15 October 2010

Motivational Friday: Geek Lords

If you've ever stepped into an online gaming arena and gotten a thorough butt-kicking, you know what a Geek Lord is. They're the guys (and gals) who reach the new max level for World of Warcraft in the span of a few hours; they've got a legacy of unearthly high scores in the Civilization Hall of Fame; and if you tune in to ESPN2 on a slow day, you can see them playing NFL Madden: 2011 against actual, professional football players, and winning by a score of 100-0.

And back in the ancient days, when the Internet was used to chat about games rather than playing them, the Geek Lords could be found in comic book shops devastating their opponents at Magic: The Gathering, or some similar customizable card game. That was me, actually, but my favorite was the Star Trek version.

Yep, he's holding Star Trek cards.
Best Easter Egg ever.

More on that in a bit. The question we should be asking ourselves, in relation to more lucrative endeavors, is: How do these people get so good?

The most obvious answer is that they play a lot. And by "a lot" I mean "obsessively to the point of foregoing trips to the bathroom". The slightly less obvious answer is that they're having fun. But is it the promise of fun that motivates them to work on their skills, or is it the process of fun that develops them?

The gamer's dilemma.

And if the latter, is that even relevant to more serious projects that, eventually, will require some work?

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Everyone's heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns (having read this sentence, you can't deny it). But the name can be misleading. It does not refer to returns that diminish over time. Rather, the law describes a decrease in marginal return coinciding with the increase of a fungible factor of production while other factors are constant.

Er... what?

Okay, let's say that Farmer Brown (all hypothetical farmers are named "Brown"-- another law of economics) has ten acres of land and a half dozen workers. Brown and the farm hands work hard, but can only plow a little over nine acres of the land. So farmer Brown decides to buy an ox.

Brown isn't stupid, so he's going to use that ox as efficiently as possible. He's going to take his slowest, weakest worker (and/or best ox handler) and put him to work driving a plow behind said ox. As a result, Brown can now get all ten acres plowed, and he's saved enough time that another farm hand can spend half his day plowing and half the day pulling weeds (a task which was previously neglected).

Follow me so far? Ox #1 = very useful.

Next, Farmer Brown checks his portfolio and decides he can afford another ox. The oxen are the "fungible factor of production". Fungible just means that there's no significant difference between one ox and another. So Brown puts his second-slowest hand (and/or second-best ox handler) to work driving the second ox. His crop yield (returns) will increase again, but not as much as they did from the first ox. The acreage is already plowed, the production difference for ox handler #2 is not as great, and the extra weed-pulling time is spent searching for smaller and smaller weeds.

With three or four oxen, nobody needs to work a plow by hand, everything is covered, and the farm hands are running out of useful things to do. Beyond four, the oxen are only useful for making fertilizer.

Diminishing returns. Q.E.D.

Based on this rather simple notion, we can conclude that, at some point, Brown should stop spending money on oxen and acquire some more acreage. Interestingly, the Law of Diminishing Returns can then be applied to the added land. The first couple of (additional) acres will be plowed and weeded. Adding a bit more, Brown can still plow everything but he'll have to cut back on the weeding. If he keeps adding land without bringing in more labor, he won't be able to work it at all.

Applying the Law Elsewhere

Now let's say you're a novelist-- Novelist Brown, if you like.

Novelist Brown is looking at a first draft, and decides to give it a good read-through so he can edit the work and improve it. Kinda like buying an ox, right? A second editing (of the second draft) will improve the work some more, but not as much as the first edit. Eventually, Novelist Brown should start on a new novel.

Conversely, if Brown keeps starting new projects without ever going back for an edit, he's never going to produce anything worthy of publication. Kinda like buying more acreage, right? Of course, it's not all writing and editing. Brown might need to brush up on his grammar, expand his vocabulary, do some research, or market his book. For every one of those tasks, more is better, but the returns (in quality and quantity of writing) diminish with each successive unit of input.

So there we are. Writing is work-- just like farming. If you want to produce, you have to spend time on a variety of tasks, even though you won't enjoy two thirds of them.

Hold That Depressing Thought!

Not so fast, Pessimist Brown.

The key word in the Law of Diminishing Returns is "fungible". Oxen, land, and farm hands are all likely to be fungible. The next ox won't be any better than the last. But the time investments of a creative, skilled individual are another matter.

I mentioned customizable card games. These required two substantially different skill sets: Building a deck and actually playing the game. I certainly enjoyed playing, but I loved, loved, loved building the decks. I would spend hours sorting through cards, looking at combinations, and designing precise deck ratios. I was good at it because I was having fun, and I kept getting better. Eventually, I could go to most local tournaments and expect to take first or second place despite sloppy play. And, just as importantly, my play didn't stay sloppy for long. Thanks to all the time and mental energy I'd invested in any given deck design, once I started playing, my effective learning rate was much higher than it would have been if I'd simply thrown something together the night before.

Therein lies the secret of the Geek Lords. When the World of Warcraft fanatic spends so many hours getting up to level 70, he's not just improving his character, he's improving his skills.

Smartness. Of a kind.

Is that curve impressive? No? Realistic, then? I've applied diminishing returns, you see, because (presumably) the first 1000 hours you spend will teach you more than the next 1000 hours, and so on. That graph might represent the function f(x) = 4x^(1/2) + x.

But. But!

But it's not just our skill level we're concerned with, it's our overall quality & quantity of production. The production for a unit of time is equal to the skill level times the time, which means that the aggregate production equals the area under the curve. I won't insult you by implying that you don't know how to do a simple polynomial integral, but I'll write it out just to be thorough: [integral] f(x) = (8/3)(x^(3/2)) + 1/2(x^2) + c


Woo hoo!

You already knew (I hope) that people are at their most productive when they enjoy what they're doing. So now you have even more reason to follow the happy path. If this were applied to the farming metaphor, then Brown would keep acquiring oxen, but the newer oxen would be stronger; then the next few oxen would be smarter; somewhere around the 100th oxen he'd be getting animals with opposable thumbs who could genetically re-engineer his crops. His yield over time would be impressive, even if he failed to acquire more acreage, and when he finally did get a bit more land, his production would leap dramatically.

Take careful note of the shape of that curve. Doing one (or a few) things consistently isn't going to produce high yields right away. Those come with time.

For a real-life example, look at Isaac Asimov. He never studied literature or literary technique (as far as I know), and he never put much effort into developing a broad range of interesting characters. Rather, he would be skimming over the latest scientific journal on astrophysics or chemistry, get an idea, and rush to his typewriter to bang it out in story form. Over time, he got better and better at his craft, and became one of the most prolific authors in history. And on those rare occasions when he did put some effort into character development, the payoff was greatly magnified.

If you dare, look at Stephanie Meyer. The Twilight series is a fantastical, self-indulgent romance. Meyer didn't beat herself up adding literary quality or applicable lessons to the book, but amplified the indulgence with sparkling vampires, sexy werewolves, and a protagonist who seduces the underworld by virtue of nothing more than her blood type. The result was moderately successful.

Then there's J.R.R. Tolkein, the antithesis of Asimov. Tolkein didn't want to write a lot of books. He just kept doing what he loved, developing a mythology for Middle Earth and inventing an entirely new language each time he had to wait for his tea to finish brewing. The result is one of the most celebrated works in English literature.

Pursue thy happiness, and be thou fruitful.



Belle Wong said...

Love this! Really like that following the happy path of writing makes solid economic sense! (And next time I'm indexing an economics book, I'll be thinking about applying the concepts to my writing - that's a new twist that will make the day job more fun.)

ViolaNut said...

My last boyfriend used to write flavour text for Magic: The Gathering cards... I really must remember the diminishing-returns thing on editing though, yes indeed... errrm... if I ever do it, that is. ;-)

Hart Johnson said...

I love it when you apply other theories to writing stuff. All the graphs make me a little giddy. The thing you forgot on the diminishing returns of editing, is the bar designated by the publishing industry for 'good enough'... Each round may have diminishing returns, but you still have to get past a certain point or you're in trouble.

Still... I ALSO have EXPERIENCED that graph thing at the end. I write SO MUCH FASTER, and a fair bit BETTER than I did when I was writing that first book... the practice of this thing I love has internalized a lot of the lessons, and I am much more efficient at it.

The Burrow said...

Hart J.: "The thing you forgot on the diminishing returns of editing, is the bar designated by the publishing industry for 'good enough'... Each round may have diminishing returns, but you still have to get past a certain point or you're in trouble."

That's certainly true. But how you approach that depends on your personal motivations and where you are in your writing career.

Let's reconsider the Farmer Brown metaphor. We'll say that "acquiring oxen" maps to "writing first drafts", and "harvesting grain" maps to "editing". I think that's consistent with your assertion, because you can't exploit your farming efforts one iota without harvesting the food.

But... to make this particular metaphor work, this is where we have the super oxen. Each successive ox acquired by Brown is superior to the last, just as each successive draft you write ought to reflect the skills you've developed from previous writing.

So if you're already in a position to get published, then you'd be as much a fool to neglect editing as Brown would be if he neglected his harvest. But if you're not in that position, the metaphor can be misleading. You wouldn't be dependent on the crop yield (publication) for your livelihood, and, more importantly, the acquisition of oxen (writing first drafts) does not have a cost. If that part is fun (our original premise), then the activity is a benefit all by itself, even if you never do get published, so there is no need to kick yourself over wasted effort.

Furthermore, that process (drafts without edits) really does get you closer and closer to the point of having a quality publishable work. After writing ten first drafts, you'll be in a much better position than if you'd written just two and then stopped to stress about editing. You'll have more material to chose from and you'll have material of a higher quality (having developed your skill through more writing).


The Burrow said...

Belle: "Really like that following the happy path of writing makes solid economic sense!"

Lots of things make economic sense even though they're ignored by the econometricians. That's because human action is the only basis for all economic science.

Hope that didn't sound too pedantic. Thanks for you comment!

ViolaNut: "My last boyfriend used to write flavour text for Magic: The Gathering cards..."

And you let him get away? Dating a CCG professional is the next best thing to dating a musician.