One of the chapters in Backroom Boys (see Reading page) is dedicated to how the game Elite came about, from the creators’ first experiences of computer programming to how they overcame many of the technical obstacles. Ultimately it led to the creation of the world’s first computer games revolution: a game that sold almost as many copies as there were machines to play it on, that could last for months rather than the usual minutes, that had no levels and didn’t rely on score as a measure of skill, a game where the player could chose their own path. I don’t believe I’ve ever played Elite, though I have used a BBC Micro, but the chapter was fascinating. It also went beyond purely detailing the facts of what happened and started to look at why it happened then and there. One of the suggestions is that Thatcherism was partly responsible. It started me thinking about the world today.
Obviously capitalism rules the political landscape. You could argue that our basic desire for self-improvement, our need to fulfil our dreams, to accomplish goals, to constantly drive forward is what makes capitalism work. There are those that would argue that the competition makes us leaner and keener as a society. Arguably it promotes evolution at high speed: only the brightest and best can continue to compete when the game keeps hitting new, higher, levels. Those with a more cynical eye would suggest that, in fact, it is our greed, our envy, and our self-interest that keeps capitalism moving forward.
A friend of mine pointed out to me the other day that we aren’t living capitalism anymore, we’re living in a consumerist society. We no longer wish to own things, we simply want to buy them, use them and throw them away, then go out and buy some more. I think he’s got a point.
The chapter goes on to talk about the idea that in Elite, you were in control, you were the only thing that mattered, and that this fitted perfectly with the Thatcher idea of society not existing and that only the individual was important. This is the same sort of time when Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko was saying “Greed is good,” to anyone who would listen, and many people were. To a certain extent this is a period where, in Britain at least, society changed. This is the period when the little guy wasn’t just told he could make it big, that he could live his dreams; he was avidly encouraged to do so. The class system was brought down with a wrecking ball. Society was replaced with a collection of individuals, loosely called a society, all intent on rising above everyone else, anyway they could.
On the one hand, this was a good thing. It meant that anyone could achieve anything, all they needed was the motivation and drive to do it. It didn’t matter where you were born, or how much money your family had, just whether you were prepared to work hard. It opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. On the other hand, it created one big rat race. It pitted everyone against their neighbour. An environment such as that is not conducive to co-operation.
This was kind of what I was getting at in this article (a point, at last!). As a deprived underclass, resigned to our fate, we gelled together and helped one another out. Now we jealously guard that which we have. It is the same in business. There are no longer collaborations, sharing of information, exchanges of ideas. Instead, everyone keeps it all locked away, trying desperately to lock people into their view of the world while staying one step ahead of the competition. There is no thought for the greater good, no desire to lend a hand.
This hits home as, in the next chapter, the author discusses the race to map the human genome. Now, this was all going along steadily, with charitable causes plodding on through the genome year on year. Until, that is, someone had the bright idea to do a slap-dash (that’s the impression I got), 90% accurate version. This could be achieved faster, so they could sell the information. It took some British scientists to stand up and say: “No flippin’ way.” These were people who shared ideas with one another, who talked and discussed and exchanged views in a way that no private company would or could do, and they believed that the human genome was something everyone should have access to, not just those institutions who could afford the subscription. (On a side note here, did you realise that some companies have patented specific genes? How can you patent something every person on the planet has billions of copies of floating around in the building blocks they consist of? Does that make us all lawbreakers?) They didn’t do it alone, it was a global effort, but it was done and they delivered a fully validated, ‘archive quality’ version of the genome in the same time the commercial venture delivered it’s version.
I think that while we consider out modern society to be the pinnacle of everything that has gone before it, it seems that the model we need to adhere to, one where we try and deliver benefits to all of society rather than squandering intellectual and physical resources for the short term gain of a few, comes from our past.
Incidentally, if you’re more interested in discussion of the chapter from a games perspective, check out: