Nintendo, the Wii, and the Black Swan

Nintendo and the Black writer Tyler Cowen tackles a new book by Nassim Taleb called the Black Swan today, and while I read the column I couldn’t help but think of Nintendo.

Some might attribute this to an obsession, but once you see the points made by Taleb in his new book I think you’ll see I’m only half-obsessed.

In his book, Taleb asks why people are often surprised by the discovery and subsequent success of completely new (or strange) things. In the book’s case this is the Black Swan, which was discovered in Australia during a time when most people had accepted as fact the belief that all swans were white. In my case, I thought of Nintendo, its Blue Ocean strategy, the success of the DS and Wii, and how the Old Guard of developers and journalists literally laughed at both systems.

Taleb argues that people are often taken aback by such things because “we are hard-wired to find order in randomness, to turn scattered points into a coherent narrative, and to expect identified patterns to last forever. We become emboldened by our successes, and we think that we achieved control or at least can see what is coming next. The search for patterns and order can be a dangerous trap, distracting us from ‘the impact of the highly improbable,’ to cite the book’s subtitle.” In The Black Swan, Taleb asks readers to embark on the difficult journey towards “an angst-ridden, but socially beneficial, plunge into wrestling with the unknown.”

Hmm. “An angst-ridden, but socially beneficial, plunge into wrestling with the unknown.” What does that sound like? What companies today, software or hardware or otherwise, look as thought they expected identified patterns to last forever? Which companies did not and found success through disruption and true innovation? I don’t think I really need to bore any of you with the answer to that question today. It would be redundant — there are already 8.17 million answers worldwide out there today to do that for me (and almost six times that number with a smaller, more portable system).

And I agree, the search for patterns and order can be a dangerous trap, distracting people from ‘the impact of the highly improbable.’ That impact, I’d argue pretty confidently today, is knocking industry giants like Sony, MS, and EA on their collective asses right now. The ‘highly improbably event’ was a duct-taped pair of GameCubes with a waggle wand kicking the snot out of a super computer.

Cowen writes at

[G]etting out of our comfort zones is good for innovation and thus good for the economy. Young entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, in his recent memoir, My Start-Up Life, offers similar business advice: “Expose yourself to as much randomness as possible. Attend conferences no one else [in your field] is attending. Read books no one else is reading. Talk to people no one else is talking to.” The late G.L.S. Shackle, a Scottish economist and one of Taleb’s heroes, insisted that capitalism was driven by entrepreneurs’ abilities to imagine a radically different future. Shackle argued that we live in a “kaleidic society, interspersing its moments or intervals of order, assurance and beauty with sudden disintegration and a cascade into a new pattern.”

I think developers and gamers alike would do well to follow that advice. When you see grandma buying Cooking Mama at your local Target, don’t sneer and dismiss her. Or lament the fall of gaming. Or bitch and moan. Instead, think of how that scene could change your gaming experience for the better. To think otherwise, as dinosaurs like the Bleszinski brothers have shown (and yes, I just called someone behind one of the biggest games of 2006, which was last year, a dinosaur) just doesn’t cut it in today’s industry anymore.