Issue #211 – The Tipping Point

ThetippingpointMuch to my shame, I don’t often read non-fiction.  There are so many fantastic stories out there that even if I spent my life reading one book a day (like Arthur C Clarke claimed to) I’d never get through them all. My attention for non-fiction was reserved for shows on The Learning Channel… back before it became about stuff like Honey Boo Boo.

…sigh… I miss those days of educational innocence…

Of course it’s not the fact that it’s non-fiction that makes me wary – it’s the fact that my experience with non-fiction hasn’t been great.  I blame the kind of books I had to read in high school and university.  Total yawnfests.

But then you encounter something special, something completely enthralling, and yet it’s about the most mundane things: shoe trends, analysis of village sizes, the history of educational TV shows, or smoking.  How do you make these things interesting? You get Malcom Gladwell to write about it, that’s how.

Malcom Gladwell is a Canadian journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, famous for his wide range of essays and the five books to his name, The Tipping Point being the first.  What makes his essays intriguing isn’t the content alone, but the way the content is presented.  “I have two parallel things I’m interested in. One is, I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.”

What you find are stories that aren’t just about the facts, but the people behind them, and the combination are equal parts educational and entertaining.  And it is that combination that will hold your attention. A focus on one or the other simply would not hold up as well.

So what is a “tipping point”?  It’s that point where something minor and obscure suddenly becomes widely adopted and popular.  It could be something new or something that’s been around for ages but was only recently “discovered” by the population at large. You see examples of them happening all the time (consider how quickly nerd culture went from outliers to mainstream), but I doubt you’ve ever really looked closely at how it happened.

His essays are divided up into three “rules” which cover the elements needed to reach a tipping point:

The Law of the Few focuses on a few key personality types that get things done – the Connectors, the Mavens, and the Salesmen. These are the kinds of people you’ll find at the center of any “epidemic” of popularity – such Hush Puppies in the mid-90s, which could be traced back to just a handful of East Village kids.

The Stickiness Factor is all about what makes things memorable. How many times have you been told a fact and forgotten it the next day or minute?  But then someone finds the right way to tell you the same information and you never forget it?  Commercial slogans are very sticky (“I’ve fallen and…”, “How many licks does it take…”, “This is your brain…” – if you completed any of those, that’s stickiness in action).  This section focuses on children’s television, the rise of Sesame Street, and how Blue’s Clues decided to take a different approach.  You’d be surprised how much research is involved in a kid’s show.

The Power of Context acknowledges how human behavior is influenced by its environment. For example, the “broken windows” concept shows how the most effective way to combat crime in New York wasn’t about adding more police or having more vigorous punishment of major crimes, but attacking the minor things like vandalism on the subway.

Now, if you’re wondering why a book of essays like this is being referenced in a gaming magazine, I put it to you that you’d find surprising ways a fresh perspective can apply to your world building or adventures.

For example, in his essay about the Rule of 150, Gladwell explains why the maximum number of individuals in a society or group that can have real social relationships with is about 150.  Examining this gets you thinking about village sizes differently – if you want to have the kind of village where everyone literally knows everybody else, then you’d be best off keeping the number below that number.  If you’re over a thousand, maybe everybody knows everybody once removed, and as they get larger connections become more like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (also discussed in the book).

Even for NPC characters you could find some of his essays of use. His study on Connectors shows how it’s not a matter of knowing everyone in a city or kingdom, just the right person who knows the right people – like a network hub – and you can see exactly what that personality type would be like in a game. Mavens on the other hand are information specialists, who accumulate knowledge and know how to share it with others in easily understood ways.  And Salesmen are those charismatic folks who know how to negotiate and get others to agree with them—so basically a Bard.  Understanding these personality types perhaps may influence how you use them in your game.

And all that aside, the book is just damn interesting to read.


Originally Published in KODT #211

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