Has The Video Game Industry Surpassed The Military In Driving The Next Wave Of Technological Change?

from the video-game-industrial-complex dept

For much of the twentieth century, many of the biggest technological advancements were trickle-downs from the military, which took huge government expenditures for R&D and later commercialized that technology. While many people here no longer remember this, the military connection was a big part of what built up Silicon Valley in the early days. However, times are changing. Andy Kessler’s latest opinion piece at the Wall Street Journal suggests that the greatest driver of technological change these days appears to be the video game industry. He talks about how China created the world’s fastest supercomputer, using chips that were built on video game chip technology:

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower was worried enough to declare that “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” No need to worry anymore. That game (pardon the pun) is over: Welcome to the entertainment-industrial complex.

Consider the Apple iPhone, often touted as the tech symbol of our era. It’s actually more evolutionary than revolutionary. Much of its technology?color LCD displays, low power usage, precision manufacturing–was perfected for hand-held videogames like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, which sold in the tens of millions. Think about how much more productively workers are now able to communicate because of some silly games.

He points out that technologies like Microsoft Kinect and online game technology are likely to start to move into corporate applications before too long as well:

Videogames will influence how next-gen workers interact with each other. Call of Duty, a military simulation game, has a mode that allows players to cooperate from remote locations. In World of Warcraft, players form guilds to collaborate, using real-time texting and talking, to navigate worlds presented in high-resolution graphics. Sure, they have funky weapons and are killing Orcs and Trolls and Dwarves, but you don’t have to be a gamer to see how this technology is going to find its way into corporate America. Within the next few years, this is how traders or marketers or DNA hunters will work together.

So why is it that the military has been displaced? Kessler believes it’s all about the money:

For one, capital formation. Governments had the unique capacity to raise (read: tax) the enormous capital needed to fund state-of-the-art projects. But a fully functioning stock market can raise billions for productive commercial applications, bypassing the military connection. Hate Wall Street all you want, but it’s now better than wars at driving progress.

Second, displacing the military is about high sales volume. Often that means lower costs. The $300 Roomba automatic vacuum, which the company iRobot says it has sold to five million customers, helps drive down the cost of the Army’s robotic bomb removers. Volume is especially good at spurring the creation of new applications. Hardware is nothing without software and apps. Caffeine-fueled coders won’t even think about writing apps unless there are millions, if not tens of millions, of potential customers.

It’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure I totally believe it — as I think there’s some cross-pollination going on, but it’s definitely an idea worth thinking about.

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Comments on “Has The Video Game Industry Surpassed The Military In Driving The Next Wave Of Technological Change?”

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Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Video game history

Anyone with a decent knowledge of video gaming history will know that the military may have funded tech, but games were the driving force ever since someone figured out Tennis for Two.

It makes sense that an entertainment industry would start to be the driving force behind tech. If the RIAA and MPAA weren’t so afraid of change this article may have been written several years ago about them.

Busterdog says:

Old news

I have worked in a defense contractor for 20 years. This change took place a long time ago. It is why COTS is such a big deal for defense. I am amazed at how quickly the military gets left behind. The biggest advancements in the battlefield are tech savvy soldiers piecing together something ad-hoc and driving procurement from the front.
In some ways it is frustrating because the contractors could provide a better system but the procurement rules tilt us to huge over engineered systems which collapse under their own weight (think FCS)

Anonymous Coward says:

After robotics gets just a little more advanced gaming will be all the rage, since AI are mostly coming from there.

The army have 2 games that simulate combat situations and word is that they call the dudes that are good at it.

All those drones will need players to maneuver groups or units. In a sense the gaming industry is a training camp for future wars.

Jeremy7600 (profile) says:

“Caffeine-fueled coders won’t even think about writing apps unless there are millions, if not tens of millions, of potential customers.”

Not so sure I agree with that, maybe as a generalization. Most open source apps are born out of an actual need by the programmer on their own network or system, and not out of a desire to make money.

This also applies to freeware and most shareware. There’s plenty of software out there that is being coded not for the “potential customers” but for the coder themselves.

As to the driving force of change, its the advancements and competition between the likes of AMD and nVidia for GPUs, AMD and Intel for CPUs, embedded and integrated systems; and all the other parts that make up a PC that are advancing at a rapid pace (3TB hard drives, USB3, 6GB/s SATA, etc) not to mention myriad advances in small scale production (3D Printers, etc). I’m sure I’ve left some facets out, but I think you get the point.

There’s so much you can do with whats available today that the advances will come from the tinkerers before the military needs something (or before a company can research, develop and manufacture for the military)

Jay says:

The military will still be important for energy technology

I believe they already do to a certain extent.

Think about the large projects that the military works on that are invested in wars fought 15 years in the future.

Now think about the games that are coming out now…

I believe it’s a valid point that commercial, not military or bureaucratic interest can provide a fair amount of stimulus for changes.

Richard (profile) says:

Not Wall street - but the economic logic of the semiconductor Ponzi scheme

The military initially drove many parts of the tech industry – especially CGI technology – which was a military/aerospace-driven preserve for its first 20-30 years or so. Similarly multiplayer online gaming started with military DIS and HLA systems over 20 years ago.

However the logic of the semiconductor industry has always been to fund the next generation from this generation’s profits. (a sort of Ponzi scheme). If the industry is to grow then this means each generation must sell to a bigger market than the one before. Of course development costs get bigger and bigger even though marginal costs go down.

People go on about how cheap computing power is today – compared to the “supercomputers” of the 60’s and 70’s. What they forget is that it wouldn’t be any cheaper if you only wanted one!

This process outstripped the military perhaps 20-25 years ago moving initially into commercial applications like CAD – and moved into the consumer domain 10-15 years ago.

Joe Smith says:


In the 1940s through the 1970s we had enormous amounts of moeny go into research from military spending and as spin-offs from the real or de facto monopolies of AT&T, IBM and Xerox. That research money does not appear to have been replaced and so we are still heavily dependent on the technology develped during that time with nothing really profoundly new having appeared since the microprocessor forty years ago. The military/AT&T/IBM/Xerox path to technology development may not have been efficient but it worked. As a society we need to find ways to put more money into research.

Dohn Joe (user link) says:

This is Bunk


The Kinect example is complete bunk! PrimeSense, the developer of the technology, is primarily an Israeli Military contractor. When they couldn’t find a military buyer for the technology they “shopped it around” Silicon Valley where Microsoft picked it up, but not before Apple lost the opportunity to own it: http://www.cultofmac.com/how-apple-almost-got-microsofts-kinect-game-controller/67951

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

The military will still be important for energy technology

Better for whom? Certainly not to the peasants in far-away lands that the US military likes to slaughter by remote control.

Don’t worry. China has already taken the lead.

What I meant was that any country or company that moves into clean tech, the better for the world. If the push into clean tech comes from the US military rather than commercial companies, so be it. I’d rather have the US military and the Chinese than no one. Investors in this country seem to prefer putting their money into Facebook. 🙂

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:


“Call of Duty, a military simulation game,[…]”

Not really. It is nowhere near realism in any way. In real life, you don’t run through an alley killing every badguy with an AK47 on your way without getting hurt. You would probably get killed pretty quickly.

ArmA2, however, is a simulation game.

“Nuh-uh, CoD rulz; ArmA2 sux!”

This is the type of comment I would imagine would follow if this was a video game site, or any site where a large percentage of the viewers gave a crap one way or the other. But it’s not. And most of us don’t.

If you have a small niggling issue with the source article, I’d suggest going there to leave your irrelevant comment.

Chris in Utah (profile) says:


I second that emotion. Glad I read before I posted. My words dominantly be the same.

There are countless stories out there having an open source creators being bought up, offered or otherwise included into the mainstream. A few come to mind is Quakes’ massive add on fan base, Freetar & if you want to get big named about it the add on community for HUDs over at Blizzard.

If you want to take a step out of the gaming field. Oracle and Open Office is all I use. Down with the bloody red Queen.. and yes I mean Bill.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The History of Military Technology.

The notion of a technologically progressive military is a comparatively recent idea. It really emerged from the Second World War.

In the eighteenth century, the Tower of London, the British national armory, obtained muskets by purchasing them from large numbers of small craftsmen. Muskets were not the finest examples of the gunmakers’s work. Fine workmanship was associated with the pistol, either the pocket pistol or the dueling pistol, both intended for the private use of an upper-class buyer. As late as the early nineteenth century, military weapons ran twenty and thirty years behind in adopting such technological advances as the percussion cap. For that matter, in the eighteenth century, the true exemplars of precision [custom] manufacturing were clocks, watches, and musical instruments, most notably pianos. American mass production began at the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, but it was rapidly taken over and advanced by private gunmakers, such as Colt, which did not particularly cater to the military market. These firms catered to the more lucrative private market. About 1880, guns ceased to be the leading edge of mass-production technique, being superseded by sewing machines, and then bicycles and typewriters, and finally, about 1910, by automobiles.

The leading navies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not especially early adopters of steam power. The characteristic early adopter of steam power was the riverboat. Steam power gave the key advantage of being able to go up-river as well as down-river. Sailing ships worked well in the open ocean, where there was room to tack against the wind, but sails did not work very well in rivers. In one case, about 1830, the American Fur Company built a special shallow-draft steamboat which could go up the Missouri River, all the way to Montana, to buy furs, buffalo hides (and even live buffalo calves) from the Crow, Blackfoot, Mandan, and Arikara Indians. Steamboats were the precursors to the railroads.

Modern physics (*) is a bit of an anomaly, in the sense that the theory existed before the technology, and the technology started from nothing in industrial terms. By contrast, there was a chemical industry long before there was chemistry. In the eighteenth century, when the understanding of the composition of matter had not advanced very much from the middle ages, there were tanners, fullers, dyers, brewers, bakers, candle-makers, soap-makers, iron-smelters, potters, glass-makers, etc., etc. People were doing things by rule of thumb, and theoretical chemistry, starting with Lavoisier, gave them advice about how to make better use of their existing ovens, kettles, fermentation tanks, stills, and whatnot. High-tech has been more or less synonymous with the application of modern physics, starting more or less out of the blue. It cost a lot because there was nothing there to start with.

(*) As distinct for classical, or Newtonian physics, the kind of physics which descended from Einstein and Bohr, eg. atomics, electronics, particle physics, quantum physics, etc.

David A. Hounshell, _From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States_, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984.

Merrit Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change, Cornell University Press, Ithica, 1986, orig. pub. 1977

Both deal with the emergence of mass-production manufacturing in the United States after 1800.


John Ulric Nef, War and Human Progress: An Essay on the Rise of Industrial Civilization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1950

Makes a case against war being the cause of technological development in the period before 1800. According to Nef. the potential for war is a more or less inevitable consequence of material progress, which provides the means. “Warfare is less
a cause for industrialization than its shadow and its nemesis (p. 377).”
For a discussion of steamboats on the Missouri, see: David Lavender, _The Fist in the Wilderness_ (University of New Mexico Press, 1964), pp. 390-406. This a history of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.

Brad Hubbard (profile) says:

Outsider's View

This whole article sounds like it is written by someone who is outside the military, business, and technology worlds. Why and how we’re listening to this hermit is beyond me. Sure, if these predictions had been made in the 70s, that’d be one thing, but at this point, it seems like they’re pointing to the past.

That crap about WoW being an example of how DNA traders will work? I’m sorry, haven’t ever come across telepresence or Skype, have ya? Amazed groups of people can talk to each other in teamchat? Gee – where do you think VoIP came from? Oh right – military.

I’m sorry, the whole thing just reeks of someone who’s stumbled into technology, never worked at a real company, and goes “Wow, if only we could get these two together!”, blissfully unaware that these applications have been developed side-by-side for decades.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

The military will still be important for energy technology

Sorry to burst your bubble, but China is not engaged in any foreign military ventures, unlike the USA, nor does it have history of such adventures.

You’re having trouble following me.

China has taken the lead in clean tech.

The US military is also getting involved in clean tech.

Private companies in the US, not so much. Of course, there is private investment, but the big money is still going into other areas (e.g., Facebook) and there has been a pull back in clean tech lately.

What I was saying is that the US military is more involved in clean tech than the gaming industry, so the gaming industry was not going to drive technological change more than the military in all areas. The US military is investing in electric vehicles, fuel cell technology, biofuels, etc.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

The military will still be important for energy technology

It occurred to me that I might still have to explain myself for this person. So let me lay it out as carefully as I can, just in case I’m still not clear to him/her.

The original article said that gaming may have replaced the military as the primary source of technological change.

I said that the US military was moving into clean tech and that I think the military will have the lead there rather than the gaming industry, since the gaming industry doesn’t appear to be doing too much with biofuels, fuel cell technology, etc.

Then I tossed in that in the end it probably won’t matter what the US military does with clean tech because China has already taken over the lead in clean tech. I said nothing about the Chinese military. I said nothing about war.

I just made an aside that we’re falling behind China when it comes to clean tech.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

The military will still be important for energy technology

Pentagon Must ?Buy American,? Barring Chinese Solar Panels – NYTimes.com: “The American military is a rapidly growing consumer of renewable energy products, because it is extremely expensive and frequently dangerous to ship large quantities of fuel into remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

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