How Games and Play Lead to Some of the Greatest inventions

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“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” Could we track the development of wi-fi, modern insurance practices, and even computers to… playthings? That’s the thesis author Steven Johnson puts forth in his new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, asserting that technological innovations can often be traced back to our primal impulse to be entertained. In a recent interview with NatGeo, Johnson supports his theory with a variety of examples, from ancient Baghdad’s House of Wisdom to Pokémon Go.

For instance, people often miss the etymological link between “keys” on a laptop and “keys” on a piano. Indeed, the typewriter was once angled as a “harpsichord for words.” And Johnson asserts that Charles Babbage may have been inspired to create programmable machines after being enchanted by a music box as a boy.

Likewise, golden age Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr developed an early version of wireless communication while moonlighting as an inventor during World War II. Inspired by player pianos, she devised a system with 88 slots (again, like piano keys) which could encode messages sent to torpedoes over long distances.

The intended innovations don’t always catch on, of course. Johnson notes that Monopoly‘s predecessor, The Landlord’s Game, was actually developed by social progressive Lizzie Magie. She wished to teach children about the ills of capitalism-run-amuck by enticing them with tabletop fun. With the removal of an optional play style where kids could win by sharing wealth, of course, the game has perhaps come to send the opposite message.

There’s plenty to be said about how artificial intelligence has advanced in leaps and bounds because of the needs of next-gen video games. Still, we can’t help but think of that gag in Treehouse of Horror where Kang and Kodos insist their world’s games aren’t more advanced than Pong because they’ve been focused on space travel instead.

Can you track any tech innovations to games? Has play time ever opened your mind to better problem-solving? Sound off in the talkback.

Featured Image Credit: Milton Bradley

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