What if the great events in history had turned out differently? How would the world today be changed?
Niall Ferguson wonders about this a lot. He's a well-known economic historian at Harvard, and a champion of "counterfactual thinking," or the re-imagining of major historical events, with the variables slightly tweaked. In a 1999 book Virtual Histories, Ferguson edited a collection of delightfully weird counterfactual hypotheses. One essay argued that if Mikhail Gorbachev had never existed, the USSR would still exist today. Another posited an alternative 18th century in which Britain allows its colonies to develop their own parliaments -- so the Americans never revolt, and the USA never exists.
Ferguson thinks becoming skilled at counterfactual thinking is helpfujl to any sort of job that requires thinking along 'what if' lines. And what does this have to do with video games?
Heres what he had to say,
"It'll undoubtedly be controversial. But it will also, he expects, be humbling. The power of counterfactual thinking is that forces us to step outside of our comfort zones. When we think about historical events, we have 20/20 hindsight -- so we forget how confusing and uncertain they were at the time. In 1943, nobody really knew how strong Germany was, or what Stalin was thinking. In modern conflicts, we often have a similarly false sense of surety -- too much confidence in our ability to predict the outcome of major events."
"When we play with sims, they knock us off our pedestals -- because crazy things usually happen we don't predict. Yet the chaos is useful, because we can run the same situation again and again, changing one little thing each time, until we've war-gamed it deeply and understand it better than ever. "
He finally added,
"Serious games are the next big platform," he says. Which might be the biggest counterfactual of all."
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