This week on The Digital Life we discuss innovation, game design, and the mind of Albert Einstein. Dirk Knemeyer has been working with the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to create a new game based on the scientist’s life. We explore insights gained from Dirk’s research, his approach to designing the game, as well as takeaways helpful to today’s technology innovators.
Jon: Welcome to Episode 178 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings, listeners.
Jon: For the podcast this week, we’re going to discuss innovation, game design and the mind of Albert Einstein. Dirk has been working with the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to create a unique game that will allow players to use some of Einstein’s insights in a playful and involved fashion that will be fun as well. Dirk, congrats on this latest game. What number is this, number 6 or 7 for you?
Dirk: Thanks. I have to be honest. I’ve lost count not because there are so many but just because that’s how my mind works. It’s less than 10, more than 5. It’s somewhere in that range, yeah.
Jon: Right. Could you tell us how you began this work with the Einstein Archives because that’s a pretty prestigious commission there?
Dirk: Yeah, yeah. I had the good fortune to work on a game called Tesla Versus Edison: War Of Currents that was published in 2015. As part of working with that, we were working with the folks at the Thomas Edison Foundation. They’re represented by a company called Greenlight which manages rights for different celebrities and they were really impressed with the work that we did on Tesla Versus Edison. Coming out of that, they had some other opportunities that they wanted to offer, and one of them was to do something for the Albert Einstein people which was hugely humbling.
I’ll just speak for myself. I won’t speak for anyone else. If I think of the 10 people who are most important and most interesting in world history, for me, Albert Einstein is just clearly on that list as someone who revolutionized physics but also lived a really rich, interesting life which I was aware of before I did the research but was particularly aware of after. Yeah. It’s just one of those things where life works this way so often where you do one thing and you do good work on it and then it leads to something else that you didn’t expect, and very happily so in this case.
Jon: Yeah. It seems like you have a theme that pervades at least some of your games, which is science and technology and innovation, which of course is directly related to what we talk about on the show.
Dirk: That’s true. Yeah. I mean, I enjoy expressing myself through invention and innovation, and so I take a great interest in those things. I also like history and like learning about that which came before and so a history of science, a history of invention, a history of business. Those just feel good and are sweet spots for me, so yeah, I’ve taken that channel and I’m running with it.
Jon: Along those lines, as you were doing this research into Einstein’s life, what were some of the insights that you gained that either surprised you or you thought were particularly notable?
Dirk: Certainly lots of stuff. I’ll start with the things that made him a great innovator because those are some of the things that I think are really applicable to our listeners maybe professionally as well as just from the standpoint of curiosity. There were a few things that enabled Dr. Einstein to literally revolutionize physics with the things that he did at the very beginning of the twentieth century. One of them is that he was rebellious by nature, so it’s important to understand that the Newtonian Laws of physics had been ruling for over 200 years at that point, and were taken and accepted as correct. It’s like, anything that you were doing in physics, anything, any further development or exploration you were doing took that as a granted and a given, and anything …
That had to be respected in order for anything else you did to be the case. Einstein’s personality was rebellious. He didn’t get along with teachers. He got in trouble a lot. He famously didn’t do well in certain subjects at school. He just didn’t like them. It’s not that he was not smart enough. It wasn’t his interest or he didn’t like the teachers or … He was a rebel at heart, very much so, and it was that rebellious streak that allowed him to ask the question of, “Maybe Newton wasn’t right.”
There was another famous scientist who was maybe a generation ahead of Einstein, a French, I’ve never heard it spoken so I might be mispronouncing it, but Henri Poincaré. He was heading down the exact same path as Einstein maybe 10 years before, but he took Newton being correct for granted and so he was so close, tantalizingly close if you look at the things that Poincaré did, but he wasn’t able to say, “Maybe the missing piece is that Newton was wrong.” Einstein, in his character and in his nature, he questioned it all, and so at the moment that his explorations were being held back by Newton, he said, “What if we threw out Newton?” That’s how he got there. The rebellious, the refusal to accept what he’s told is true as truth was really important.
A second thing, and here at Involution, we have mostly designers work here, people who are visual thinkers and visual storytellers, Einstein was a visual problem-solver. That’s not typical for physicists. It’s not typical for people at that time doing what he was doing to think that way and problem-solve that way. Science historians attribute that visual problem-solving, that preference as well as skill for visual problem-solving as being a big reason why he was able to figure out some of the things that he figured out.
The last thing that I’ll mention is that he was incredibly multi-disciplinary, certainly nowhere, excuse me, certainly nowhere near the level of physics, but he also is notable in the field of philosophy for some of the things that he offered there particularly around worldwide governments, social collectivism and questions that related to some of those things and also overlapped with physics. That is just a testament to how curious his mind was, and how, this ties into the rebelliousness a little bit, but how he just oozed across these different areas and these different ways of thinking.
Those are certainly 3 things from the standpoint of innovation that I think are core to who he was and why he was able to achieve what he did, but that also we can take, the mere mortals among us who aren’t Einstein, right, the synonym for genius, and apply to our own activities. The other thing, moving more into his personal life, the fact that he had an interesting personal life, I think anyone who’s aware of him as a historical figure knows if only because, pretty much everyone knows that he was chased out of Germany by the Nazis and moved to the United States. That’s a cinematic moment in his life right at the beginning.
Really, his whole life was filled with these different moments of really interesting, rich stuff and a lot of it did come back to his view of the world. During World War I, he was actively anti-war. He was an active pacifist and was publishing stuff. That might not sound like a big deal here in the United States, but he was doing it in a very nationalistic, very militaristic Germany where the physicists around him, the famous physicists in there like Max Planck for example who if you’re talking about the 5 most important physicists ever, Planck is probably on that list too. Planck was, he was German. He was pro the nationalist war and all of this stuff, and so Einstein was a Jew in an anti-Semitic culture surrounded by nationalism and pro-war fervor, and he opposed it, despite being in a tiny minority of people who opposed it.
This is now World War I, not World War II, right, a whole generation before, basically. That’s just one slice. His life is full of this interesting nuance. A lot of it comes back to his non-conformity and his rebelliousness but where the facts of his life are not a scientist casually with their coat, with the leather pads on the elbows and the pipe in the mouth, just thinking and teaching. I mean, this is someone who’s really engaged in the world. In the United States, he contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. He’s really a wonderfully interesting person. Obviously, I could go on and on.
Jon: Sure. From that research that you immersed yourself in, how did that affect your approach to the game? How did you build the structure of the game out of your research and making that reflect those elements that you just spoke of of Einstein’s personality?
Dirk: Yeah. I really wanted the mechanics of the game to evoke the things that made him special as a scientist. The rebelliousness is a little bit harder. I didn’t try and deal with that. Going across different branches of science was important to me and visual problem-solving was important to me, and so I designed the game as an abstract game. Abstract games are notoriously themeless. Superficially, that seems like an odd choice because I’m trying to make the game, so how do we theme?
I wanted people to be doing visual problem-solving, so I have each player having 4 different shapes of pieces and each shape represents a different field of science, so physics, mathematics, chemistry and philosophy and you’re trying to assemble them into recipes, so you put multiple shapes together to form a shape. This is all part of one central shape that all the different players are playing into, basically. The idea there was to capture the multiple sciences but then also this big visual growing interesting, in the game it’s called The Big Idea. It’s like The Big Idea of science is growing with all of these different sciences feeding into it essentially.
Then the recipes you have that give you points are on cards and those cards each have some anecdote from his life. There’s 40 such cards in the game, and I’ve broken them down into 4 different periods of his life where players are playing as either young, prime, globe-trotting or wise and each of those players has these different cards that have … Each player has 10 unique anecdotes from his life basically. The game is using very abstract non-thematic mechanics to capture his visual problem-solving nature but then is bringing in the stories of his life through the cards that people are playing with on their turns.
Jon: Oh, very cool. What’s the timeline for the game’s release and what stage are you in in its development?
Dirk: The game’s pretty much done. We still have some testing going, but it’s balanced. It’s working. We’re basically done. We have it set for a June release. It’ll probably be done before then, but we try and under-promise and over-deliver, so June, June is where we’re at right now. Yeah. It’s pretty much done and the kickstarter is starting soon.
Jon: Another thought that crossed my mind was, as you were talking about how these insights into Einstein’s methodologies came about from your research, what are some of the takeaways that you think might be helpful to today’s technology innovators? You mentioned visual thinking and rebellion as 2 themes that came up. Are there particular ways that you can see that fitting into today’s hunt for innovation based on the research that you’ve done?
Dirk: Yeah. Certainly, from the standpoint of the rebellious inspiration, don’t take anything for granted, right. Right now, the world is a certain way. The society is structured a certain way, but that doesn’t have to be the case in 100 years or 50 years or perhaps even 20 years. As you are thinking about how technology can be leveraged, how advances in science can be extended, don’t put yourself in the frame of, “This is the way the world is.” Assume you can make the world be a completely different one, and that will open up new vistas and new horizons for where your invention and innovation can go.
Jon: That’s great. It sounds like you’ve got a whole another game or a book or something like that around the innovation side of it, certainly based on the insights that you’ve put together as a result of your research.
Dirk: Yeah. I’ve had the privilege to study really inspiring thinkers like Dr. Einstein, like Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla and a bunch of others. Yeah. The more that I can ensconce myself in those sort of things and then bring it to life, whether it would be working with clients or with publishing games or maybe writing a book some day, it’s all good. I’m very blessed to be able to do that.
Jon: Excellent. Congrats again and we’ll look forward to the kickstarter for your Albert Einstein game.
Dirk: Thanks, Jon.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just 1 L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and if you’re interested in the Einstein game, just go to kickstarter.com, search for Einstein and it’ll be the first thing that shows up.
Jon: That’s it for Episode 178 of The Digital Life for Dirk Knemeyer. I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.