I’ve been in academic administration in one capacity or another for about a dozen years now. In that time, I’ve heard my share of ed consultant flim-flam, trendy admin buzzwords, and Orwellian management-speak. For some reason, in all that time, in all those well-attended meetings, and in all those broadly consulted, fully benchmarked, uniquely tailored-for-our-context initiatives, the phrase that has come to annoy me most is “game changer”.
Perhaps this is because in whatever tattered shreds of an academic life are left to me, I study change, especially adaptation to environmental change, from an evolutionary perspective. Perhaps it is because, from both my research and my administrative work, I have come to feel that intentions are largely unrelated to outcomes in the evolution of the complex systems in which we live.
It doesn’t help much that the phrase is essentially meaningless. It absolutely doesn’t help that many of the contexts in which I have heard it invoked are desperately not games. Most of those contexts need to be changed, but any change will cause hurt, and part of our job is to decide what hurt to cause.
The administrative game changer discourse is deliberately playful, as if to insulate us from the very real seriousness of some of what we do. We impact lives. The phrase has now started to irritate me enough that I set out to find its origin, and how it became so prominent.
Because it is so ubiquitous, I decided to restrict my search to academic (non-administrative) uses of the dreaded expression. A quick search of Google Scholar shows over 6000 uses in 2019 alone, and 122 just in my discipline of archaeology. And yet, in a blissful past, well-within living academic memory, it was a rare thing. For the entire first decade of the current century, we get only 20 results for Archaeology, and about 3500 for all disciplines.
Figure 1: Google Ngram of “game changer” from 1980 to 2008
In other words, there has been a tenfold increase in the use of “game changer” in academia between the early 2000s and now. Similarly, a Google ngram chart (Figure 1) shows that the overall societal use of the phrase grew by an order of magnitude in the same period. No wonder I feel besieged by game changers. That part, at least, wasn’t just in my head.
The right kind of game changer
Little did I know, however, that my quest for the monster’s lair would bring me back to archaeogaming (again), and more specifically to the archaeology of games. A 1980 patent application from Bally Manufacturing Corporation, now owned by Midway Amusement Games LLC, strongly suggests that before the 1990s, the phrase “game changer” didn’t widely carry its current annoying implications of fun, edgy and hip, disruptive, wide-ranging systemic socio-technological engineering.
The patent application repeatedly refers to a “game changer device that is activated by a player actuating the game selector mechanism”. In other words, in 1980, a game changer was still properly understood as tool for selecting one game among many available on a single platform.
Using this device, for example, “The miniature size mechanical game of skill, shown as a pinball game may be replaced by other games such as a baseball game or target games arranged on the top of the circuit boards”.
Figure 2: The right kind of game changer (from http://20thcenturyvideogames.com/)
That is the kind of game changer I can live with. It brings me back to my first console, the 1976 Lloyds TV Sports 801, which my father, ever the early tech adopter, brought home one happy day, and on which I could play Pong-based versions of Tennis, Hockey, Squash and Handball on the family’s 13 inch black and white TV on rainy afternoons, using a convenient game changer switch. That kind of game changer makes me feel good. The other kind gives me a knot in my stomach.
The new kind of game changer
So where does this more recent meaning of game changer come from? And what exactly is that meaning, anyway? In a 1998 paper in Research-Technology Management, which coincides with the ngram take-off of the term, Rice et al define game changer, significantly used in scare quotes, suggesting that it is a new or unfamiliar expression, as a “discontinuous innovation project” with “the potential, (1) for a 5-10-times improvement in performance compared to existing products; (2) to create the basis for a 30-50-percent reduction in cost; or (3) to have new-to-the-world performance features.
Their third criterion, being an “or”, greatly broadens the scope of their definition and does a lot to explain some of the term’s modern fuzziness. I also wonder what they would have called a project which has the potential for greater than a tenfold improvement in performance, or a greater than 50% reduction in cost, since that would exceed the parameters for a game changer. Presumably, they had an even more stupendous name for it. If so, they don’t share it. It must have been outside the scope of their paper.
Note that their definition does not deal with actual performance or cost improvements, but with the potential for them. So from the start, a game changer was thought of as something unimplemented, a radical leap of faith with amazing potential and unknown risk.
Figure 3: An incomprehensible chart on the life-cycle of a game changer from Rice et al.
The game changer is also portrayed by Rice et al as a holy grail. According to them it is important that “In eight of the 11 field study projects [of game changers], there was a common shared understanding among researchers and research managers that a technical ‘holy grail’ existed within their industries, based on a clear articulation of this opportunity by senior management”.
So the game changers are basically intuitive bridges toward a holy grail. Better be sure what your favourite colour is before you suggest a game changer in a meeting.
Some of the early research on game changers tried to mitigate this naturally speculative aspect of the science. In another 1998 paper in the Proceedings of the Australasian Computer Human Interaction Conference, Benda and Sanderson describe “a systematic approach to predictively modelling technologically induced change”, to “provide decision-makers with useful information” for the development of game changers. I think I can just manage to suppress the committee meeting flashbacks at this point, and keep on writing. But just.
Figure 4: the game changer flow-chart from Benda and Sanderson
They describe a case study involving “a multinational elevator manufacturer”, which we can infer from the previously cited Rice et al as the development of the Otis bidirectional elevator. I guess we all have our own holy grail.
Benda and Sanderson emphasize that while most work on game changers has so far “been completely post-hoc”, a predictive approach is crucial. “For successful implementation of technology (particularly information technology), it would be desirable to trace out possible impacts on a ‘field’ in advance to prepare for them. Preparation might involve changing procedures, roles, training, and so on. In other words, predicting systemic and epistemic changes would be particularly important, as they are most likely to be disruptive.”
Don’t game change if you don’t have to
Disruptive indeed. By 1998, the elements of the modern game changer are clearly emerging. Unlike its more pragmatic game changer switch predecessor, this one is unapologetically faith-based, impactful to the point of disruption, all encompassing, all mobilizing, and above all, fundamentally speculative. In the course of my administrative career, I have come to believe that such measures should be only attempted in life-and-death situations (individual or collective), and only if there is no other alternative.
Change is necessary. It is constantly going on around us. The main role of an administrator in managing change should be to decide when to let local variation play out, and when to channel it more actively. A secondary role is to decide when a change should be decided at the top. This should be rare. As decision makers we have a very poor ability to know the consequences of our actions in a complex system. We also often have great faith in our ability to predict based on available data and system state. This is a very unfortunate combination.
As a result, we should almost never attempt to implement a game changer. The right way to find game changers is to look into the past, usually to measure the devastation, but occasionally, it must be said, to enjoy the success of an initiative and learn from it. The human cost of looking for game changers in the future is just too high.
Benda PJ and PM Sanderson 1998. Towards a dynamic model of adaptation to technological change, Proceedings 1998 Australasian computer interaction conference.
Halliburton RD 1980. Projected gaming method and apparatus, patent US4371164A.
Rice MP, GC O’Connor, LS Peters, JG Morone 1998. Managing discontinuous innovation, Research-Technology Management 41:52-58.