Player of Games

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 26 November, 2015.

Video games are often the target of bad press. Broadcast and print media frequently portray the newcomer to the entertainment stage as second-rate, childish entertainment, and relegate it to a discussion of how it is bad for children, and in recent years, its so-called effect on encouraging violence amongst the youth. 

And yet, when two young engineers, Lyle Timm and Christo Murray, explained the problems Eskom was having with its maintenance schedules to Eskom’s new CEO Brian Molefe, he exclaimed that it was a lot like Tetris, a game designed by the Russian Alexey Pajitnov and released in 1984. By redesigning their maintenance model into a new ‘Tetris’ model, Eskom has been able to keep South Africa free of load shedding for more than a 100 days now.

And perhaps it is Brian Molefe’s experience with games that has enabled him to turn around a struggling Eskom.  Several studies over the years have shown how video games teach problem solving skills and enhance creativity. It has been shown to improve not only visual contrast sensitivity, but also improved spatial attention, reduced impulsiveness, and even helps in overcoming dyslexia. In terms of executive functioning, video games have been found to improve your ability to multitask, it increases your mental flexibility, and, given the age gamers are reaching lately, has even been shown to reduce the mental decline that occurs with age.

If a knowledge of video games was able to achieve Eskom’s turnaround, how is it that they’re perceived as childish? This can be attributed to the fact that old media often seem to view the new as a threat, and try to incite a moral panic among the older members of society, who frequently don’t understand the new media well enough, and don’t realize what wild exaggerations are made in regards to it.

That is because despite portrayals of video games as a ‘child’s toy,’ that age of the average gamer is 35 years. 44% of all gamers are female by this point, making it no longer a male-dominated medium. Only 26% of gamers are under the age of 18 – and a good thing too for the industry, since 8 out of the top 20 best-selling games of 2014 was rated M for Mature. If you are a parent, please take note of the ratings. Games aren’t just rated mature because of violent content – this is also for more… shall we say, esoteric concepts you might not want your child yet exposed to. Or maybe you like explaining the concept of nuclear annihilation to a 13-year old?

And for those claiming video games is second rate entertainment, it would perhaps surprise you to learn that the video game industry is about twice the size of the film industry. Worldwide box-office revenue for the film industry in 2013 was US$ 35.9 billion, compared with video games’ US$ 70.4 billion. In fact, with the release of Fallout 4 on 10 November 2015, it had US$ 750 million worth of sales in the first 24 hours. The record is currently held by GTA V, which in 2013 had US$ 800 million worth of sales in the first 24 hours, and hit US$ 1 billion in sales by day three. By contrast, in the movie industry the fastest film in history to hit US$ 1 billion, The Avengers, only managed it in 19 days.

Even in people’s daily jobs, video games improve performance, especially in jobs that require hand-eye coordination, attention, a good working memory and quick decision making. In surgeons specifically, young inexperienced surgeons who were also video gamers outperformed experienced surgeons in their field!

Even in corporates such as SAP and Amazon, games have started to influence the work environment. The concept of Gamification, where game-design elements and game principles are being employed in non-game contexts, has revolutionized the approaches of several companies. It has used to not only increase user engagement, but also increase organizational productivity, and its finding its way into employee recruitment and evaluation as well.

Of course, in Africa, video games are still just a small piece of the entertainment pie. In South Africa, its only about 3.4% of consumer spending – but it’s still a N$ 2.5 billion industry that’s rapidly growing. Significantly in Africa, it appears that social games are the fastest growing market, with social gamers (in Facebook or on mobiles) expected to double by 2019.

And Namibia is not far behind – especially when I consider the amount of Candy Crush requests I receive on Facebook.

War Never Changes

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 19 November, 2015.

“War. War never changes. The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes.”

Thus begin the iconic video game Fallout, set in the post-nuclear wasteland in the aftermath of World War III. And with the events unfolding in Paris and Syria, the world seems poised on the brink of another war that can only bring death and devastation to million across the globe.  Because war never changes…

Since the dawn of human history, blood has been spilled, some in the name of a god, some for justice, and at other times simple psychotic rage. The earliest evidence of conflict comes from Cemetery 117, dated about 14 000 years ago, where 45% of the skeletons showed signs of dying a violent death. With the rise of governments about 5 000 years ago, military conflict has become a way of life. Current estimates indicate that there have been 14 500 wars fought between 3 500 BC and today, claiming 3.5 billion lives, with only 300 years of peace. 

The earliest and deadliest war fought was the Three Kingdoms War, from 184 CE to 280 CE, in China. The three emperors of Wei, Shu and Wu all claimed legitimate succession from the Han dynasty. Shu was conquered by Wei during 263 CE, where after Wei was overthrown by the Jin dynasty in 265 CE, and Jin finally conquered Wu during 280 CE. A census during the Han era reported 56 million individuals, while a census taken under the Jin reunification reported a population of 16 million individuals. With a death toll of 40 million, this counts as the second deadliest period of warfare before modern times. 

Of course, no history of war would be complete without Genghis Khan. The Mongol invasions and conquests from 1206 CE to 1337 CE counts as the deadliest conflict before the 20th century. This was death and destruction on a scale never seen before. The arrival of Mongol hordes spread terror and panic that was fully justified. In North China, only about 10% of the population survived. In Persia, only about 20%, measured via the drop in tax revenues. The Mongols reached the borders of Europe before their empire collapsed following the death of Kublai Khan. At the time, it covered 33 million square kilometres. It is estimated that approximately 50 million people died during these conquests.

It is only in modern times that we’ve once again begun to reach the excesses of the Mongols. A modern history of war, of course, starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Dying with his wife in his arms, his last words were "Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!" From there, the war engulfed Europe. On the one side, the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire. On the other, the Central Powers of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was in this war that the colony of German South-West Africa became a protectorate of the British Empire, under control of the Union of South Africa. 

By 11 November 1918, 20 million people had died in the war. On 11am that day, an armistice was reached in what was called the Great War. Around the world every year, poppies are still worn on 11 November to commemorate those who died, due to the field of poppies that grew on the battlefields in the western front.  By the end of the war there were no more empires. But the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war would not hold…

On 1 September 1939, Germany under Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and started the war that would claim the greatest number of human lives in history. Hitler’s genocide of the Jews, driven partly by eugenics, partly by a fundamentalist Christian revenge for the crucifixion of Jesus, remains a black mark on human history that can never be erased. And while the Holocaust resulted in the death of 6 million Jews, the total death toll during the war amounted to 60 million people, about 3% or the world population. Of that 60 million, 26.6 million were Russians, or about 14% of the Russian population. 

It is no surprise that the first law in any society around the world is the prohibition on killing someone. We have long since recognized that for human society to prosper, the needless deaths of its members is the most critical element of a civilization. 

Every religion condemns it, from the famous line of the Torah, in Exodus 20:13 – “Thou shalt not kill,” to the words of Jesus, in Matthew 5:21-22 – “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire,” and the Qur'an 5:32 – “If anyone slays a person, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”

The only way anyone can live in peace, is if they’re prepared to forgive. Here in Namibia, we have the most powerful example of forgiveness in action all around us. When this country became independent, an unconditional amnesty was given to fighters on both sides of the war for independence. Today these former enemies sit at the same table, working together for a better future. The world today desperately needs more peace. Just 300 years in 5 000 is not enough.

United We Stand

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 12 November, 2015.

Namibia, as a nation, has several defining characteristics. The most important amongst these were articulated in the preamble to the Namibian Constitution, and inter alia, it mentions the following: “… Whereas we the people of Namibia desire to promote amongst all of us the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Namibian nation [...] Now therefore, we the people of Namibia accept and adopt this Constitution as the fundamental law of our Sovereign and Independent Republic.”

It was thus no surprise that Finance Minister Calle Schlettwein announced a solidarity tax last week, to be ring-fenced and utilized for poverty eradication in Namibia. This solidarity tax would be applicable only to those earning more than the average GDP per capita, and is in line with the principles upon which our nation and its constitution were founded.

And yet some Namibians are unhappy that they’ll be assisting the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens. Some have even started a petition against this tax, giving several suggestions that, while some are valid, does not seem to take into account that many of these poverty eradication suggestions could in fact be funded by the very same tax they are so vehemently against.

Namibia has a very unequal distribution of income, and Minister Schlettwein’s proposed threshold of N$ 79 000 per annum would not even tax the top 10% of earners. Taking a look at the statistics reveal that if you earn N$ 5000 per month, 9 out of every 10 people you pass on the street are worse off than you! If you earn more than N$ 20 000 per month, then 99 out of every 100 people you pass are worse off than you. Is it too much to ask one so privileged to assist his fellow citizens to achieve the same success this country has granted them?

Other citizens like to point to instances of government corruption and ask why they have to sacrifice some of their riches when the government hasn’t. This after President Geingob pledged 20% of his salary to start a scholarship fund for the impoverished. The Namibian government has also spearheaded anti-corruption initiatives since President Pohamba’s presidency. Let us not forget that over the quarter century since independence the government has overseen a rise in GDP per capita from US$ 2000 in 1990 to US$ 5700 currently. In doing so, Namibia’s Gini Coefficient (the measure of income inequality) has dropped from 70.1 in 1990, the highest in the world, to 59.7 currently, which places us seventh, and ahead of South Africa. I’d argue the government has a proven track record of poverty eradication. 

There are those who would like to claim that you cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. This conflates wealth and prosperity, which are not analogous concepts. Prosperity can be defined as ‘financial well-being’ and it has been said ‘money is like manure – it’s no good to anyone until you spread it around.’ When wealth is hoarded, it stops being spread around and hurts everyone’s prosperity. Thus you can create prosperity by breaking up hoarded wealth. It even helps the prosperity of the wealthy.

Namibia has its own local example of this. Over the past 14 years since listing, Trustco’s owner, Dr Quinton van Rooyen, has redistributed much of his wealth via shares in the company to employees. First via performance bonuses, and with his 50th birthday in April this year, to all staff, now and future, who have 1 years’ service with the company. This has not only lifted hundreds of employees into prosperity, and created 13 millionaires, but also allowed several employees to found their own businesses, and help bring prosperity to even more employees. President Geingob is now campaigning for other companies to follow this model as well.

Namibia is a very religious nation, and perhaps it is here that the resistance lies – in the entrenched ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ of John Calvin, which claims that hard work and frugality are indications of your salvation and that you are pre-selected to go to heaven. Giving to the poor is thus considered immoral because their position is reflective of what was pre-ordained by God.

To the religious, then, please bear in mind the following scripture of the Torah, Deuteronomy 19:28-29 – “At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates...and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied,” and the New Testament, Matthew 19:21 – Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,”” and the Quran, Surat Al-Baqarah 2:177 – “Righteousness is [in] one who […] gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty.”

Atheists and Humanists should know that they should care about poverty, not because a god or holy text tells you, but because we are all the same species, living together on our small planet, and treating others fairly is the right thing to do.

Namibia is one nation. Strength comes when we unite as one – not when we split into different groups that want to exist independently. That only weakens us as a nation. No one got where they are without the help of others over the years – they got there with privileges and opportunities, some never earned, some by birth. Namibia was founded on the idea that the fortunate among us will help, and contribute, to ease the suffering of the least fortunate. Our strength comes from showing solidarity as a nation.