Role-Playing Games: Behind Their Time
By Bryan Caplan
In Why Not?, Nalebuff and Ayres draw our attention to inventions that took forever to arrive but seem obvious in retrospect:
Think about the innovation of one-way tolls or rolling luggage. Prewashed lettuce, the ultimate low-tech invention, has become a multibillion-dollar business. Frozen, pre-chopped onions save time and tears. You can now buy government bonds with interest rates indexed to inflation. There are plenty more great ideas like these just waiting to improve the quality of our lives.
In one of his all-time greatest posts, Alex Tabarrok coins the phrase “ideas behind their time” to describe these cases. He cites experimental economics as another example:
Experimental economics was an idea behind its time. Experimental
economics could have been invented by Adam Smith, it could have been
invented by Ricardo or Marshall or Samuelson but it wasn’t.
Experimental economics didn’t takeoff until the 1960s when Vernon Smith
picked it up and ran with it (Vernon was not the first experimental
economist but he was early).
As far as I know, though, no one’s noticed another fantastic idea behind its time: role-playing games. They first arose in the 1970s. But as I explain in this short manifesto, there was really no need to wait:
All you need to RPG are rules and imagination. In purely technological terms, then, RPGs could have arisen thousands of years ago. Imagine how vast our gaming libraries would be today if people started writing RPGs in the time of Socrates. Picture the canon of transcendent classics that library would contain! We can’t undo the oversight of the past. But the gamers of the present can and should make up for lost time.
If you’d like to join me in this noble catch-up, email me for an invitation to Capla-Con – July 23 & 24 at my house, noon to midnight. I’ll be running a bunch of RPGs using my True20 House Rules – easy to learn and fun to play.