Video game designer Gabriele Leydon went on Invest Like The Best and dropped deeply provocative bits about what I might describe as design and gamification as a response to a future that has thus far proved disappointing or alienating. I don’t know how much of it I agree with it though I’ll admit I have had similar thoughts (and a few essays sitting in my drafts on the topic) with respect to financialization. I’d describe listening to this as Patrick interviewing the Ben Hunt of video games. If there’s something I’d probably disagree with most it’s the pastoral sense that the frontier seemed somehow more accessible to the common man 100 years ago beckoning people to go West for opportunity. There are frontiers, and they are always crushing by the standards of their time. I think a lot about the stories of cab-driving immigrants and have a sense that they are deeply courageous and today’s modern day pioneers, leaving all that is familiar behind (and probably why the success of immigrants in the US shouldn’t be surprising. They are built different). The definition of frontier is context-dependent. Still, I really enjoyed listening to this interview and any disagreement I’d have is well worth the brain food Gabriele serves. Patrick does a great job as usual asking questions.
These notes are just pulled from the transcript and a (lightly edited) snippet of what I wanted to refer back to. It’s not a summary. All emphasis is mine.
A Dark Interpretation of Our Obsession With Stories and Design
Patrick: I know you’re going to restrain yourself, but we’ll do our best. The first red pill of the discussion is around the topic of design. There’s a huge emphasis on design right now, and I think you’ve got an interesting take on what an emphasis on design means about where we are in capitalism. What are your thoughts on the importance of design or what it might mean?
Gabriel: There’s this pattern where when things are innovative, nobody really cares what they look like. If I made up a teleport machine and it was the size of an arena and it was covered in slime and smelled really bad or something nobody would care. There’d be a line around the block. Everybody would just jump in and they would think it’s the greatest thing ever. But over time we kind of would make it smaller, and then the artists would come in and try to make it look nicer and feel better. And once you kind of get to that design phase, where Silicon Valley’s been for about 10 years, there’s only so much you can do to make something look better.
If you remember 5 years ago, everybody was talking about delighting their users, and delighting is “We don’t have any more ideas. So we’re just going to feel a little bit better because we’re out of ideas. So now we’re going to just delight you.” The game design stuff is, “we don’t know how to make this look better, so now we’re just going to tap into your human condition of biology and psychology to make our products better. Because we don’t know how to make them more innovative, we don’t know how to make them better looking, but we can add levels and achievements.”
How that presents itself is all of a sudden you’re getting achievements for buying erectile dysfunction pills from Hims. You buy extra orders of minoxidil to max out your Hims account. That’s what we’re seeing…You see this kind of talk about everything becoming a video game, but I actually see it as a bad sign. We’re basically running out of new ideas. The economy is just becoming more and more psychological and it’s less about innovation and more about understanding your condition as a person and then building a product around biological and psychological reflexes rather than a teleport machine that can move you around the world.
Patrick: It reminds me of that Neil Postman book, Amusing Ourselves to Death [Kris: I’m coincidentally about to start this book], that Huxley’s version of the future was more accurate than Orwell’s.
Gabriel: I think it’s because when people think about capitalism, they think about the early 1900s. They think about cars and radios and TVs and microwaves and it almost never ends. And I think it peaks in the ’60s and the ’70s with all that futurism. The futuristic art, flying cars, and skyscrapers. And that’s the same time we go off the gold standard and there was this infinite optimism around money printing and innovation basically. And we could just print as much as we want because we’re going to be immortal space beings, zapping around the galaxy. So who cares?
That didn’t happen. So when the innovation growth didn’t really match the expectation, it’s just like things just start getting designed, they start moving towards the design phase, and then eventually a gamification phase, like what you’re seeing in the financial markets and software and pretty much everything.
I’m not a big person on late-stage capitalism. Capitalism is just a human condition. What does that even mean? I think it’s more like we just don’t know what to do anymore. So we’re just going to add levels to the stuff that we already know how to do. And there’s a lot of margin in it too. So it’d be, it’s like a big gravity well where it’s like, “Well, we can just take the existing stuff and add achievements to it and we’ll sell more pills.”
There’s also another part of it in Silicon Valley where … And you’re a VC, so has anybody ever tried to pitch you a video game? Do you understand it at all?
Patrick: What did you learn about the reasons why people will pay? Famously in free to play there’s this crazy power law of who pays and how much. And the 0.1% of the players, I don’t know what it is. Some crazy high percentage of the revenue. So maybe a better way of asking the question is like, what have you learned about what characterizes that willingness to spend?
Gabriel: We’re tribal people by nature. And when I say tribe, I don’t just mean your culture. I also mean the size. Tribes tend to be pretty small. If you look at early America and people say, go West and land of opportunities. What does land of opportunity mean? It means if I’m a blacksmith and I’m the only blacksmith around for 100 miles, it doesn’t matter if I’m the world’s best at making horseshoes or not. I’m the only one around. So, that’s my land of opportunity. I could just keep going West essentially, and there’ll be less and less people, and I’ll have more and more of an opportunity to become important to the community that I’m in.
And we’re in this age of hyper-competition. We have these social networks, forums, and chat rooms, clubhouses, whatever, where we have essentially this real-time leaderboard of who matters and who doesn’t. So when you say that 1% of spenders, that group is even smaller with who matters online.
So the answer is that the world has become so soul-crushingly competitive. Being good at something doesn’t matter anymore — you have to be the best. If you make horseshoes, doesn’t matter if you’re good at it, I’ll just order it for someone else and it’ll arrive in two days. And you better be cheap, because if not I’ll wait a week and get it from China.
So we’re in this hyper state of competition, that makes people feel like they don’t matter. Because they don’t. They actually really don’t, and everybody knows it. That’s the honest truth. So you end up with these online communities with a seductive and simple way to belong to something, where these things actually reward time spent, rather than skill. So if I just spend more time, I’ll be more important. You see that a lot on social networking, they’re all designed that way. Spend more time, you’ll matter more. You see so much like online activism, for example. Online activism that you would never see in person because all I got to do is post something, or whatever. And they matter because they’ll get lots of likes, they’ll get lots of retweets.
You get the culture and then the counterculture. And they’re both essentially the same thing, like one side saying thing because that’s the thing to say. The other side is saying the opposite because that’s the opposite to say. And both sides get a lot of likes. Video games give more structure to that than Twitter does. A lot more structure. They could have levels, and Kings, and Queens, and weapons, and kingdoms, and whatever you want, you just make it up. So you get more structure. And the video games become a place to get lost in because they have so much structure. That’s what I did. And I loved it. And for me it was really important to me, because before that I was just like, what’s the point? I don’t even know what the point of my life was basically. It’s like, you’re working at Target, and Dave & Buster’s, and whatever, and you’re not going to college, what else do you have? That’s what I had. And I think that’s what made me understand it. There’s just too much competition, and people need environments to excel in. This whole hyper-globalization thing just crushes souls because they can’t excel. And they know it. Everybody’s like, robots are going to replace you. And AI is going to replace you, and you got to go eat bugs and go live in a box. It’s so funny, I talk to these AI guys in Silicon Valley. They’re all trying to make God versions of themselves. They always say to the game developers “We need you.” Because what are people going to do when my God AI thing works?
It’s so sick. It really is sick, like they know what they’re doing. They know exactly what is going to happen. And they’re looking at the game designers like, well maybe you’ll distract everybody. Maybe everybody will just be distracted as the whole world collapses around them. Like every person in AI, every single person in AI, every single one. They’re all, “We’re going to need VR.”
I wish they would be more honest in public about it. Because they all say it. I think this game design worldwide takeover is partly because the innovators think that’s what should happen. And also because they don’t know what else to do.
Patrick: Give me one more thing at least. One more what I would call purple pill. Something not too inflammatory. Something you think that is true about the world that people wouldn’t like to hear.
Gabriel: I think we need AI more than we think. I think that we’re at an IQ limit and the reason why innovation feels like it’s slowing down is because we can’t do it. We just literally, physically can’t do it. And there may be an exit ramp through AI, but it’s not exactly clear that we can do that either.
I really think that the 60s and 70s futurism is the reason why we’re suffering so much today. Because there was no reason to not print money, to not full-on inflationary mindset and everything because we were going to live in paradise. We were going to be on the moon. We’ll be able to pay all this back, there’s no problem. And then financialization happened, and gamification of financialization happened because that was easier and it worked. But it’s not better. Innovation is better. It’s clearly better. If I make a teleport machine, I don’t need to make a video game, I don’t need to have levels and achievements. It doesn’t need to look nice. It doesn’t need any of those things. It’s just is what it is and everybody wants one. That is better. That’s the only way to really have prosperity. And this design/now gamification is a symptom of the limits of our minds. So instead of doing things in the physical world, we’re doing things in the psychological world now, and that may be permanent. And I hope that’s not true, but more and more of the economy is going into this exploit, automation, high-frequency trading, that kind of thinking. And it’s not rockets to Mars.
We’ve gotten to the point where we look at the two richest men… Like we used to have the Wright brothers, these two guys trying to make an airplane, they’re in the middle of nowhere, who are these guys like? Now we look to the two richest men in the world to solve our most difficult problems. The regular person has no chance in participating in the future of the economy now. The only people who have the chance [appear to be these rich people], “I hope Bill Gates figures out solar panels.” And the regular people are just kind of looking up to them saying, “Well, I don’t know what to do.” And I think the reality is the rich guys don’t know what to do either. We got the rockets going. Those are cool. And we’re making some incremental innovations. There’s been some really important things like crypto. So it’s not hopeless. It’s just not what we thought was going to happen. The dislocation between the economy and the reality of innovation is that the economy moved way ahead of innovation, under false expectations that we would be able to keep innovating at an exponential rate.
I think there’s a fear that we know that we can’t. So then you’re staring at deflation, like a reset, essentially. We’ve got too much of everything and there’s not enough innovation to pay this back. It doesn’t exist so we got to abandon ship basically. That’s pretty bad. But from my lens, from my point of view, it’s why gaming is becoming so important. It’s because we don’t have the teleport machine and we need one. And if we had teleport machines, nobody would be playing games.
Something More Uplifting: A Qualitative Screen For A Promising Investment
Patrick: Does the idea, I’ll call it the gooey teleportation principle or something, is this also an investing principle? You should look for stuff that has terrible design or is breaking?
Gabriel: NFTs are important the same way the App Store was important. Meaning that at the beginning of the App Store, everything was broken. It took like three months to get an app approved. Just crazy stuff. It was a real nightmare. And it was growing like crazy. That’s what you want. You want environment that’s completely broken. There’s like a couple spaces still in the innovation phase and crypto is clearly one of them.
You always hear these VCs who don’t know what they’re talking about. They go, “You know what crypto needs, it needs a good UI.” I’m like, “Oh my God, just stop. Like stop it.” It’s innovative, it doesn’t need that. It’s still growing despite that. If we get to the phase where all crypto can do is add UI, it’s over. That’s it. Right? Then it’s just a matter of who’s got more DAU at that point, and it’s over.
So crypto is a good example of something that’s still really deep in the innovation phase. It’s not everything, but crypto will eventually turn into a game too. It’s obvious. It’s kind of got elements like that. But my favorite stuff is you go to the websites, they look terrible. You ever noticed that? If you look at this DeFi projects, it’s like the worst looking website you’ve ever seen. That’s a good thing. That’s what I want. I want it to look terrible like it’s crashing all the time, and it’s just growing. That’s the sign. Because when you clean it up, when you do put the good UI in, and you do gamify it, it will be 100x bigger. If you’re 10 years deep and still looks terrible and still growing like crazy, that’s all you need to know.
VC is right that when it does get cleaned up, it’s going to be bigger. But that’s not what you’re looking for. You’re actually looking for it being a mess and it’s still growing.
Put all your money there. Anything that’s just growing like crazy and totally broken, just put all your money there because obviously when it gets fixed, it’s going to be better. And there are tons of examples of this. There’s like the MySpace/Facebook example, right? They both had the broken but working thing, but MySpace couldn’t fix itself fast enough. So that’s kind of the bet. But if I didn’t know the future, I’d go, “Yeah, put all your money in MySpace.” I mean it’s growing and it’s like totally broken all the time. That’s where I would look at the risk. I think you kind of have to be an entrepreneur to even understand that. But that’s how I look at it, where’s the space that’s just totally screwed up and it’s still working? That’s what you want to be involved in.