nintendo, they met every day to play at the end of the workday:
Yamauchi was the most intelligent person I ever met. He ran his company like a game of Go, and never yielded on a single point. Since I met him, I knew that he would not give me anything, that I would have to earn it all. This is how I got his respect: it was the way he played.
But Yamauchi wasn’t the only innovatior formed at the board. Ken Sakamura, the creator of Tron, the first free operating system, thought up for mobile devices and therefore nearly invisible, but prior to GNU/Linux and—despite being little-known in the West—much more extensive than Windows, is one of those who gathers his disciples around the goban.
And in California, where free software grew out of the same milieu in which the game was spreading, Richard Stallman included GNU-Go among the first nine basic programs of GNU(/Linux), together with the terminal and the C compiler.
No wonder Bill Gates confesses in a book-long interview that one of his desires is to become a strong player of Go… which has made him, like Paul Allen, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and the creators of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, among other well-known businesspeople that have voiced similar desires, one of the most sought-after people to sponsor tournaments in the US.
And the innovators who base their ideas on what they learn from the game keep showing up. It’is the case of Luke Biewald, the creator of Crowdflower. A business model that aims to substitute automated processes and leadership positions (marketing, sales, etc.) with groups of thousands of people that receive a small sum for expressing what their decision would be in view of a series of data. The results, apparently, are amazing.
Although it is only now that the business has started to see numbers in the black and media response, it was really in 2010, with the earthquake in Haiti, when it had the opportunity to demonstrate their power for the first time. In that moment, with all infrastructure destroyed, only the mobile telephone network survived. Quickly, the main telephone company begun to offer the possibility of sending free SMSs to a special number with messages for help. Those short messages, sent by tens of thousands of people, became practically the only source of information to make an initial evaluation of the disaster and start planning international aid. Crowdflower took charge of translating these messages, geopositioning them, and converting them in a real-time reporting system.
Biewald, who often uses metaphors about Go on his blog, and who, when he was a student at Standford, programmed a three-dimensional version of the game which he continues developing for mobile devices, points towards Go as the origin of their carreer path and way of thinking:
I was an exchange student in Japan mostly because I wanted to play a lot of Go. I think it has helped a lot in business, or at least it has shaped my style of management.
There’s something beautiful that happens when simple rules lead to a complex system. It also teaches me patience and composure and handling ambiguity. Go is all about handling ambiguity. For example, do I want a region of the board to be well defined or undefined? Beginners stress out too much about leaving territory unclaimed or stones half-captured. But you learn that this is often advantageous. I think a big part of running an early stage start-up is not freaking out about things being left undefined.
The nueroscience of Go… and of innovation
Actually, there are more than a few things that can be learned from the game. But the attraction innovators and entrepreneurs feel for the game can have a material basis in itself that is as interesting as the reflections that the game evokes.
Neurological studies that compare the brain’s response to playing Go with chess, agree with others carried out in Korea with professional players which point toward two interesting things. The first is that the practice of the game improves “executive function” in our brain much more than any other kind of mental exercise. Executive function is what lets us gain self-control, determmine and articulate purposes, and among other things that are no less important, overcome dyslexia or control anger. The second is that the repeated and prolonged practice of the game “rewires” the brain, increasing the degree of interconnection of its different parts. As a consequence, a multidisciplinary study is being developed in Japan with primary-school children, measuring for the first time the impact of the game on their capacities. The authors predict that:
the children of the study group, compared to the control group, will gain higher cognitive functions, especially executive function, and will have better emotional and behavioral control.
What does this have to do with the pioneers of the business world? If we think about it a bit, this capacity to resist frustration, articulate purposes, sustain them over time, and adapt to circumstances to execute them, is what determines probabilities of success for anyone who wants to turn an idea into a project. And that’s exactly the process that starts when you lay your first stone on the board. Click!
Translation by Steve Herrick.