Serendipity can be summed up by saying it is finding something good without looking for it. Others may call it luck or Divine Intervention.
The word was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754.
According to James Heaton;
“serendipity is a combination of things: actively setting up opportunities, a willingness to go with the flow of events, the ability to see the thing that arises by chance, and finally, being ready to seize the opportunity—prepared both in the sense of being open to the possibility and ready to take advantage of it.”
In Play/Write, Scott Nelson wrote an essay about intellectual property and the first video game ever created. Ralph Baer’s, otherwise known as the “father of video games” was the first to invent a home console and protect the intellectual property.
What’s interesting in the ongoing court battles spawned over 15 years, debating patentable ability of inventions ranging from the player-controlled hitting symbol to graphics and sound, is that all inventions are based upon something else.
And while Baer is the first person who protected his video game invention, he may not be the first person to create a video game.
I would say that his crowning of the title, “father of video games” was serendipitous, as all of the right factors came together for him to successfully launch his invention. He created the first ‘Television Gaming and Training Apparatus’, he had the foresight to patent his idea, the market was ripe for the introduction of this new medium for entertainment and luckily for him, his original patents would stand up against numerous infringers over the span of multiple court cases over 15 years.
Serendipity is a significant factor in both the creative process and the business process
To be successful, one must have the intersection of skill, effort and luck. When I think of the successes I’ve had in life, they are always a culmination of these factors. Never have I had an opportunity fall in my lap upon pure luck. And there have been times that I’ve worked extremely hard, put in a lot of effort and honed my skill, all to no avail. While I was working diligently, I wasn’t connected with the right people nor was I in the right place at the right time.
One of the most serendipitous moments in my life was when I stretched outside of my comfort zone and attended a Charlotte Women’s Conference. I did not want to go and I was dreading it. I have society anxiety and attending events where I don’t know anyone causes extreme anxiety. But I forced myself to go and introduce myself to people and make new connections. I happened to sit at a table with a lady who was starting a brand-new website called Modern Mom. I gave her my business card and I sent her a writing sample. We ended up forging a connection in which I started a column for the website. Writing for Modern Mom opened up additional doors for me as a writer.
This one serendipitous moment led to additional opportunities, but the moment wasn’t one of chance or luck, it was a combination of all of these factors.
What is also important to note in serendipity is timing. We often hear the phrase, “be at the right place at the right time”
While Baer was the first person to copyright the video game system, his idea wasn’t completely unique.
As Lev Manovich (2001) has noted, we experience new media through the metaphors of earlier media (pp. 69–93). Video games are modeled after metaphors of cinema, photography and the printed word. All of these ideas and inventions build upon each other.
Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, is known for his theory that nothing is original. He speaks about creativity and how we must borrow and steal from other ideas, inventions and creations. Throughout history inventors have famously built upon the ideas of others before them, forging a new path, in which others who came after them built upon their ideas. It is the evolution of human thought. It is what we are designed to do as a human species.
Think about PacMan.
Nelson states, “Pac-Man was the star of three early copyright cases, as he was a lucrative intellectual property and many wanted to cash in on his fame. Between 1980 and 1982, it is estimated that sales of the arcade version of Pac-Man alone totaled $240 million and that it had been played over 2 billion times”
While Pac-Man is extremely successful and one of the most well-known video games, it would not have been possible without the video game pioneers that came before.
And while Alan Glasser (1986) identified “four elements lodged in a video game” protectable under copyright including graphics/maze, a sequence of screens, original sounds and characters.
Nelson (XX) points out that while Glasser correct identifies these elements as copyrightable, he identifies the audiovisual features, but not the literary ones.
Nelson states, “Source code is text, written in human-readable programming language”. Shouldn’t the literary components of video games also be copyrightable?
The question then is, what is the difference between copyright infringement and building upon the ideas of those before you?
Can one leverage similar functionality, such as video game creaters did with pong, to create something new? Or does that intellectual property belong solely to the creator?
Can we continue to evolve as a society and improve upon the inventions of those who came before us if we can’t build upon the inventions of the past?
An industry that relies more on patents presents a barrier to entry for smaller companies and autonomous developers.
Are ground-breaking new innovations limited to those who had a serendipitous moment, intersecting creation, hard work and the right timing or is the market open for us to continue to create and build upon each other, forging new paths for future generations.