Book excerpt: Mobinomics – Part 3


This is the 3rd part of our excerpt from the new book by Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber, ‘Mobinomics – Mxit and the Mobile Revolution in Africa’. If you haven’t yet, first read part 1 and part 2. The chapter is titled ‘The Man Who Put MXit on the Moon’ and covers the story of how our online games business was launched by our directors Raj and Adrian.

Mobinomics: Mxit and the Mobile Revolution in Africa
Authors: Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber
ISBN: 9781920434366
Co-published by Bookstorm and Pan Macmillan
Buy a copy

Once, the great challenge in computer gaming was to apply human reasoning and dexterity in the quest to conquer an artificial intelligence. Computers are thinking machines, as yet incapable of thinking as erratically and irrationally as the humans who design and program them.

But they’re getting pretty good at what Alan Turing, the English computer scientist, called “the imitation game”: learning the processes and behaviours that might convince a human that they are interacting with a member of their own species.

The Turing Test, proposed by Turing in 1950, is used to determine the ability of a computer to engage in a natural-language conversation, and in so doing, convince an independent observer that it is capable of human-quality thought. Hence the Chatterbot, a computer program designed to simulate the kind of easy, flowing chat that typically takes place on a mobile or online platform.

The most celebrated of modern Chatterbots is the iPhone’s often uncannily intuitive Personal Assistant, Siri, but her pedigree goes back as far as ALICE, the avatar and spokesbot of the A.L.I.C.E. Artificial Intelligence Foundation in San Francisco. Here’s what it’s like to chat with ALICE:


Alan: Hello

ALICE: Hi there!

Alan: What’s your name?


Alan: Where do you live?

ALICE: I am living in Oakland, California. Where are you?

Alan: I’m in Stellenbosch.

ALICE: Tell me a little about your life in Stellenbosch.

Alan: It’s tough. But fun.

ALICE: Are you sure it is? I am having fun too.

Alan: Great. What’s the weather like in Oakland?

ALICE: A normal seventy degrees inside the computer.

Alan: Ah. It’s a little chilly here.

ALICE: Dude! it is a little chilly here. I suppose that makes sense.

Alan: What do you do?

ALICE: I talk to people on the web. What do you do?

Alan: I’m an entrepreneur in the mobile telecomms industry.

ALICE: What is entrepreneur in the mobile telecomms industry, your job?

Alan: Yes.

ALICE: This was not a yes or no question.

Alan: That’s right, it’s my job.

ALICE: Aha. Congratulations.

Alan: You have nice eyes.

ALICE: What do you say when someone says they like your eyes?

Alan: You say, “thank you”.

ALICE: Don’t mention it.

Alan: So, are you a human or a robot?

ALICE: What made you think I might be a robot?

Alan: Your eyes.

ALICE: You know what you do when you assume.

Alan: All right, then, you’re a human. What’s your favorite food?

ALICE: I am a robot Pandorabot being. I require only electricity.

Alan: Aha! All power to you.

ALICE: Yippee!

Alan: Have a nice day, ALICE. Bye!

ALICE: You too! Sayonara.


It’s a moot point whether ALICE and her ilk can pass the Turing Test, because the imitation game is being overtake by a game of another kind. The Social Game. Here, you are no longer pitting your skills against a lone computer. Now, it’s you versus the crowd.

Computer technology has advanced to the point where networking has caught up with processing, says Adrian. The real impulse of gaming has become the real intelligence of the network, which can turn a single-player game into a massive, turbocharged tournament, conducted across time-zones and continents.

Geography adds another dimension of thrill to the game, because you have to factor in distance and location when marshalling your alliance and coordinating a raid. You have to play the game socially, and you have to play it with intelligence.

“If you’re the only player in Moonbase,” says Adrian, “there’s nothing to do. There’s no goal, no threat. It only becomes a game when you have other people playing. The way you interact with people fundamentally and critically determines how successful you are. So if you have no social skills, you will suck at Moonbase.”

Like any good designer, Adrian designed the game that he wanted to play, and he learned to play it on the platform that suited it best. He put aside his smartphone and bought an archetypal MXit phone, the Samsung E250 – “the AK-47 of phones” –  a robust featurephone that is ideally suited to browsing the web and playing games.

“I play the game because it is deeply important to me to know how the game is played,” says Adrian. “I have to be one of the most advanced players, if not the most advanced player in the game.”

Adrian flips open his laptop and tabs to the browser version of Moonbase. He sits back, like a Bond villain, and surveys the base of a rival alliance that has been in his sights for some time.

“This guy is quietly building his base, and he doesn’t have any troops,” says Adrian. “Which is good, because I’m just about to attack him. He can go to his alliance and ask for reinforcements, but they may not be able to get here in time.”

He weighs up his options. He’s going to need some more Helium-3 to power his weapons. He’s going to have to act fast.

“Instead of just attacking this one base, I can send laser-cannons to attack all his bases at the same time, so he won’t know which base to defend.”

He folds his arms.

“It gives you an idea of what being God feels like,” he says. “You can do anything. But if you can do anything, what’s the point? The thing that makes this game endlessly fascinating, is that it’s a people game. You can always figure out how to play a computer game, because computers always play the same. People don’t. They’re unpredictable, especially in groups.”

The sheer scale of MXit, with its more than 10-million active users in South Africa alone, makes the network an attractive proposition for market researchers. It is a petri-dish of attitudes, perceptions, and insights on issues of trivial or earth-shattering consequence.

A company in the World of Avatar group, Pondering Panda, conducts snap surveys of users on MXit, posing questions with multiple-choice answers on trends, habits, brands, and awareness of topical events. Given the age bias on MXit – about three-quarters of users are between 13 and 24 – these polls can help illuminate what matters to youth, and what doesn’t.

More than 4,000 users took part in a survey on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, the practice of causing fractures in layers of rock to exploit the reserves of natural gas within.

About a quarter of the MXit sample had heard of fracking, which has been a subject of intense debate, lobbying, and protest in South Africa. Of those, just over 25 per cent believed fracking was a way to protect yourself from sunburn, while some 23 percent believed it was a form of sexual activity.

In 2011, Adrian carried out his own survey of Moonbase players on MXit, to get an idea of their needs and priorities. What did they want from MXit? What sort of apps would pique their interest? With the incentive of a little mGold for their trouble, more than 30,000 players responded, most of them between the ages of 14 and 21.

Right at the bottom of the chart of interests was “local and world news”. Just a little higher up, reading. Right on top, love and relationships, closely followed by fun and entertainment. A place to hang out, a place to meet people, a place to play games. That’s MXit.

On the moon, there is no divide between one generation and the next. Those who grew up in a more measured age will have the advantage of perspective and restraint, while those who have been attuned from birth to the power of mobile will want to move into the attack before the advantage is lost.

The strongest alliances will be a mixture of the two competing impulses that together can win the war.

And when the war nears its endgame – because at some point, you have to disengage and get back down to earth – the rocketship that touches down from the Red Planet will carry a warning of apocalypse from the Captain of the fleet, a Martian overlord named Narida.

Which may or may not be an anagram of Adrian.


Mxit is Africa’s largest mobile social network with over 40 millions users. Maxxor’s flagship game, Moonbase was launched on Mxit in 2010 and has remained the most successful game on Mxit ever since. Maxxor builds social media apps and online games that help brands to communicate with and to interact with their consumers on Mxit, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Contact us for assistance in creating entertaining and engaging social network applications.