Bright lights, no city

By MAX ALEXANDER  |  August 22, 2012

SCENES FROM A REVOLUTION Max Alexander (at right) followed his brother (the other white guy) as Whit strived to establish a new energy model to rural communities in in West Africa.

I was also fascinated by the risk — here I mean business risk, as opposed to the broader African risk of contracting a new strain of polio or having body parts removed by rebels — because I like few things more than tormenting my brother about his crazy start-up schemes. In 1997 he teamed up with Richard Taut, a former Microsoft colleague, to create a new board game. "A game where everyone shines" was the essence of Taint's original idea, and the two came up with Cranium. Whit hired me to write some of the questions for the first edition, a job I engaged with enthusiasm, but in my clearer moments I was lukewarm to the concept. With its mix of trivia questions, charades, word puzzles, whistling, and clay sculpting, it seemed too unfocused, too hard to get. I felt sorry for my brother because I was sure no one would buy the game.

Which goes to show how much I know about board games. Cranium, of course, became the hit game of the new millennium, embraced by celebrities like Julia Roberts and sold in Starbucks like brain food. Richard and Whit, "the Cranium guys," became minor celebrities in their own right, along the lines of Ben and Jerry. They were in People magazine. They made the cover of Inc. magazine. They were even featured in one of those Dewar's Scotch ads — my sloppy kid brother tricked up to look respectable in a Calvin Klein suit, Hugo Boss shirt, and even a necktie.

Over the years Cranium introduced many new games, and I was certain most of them sucked. I told Whit, "No one will buy that; it's got too many moving parts." Or "Kids will choke on those dice." Or "My cat could win this game." Many of them went on to be named Game of the Year at the annual New York Toy Fair. What did they know that I didn't?

It turns out that nobody knows anything. Innovators trust their gut much more than their brain, but most people aren't comfortable putting so much stock in stomach fluids, so we cling to the top-down, brainier theory of innovation. We think of Bill Gates as a nerdy genius, which he probably is, but think about it: there had to be something in his gut to make him drop out of Harvard and start Microsoft. A truly brainy geek would have finished his studies.

In January 2008, Gates addressed the Davis World Economic Forum on the subject of what he called "creative capitalism." In his speech Gates called for businesses to develop innovative products that would serve consumers on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. He pointed out that charity wasn't enough to lift people in the developing world out of poverty.

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