Buried under a layer of cement in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico (USA), there are more than 700 000 Atari game cartridges. Among others, there are copies of E.T.the game based on the Steven Spielberg movie. This bleak scene symbolizes the video game collapse of 1983, when demand for games such as E.T. plummeted and Atari threw away (literally) hundreds of thousands of cartridges to reduce supply and maintain prices.
But why did demand for Atari games grow exponentially and then collapse precipitously? As soon as the original Atari games, such as Centipede y Space Invadershit the store shelves, many imitations flooded the market.
When innovations become lucrative, many imitators appear, seeking to monetize the original work without taking the high risks of innovating. This phenomenon is not limited to Atari or video games, but is universal in creative products. There are, for example, more than 20 film sequels to The Avengers y X-Men from Marvel.
As Atari games grew in popularity in the 1980s, new creators and programmers entered the video game business, creating literal copies or plagiarisms of the most successful games (such as Space Invaders), as Phobos, Pushky, Quarxon, Yahtman, Catterpiggle y Diggerbonk.
As copycats copied the original and then copied the copies, the initial programmers who created pioneering Atari games, such as the Pong, Combat y Super Breakoutthey were no longer directly involved. Their creativity and innovation became diluted in the large number of video game designers who copied each other.
An international team of researchers studied this process, which we have termed “creativity dilution.” In a recent study we analyzed how imitations affect a product. We asked ourselves: were there measurable warning signs before the collapse of a multi-billion dollar market like Atari’s? The results of this research could benefit investors and consumers to better understand creative product trends and cycles, and to distinguish between innovative creators and those who imitate.
Growth and collapse cycles.
Our team approached this question using our collective expertise in network theory, anthropology, cultural evolution, and evolutionary biology.
We analyzed three classes of creative products that experienced exponential growth followed by sudden collapse: the aforementioned Atari games from 1979 to 1991, cryptocurrencies from 2009 to 2020, and posts on Reddit during 2018. All inspired a significant number of imitations and plagiarisms that competed for consumers’ attention and money, flooded the market and diluted the original creativity.
Imitation is especially easy to pull off in text- or code-based products, as small changes in words or symbols count as a new version. Reddit posts, for example, are often short messages written in English, which very often copy previous posts with minor alterations. Atari games are a collection of 8-bit machine code sequences that were shared among the company’s programmers and could also be copied, or reverse engineered by other companies. Cryptocurrency white papers are documents written in English that contain technical information about the currency and the business.
Can imitation predict failure?
In all three cases we measure repetitiveness, which in linguistics is called lexical diversity, and originality, measured through the information density of a text. For example, “hello, hello, hello!” is more repetitive than “hello, how are you?”. This second sentence is also more original, since it includes new words not found in the other example.
Comparing the uniqueness and repetition of a work with previous versions can give us an idea of the level of plagiarism. If new texts are copied and edited with little originality from earlier texts, both repetition and uniqueness should decrease.
In fact, we found that the collapse in the number of products released was preceded by a measured decline in originality in each of our case studies. Between 1980 and 1983, the number of video games released by Atari grew exponentially. This phase of enormous productivity corresponds with a marked and continuous loss of originality in its computer codes.
That is, with each copy, the underlying machine code of the games became simpler and more repetitive. Imitation and replication of the content of the originals contributed greatly to the decline of the market.
Innovation as a collective process.
When modifications are made by imitators, rather than by the experts who created the initial product, the original ideas of those experts can disappear under layers and layers of modifications. This dilution of creativity describes content that is copied and recopied with few innovative modifications.
As copying multiplies and the number of works grows, the creativity that gave freshness to pioneering products becomes increasingly buried, like Atari cartridges in the landfill.
For Atari, over time there were too many video games that resembled Space Invaders. In the case of cryptocurrencies, many digital currencies similar to Bitcoin have appeared, although it is still the most popular. On Reddit, too many posts on trite topics caused users to lose interest, which reduced the number of subscribers.
When copycats flood the market, the expert creativity that acted as a catalyst is diluted. Consumers lose interest, as in the case of Atari, or investors lose their money when they can no longer distinguish innovation from a bad imitation.
Can we see it coming?
Imitation is not a bad thing. After all, copying successful ideas is key to the development of culture and technology. New products are rarely created in isolation; ideas from the past are the foundation for future innovation.
The rise of certain creative products is likely to end in decline when the number of imitators far outstrips the supply of fresh ideas or creativity. The methodology employed in our study can predict such a collapse. In the future, this analysis could be applied to complex systems such as technology patents and music genres.
Salva Duran-Nebreda, Researcher, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC); Michael J. O’Brien, Professor of History, Texas A&M University-San Antonio; R. Alexander Bentley, Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee and Sergi Valverde, Tenured Scientist, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC).
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.
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