The history of low-hanging intellectual fruit

Alex Tabarrok asks, why was the game Dungeons and Dragons, or something like it, not invented in ancient Rome? He argues that the ancient Romans had the technology (that would be dice, I guess) so why didn’t someone thing of inventing a random-number-driven role-playing game?

I don’t have an answer, but I think we can place this in a larger context by asking why, until recently, strategy games were so limited. There was chess, go, checkers, mancala, and . . . that was pretty much it! I guess there must have been a few more, but what strikes me when looking at old-time (pre-Monopoly, pre-Scrabble) games is how narrow was the selection. Race games with zero or near-zero strategy on the Parcheesi model seem like the standard option, then there were various games such as dominoes and backgammon which, sure, have some strategy but seem more like an excuse to gamble than anything else. (I’m assuming that most card games could not exist until relatively recently because of the technology required to produce cards with indistinguishable backs.)

I guess the main message here is that most people played games for relaxation, not as an excuse to think hard. So pure randomness was the popular choice. Still, it seems like many now-popular board game options were not even considered before the twentieth century. Maybe people played a lot of chess, checkers, and go variants, since the hardware of the games was widely available anyway?

So if you want to talk low-hanging fruit, the thing to talk about here is not role-playing games, but board games more generally.

I’m reminded of various low-hanging ideas in statistics. Indeed, so much of statistics is non-technical, and it seems that a lot of available ideas were not invented or at least widely used until recently. Scatterplots, for example: were they prevalent 200 years ago or more? They shouldn’t’ve been difficult to make, but it seems they were a relatively recent invention.