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Game changer is an expression , often used in business contexts, to refer to:

  • a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way. Origin 1993 (M-W)
  • a person or thing that dramatically changes the course, strategy, character, etc., of something: Social media has been a real game-changer in the company’s marketing efforts. Origin 1960/1965 (Dictionary.com)

According to the following extract from etyman.wordpress.com:

  • The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

    • In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.
  • In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

    • Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.
  • In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

It appears that the different sources disagree on the origin of the expression "game-changer", especially on the period when it was first used.

Questions:

  • What game did the expression originally refer to? Was it the game of bridge as suggested above or was it in sports, for instance?
  • When was the expression first used figuratively, in the '60s or the '90s?
  • The figurative use is not form the 90's anyway, as there's a reference from the 80's books.google.ca/… – P. O. Jun 22 '16 at 14:04
  • Wasn't this question already answered? I remember that whatever I read had a strong case for this phrase deriving from hunting, that game changer had a dual meaning of changing the prey by changing the tactic of their hunt. Ergo, "game changer". – Tucker Jun 24 '16 at 14:45
  • @Tucker - you mean here on ELU? – user66974 Jun 24 '16 at 14:47
  • "I make allowance for tho game's change of place and aim accordingly. Of course the trigger is pulled just as the heel plate reaches the shoulder. Does the target shooter act in this manner ? No ; as a rule ho takes his aim " deliberately..." The Country, Volume 6, Page 201. 1876. The first occurrence of "game changer" is in another journal about Bridge from the 1930s. – Tucker Jun 25 '16 at 8:35
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+100

Antecedents of 'game-changer'

For many years people have discussed the effects on various sports and pastimes of introducing innovations in rules, equipment, personnel, or tactics in terms of their potential to "change the game." For instance, "Concerning Rules and Regulations," in The Yale Literary Magazine (January 1905) offers this commentary on football:

Among the body of undergraduates there is a certain amount of discontent with the game [of football] as it is played. But this discontent arises almost entirely, as has been said before, from the too-indiscriminate attacks—for many of the articles which have appeared, whatever was the intention with which they were written, are neither more nor less than attacks on football. Much of the remainder of the discontent arises from the fact that not every one would be satisfied with perfection, and perfection is not easy of attainment. However, there undoubtedly is a residuum of honest belief that football can be changed for the better. Of course it can. It isn't this belief that this leader disagrees with, but the manner in which people go about the attempt to change the game, and the desire to make the change to sweeping. Football is as popular as any sport—to repeat again—professional, amateur or strictly collegiate. This fact does not seem to show any widespread discontent with the game among the individuals of either public or any pressing general demand for radical change. Any radical change is fully as likely, under these conditions, to destroy the popularity of the game as to increase it.

And "Effect of Inventions upon Sport and the Trade," in Hardware (December 25, 1906) contains this discussion in connection with golf:

While contemplating the efforts of our modern inventors to place on the market an article that contains so-called improvements over the old styles, the thought occurs that possibly those interested in the manufacture of these goods do not realize what changes they are bringing about in the sport or pastime in which they are used. In fact, writers on certain branches of sport are protesting that their games are already in danger of being spoiled even now by the introduction of utensils that have a too revolutionary effect. Take golf, for example, which was made the subject of an article by an ingenious writer in a periodical publication. The contention is that the constant improvement in the construction of golf balls and clubs is rapidly changing the game from a pleasant contest of skill to mere cross country pedestrianism. Whether or not the game of golf is being "spoiled," it certainly is being noticeably changed.

It stands to reason that as discussions of "changing the game" continued over the decades, someone would resort to "game changer" sooner or later.


Early occurrences of the term 'game-changer' used in a literal sense

The William Safire column mentioned in Josh61's question is from the New York Times of September 12, 2008. The paragraphs relevant to the question of when the term was first used literally and figuratively are as follows:

In early 2003, White House officials began telling journalists "nuclear weapons are a game-changer" and to transform Iraq would be "a geopolitical game-changer." By June of the next year, President Bush made it official, with definition attached: "A free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East is going to be a game-changer, an agent of change."

When did the game begin? I first tracked it to a logical source in sports. The Washington Post had a 1982 baseball reference: "Singleton hit his game-changer ... fair by eight yards" and a decade later described football's Desmond Howard as "a game-breaker and a game-changer." But when I set that etymological Inspector Javert—Ben Zimmer of www.visualthesaurus.com— on the trail, he noted the adoption by business motivators of the sports metaphor, including a prescient 1995 reference in The Wall Street Journal to the Internet as "a real game-changer." Casting a wider net, he came up with an origin beyond sport, in playing cards: The Atlanta Constitution’s "Bridge Forum" of June 29, 1930, frowned on attempts to improve the game of bridge: "Seldom are the game-changers idle."

I can't find a copy of the 1930 Atlanta Constitution article online, but it appears to be using game-changers in the literal sense of "ones who are changing the game."

Safire cites a 1982 Washington Post story in which Ken Singleton of the Baltimore Orioles had a "game-changer"—that is, a hit that effectively changed the particular game in the Orioles' favor. Here "game" refers to a specific contest—a particular baseball game, rather than the game of baseball itself. The description Safire cites from a decade later of football player Desmond Howard as "a game-breaker and a game-changer" refers to Howard's ability to break open a close game with kickoff return, a punt return, or a long reception. Thus "game-breaker" here refers to a particular player, not to a particular play.

Even more suggestive is this item from Inside Sports, volume 3 (1981), which also appears in Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day (1984) [combined snippets]:

Find the 6-2, 200-pound super jock, put him at third and you've got the game-changer. The in-their-prime prototypes are [Mike] Schmidt (6-2, 203), [George] Brett (6-0, 200) and [Buddy] Bell (6- 2, 185)—all drip greatness and charisma. They occupy the idealized place in the game that was reserved for fleet power-hitting centerfielders 25 years ago when debate raged over the merits of [Mickey] Mantle, [Willie] Mays, and [Duke] Snider.

The usage here is similar to the Desmond Howard usage: the focus is on a player who is capable of altering the outcome of individual games. But there is also a sense here that the player is altering the broader game itself. Just as a certain type of tight end altered the way U.S. football was played in the late 1970s (which the article earlier alludes to), the emergence of a type of agile, power-hitting third-baseman is altering the way successful baseball teams are being put together and managed. So here we have an instance where game-changer refers in part to changing the sport itself and not just a particular contest.

I note, however, that the first two editions of Paul Dickson, The Baseball Dictionary (1989/1999) do not to have an entry for "game-changer," strongly suggesting that the word/phrase was not, as of 1999, an established, baseball-specific term of art.


'Game-changers' and 'game-changing'

We've seen that a game-changer is a game-changing event, player, or (in a figurative sense) idea. From this, it follows that instances of the term game-changing might be important precursors of the noun game-changer. But Google Books search results turn up few matches for game-changing as an adjective prior to the late 1990s. The exception appears in Charles Savage, "Comments" (a response to Stanley Krippner, "Consciousness-Expansion and the Extensional World"), in Et Cetera (December 1965) [combined snippets]:

The difficulties of all these models is that they defeat the purpose of the psychedelic experience, which is to liberate one from the old models. Thus the semantic model rescues us from one procrustean bed and forces us into another. But this is inevitable since one needs models with which to communicate. And Krippner's model seems as good as any that has been constructed. As a corollary explanation Krippner adduces the game model of behavior: "The psychedelic substance enabled these men [prisoners] to break through word-games which had to a large extent been responsible for their downfall." I would question that this explanation is either accurate or sufficient. Using this very game model I would predict a high rate of recidivism, given sufficiently long follows-ups. Though the prisoner may be momentarily freed from the game of cops-and-robbers, the other members of his team of robbers and the opposing team of cops will continue to play the game, society will assist at the metagame, and the prisoner will be again enthralled by the cops-and-robbers game.

I would submit that a much better illustration of the game changing potential of the psychedelic experience is the Harvard controversy itself which Krippner does not mention. The psychedelic revolution nearly succeeded in changing the game structure at Harvard. Its failure seems to me a classic instance of (1) a failure to follow out the logical implications of one's own model, and (2) of confusing one's model with the reality which it purports to explain. They confused the game model of behavior with behavior itself. They fell into the very trap against which Krippner warns—taking "concepts for data ... words for actual things." They became prisoners of their own model.

The context here is evidently the highly theoretical world of "the game model of behavior." (The "Harvard controversy" mentioned in the second paragraph, by the way, refers to experiments conducted in 1960 and 1961 investigating the effects of psilocybin and other hallucinogens on Harvard undergraduates.)

In addition, one early instance of game-changing used as a noun appears, in Esquire magazine, volume 82 (1974), reproduced in George Leonard, The Ultimate Athlete [combined snippets]:

The duel finished, Brand began a short talk on the theory of New Games. Still breathing hard, he explained the rules of game-changing to about a hundred of us gathered around him on the gym mat.

"You can't change the game by winning it, losing it, refereeing it, or spectating it. You can change the game by leaving it. Then you can start a new game. If it has its own strength and appeal, it may survive. Most likely it won't. In either case, you will have learned something about the process of game-changing and the particular limitations imposed on us by certain games."

Although the idea of "game-changing" here is unusually theoretical, it clearly accommodates the idea of a game-changer as a person responsible for leaving a game (in the sense of a sport or pastime) and starting a new one.


First definite use of 'game changer' in a figurative sense

As Mari-Lou A points out in her answer, the earliest Google Books match for game changer used in a purely figurative way is from Catherine Hayden, The Handbook of Strategic Expertise: Over 450 Key Concepts and Techniques Defined, Illustrated, and Evaluated for the Strategist (1986) [combined snippets]:

Game Changer: an industry event that changes the competitive rules of the game. GAME CHANGERS are usually EVOLUTIONARY PROCESSES that change the COMPETITIVE FORCES in an industry and its INTRA-INDUSTRY STRUCTURE or indications that the competitive forces could be changed by an innovative competitor.


Conclusions

The notion of "changing the game," in the sense of altering the fundamental way a sport or pastime is played, has been discussed in published texts going back more than a hundred years. The adjective "game-changing" appears at least as far back as 1965, in a highly analytical context involving the game model of behavior; and game-changer used in a literal sense may go back as far as 1930 (in the context of the card game bridge, according to research noted by William Safire) and certainly at least as far back as 1981 (in the context of a discussion of revolutionary changes in the use of certain positions on the field in baseball and U.S. football).

The first confirmed figurative use of game changer in Google Books search results involves business jargon (reported in 1986), where it refers to an innovation that alters the competitive landscape in a particular industry or market.

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It appears that the term game changer originated with the game baseball, it specifically refers to the player who changes the outcome of a match or sporting event. He or she succeeds in overturning the scores, which usually results in the team's victory.

The expression was soon adopted in the world of business, because in commerce there are players and there are rules; business corporations are fiercely competitive, they strive to win clients, and secure new contracts.

In 1987 the The Handbook of Strategic Expertise, printed in 1986, defined it as

Game Changer: an industry event that changes the competitive rules of the game. Game changers are usually evolutionary processes that change the competitive forces in an industry and its intra-industry structure or indications that the competitive forces could be changed by an innovative competitor.

Nowadays, in business it is defined as

  1. A person who is a visionary.

  2. A company that alters its business strategy and conceives an entirely new business plan. This type of company switches up and forms a new business strategy in order to compete directly or indirectly with competitors. A game changer changes the way that something is done, thought about or made.

[Investopedia]

The idiomatic phrase became widespread during the 1990s. In effect, Google Ngram shows no evidence to suggest that the expression, or its hyphenated version existed prior to the 1960s.

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From word origins.org come the following interesting citations.

A search of the Canadian version of Google Books turns up a literal baseball reference, from Baseball Digest, August 1997, 61, “[Kenny Lofton]’s a game changer, someone who can control a game. He can beat you with his bat, arms, legs or glove.”

Then there is this extended use in Billboard, 27 March 1999, 3, “‘To put it simply,’ says ASCAP CEP John LeFrumento, ‘this is a game-changer for our business.’”

Then I managed to unearth the following excerpt, dated 1981 from Inside Sports Vol 3 referring to baseball. The same quotation, but dated 1984, is also cited on word origins.

Find the 6-2, 200-pound super jock, put him at third and you've got the game-changer. The in-their-prime prototypes are Schmidt (6-2, 203), Brett (6-0, 200) and Bell (6- 2, 185) — all drip greatness and charisma...

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An interesting question. I'm confident that the first usages of "game-changer" coincide with the first usages of the non-derivative(?) noun form: change/changed/changes/changing the game.

In the literal sense, I would expect the term to have been used since people began discussing games, although the derivative noun (or deverbal) form would probably have been used less frequently. It seems that this kind of nominalization may not lead to great writing, though it seems well adapted for scientific/technical writing.

  • Given all of that, I would suspect "game changer" may very well have first been used (in writing) in reference to Bridge--there seems to be a correlation between the use of nominalized terms and prevalence of scientific/technical writing...which would be in the early 1920s and 1930s.

Figuratively speaking, "change the game" was used well before the '90s. A book search, for this and other variants, shows some excerpts using the term in a figurative sense as early as 1971. If you want to consider the figurative usage of "changing the rules of the game" as similar, you can find earlier excerpts, some dating back to 1935:

Nevertheless, this also, to use the phrase adopted by Professor Fairchild, is " changing the rules of the game, while the game is in progress, to the disadvantage of one contestant."

– Land & Liberty: Monthly Journal for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade

Even though this is a departure from the specific term "game changer," it seems that metaphorical use of the analogous term would likely coincide with figurative use of the deverbal version.

  • Considering these sources and the increased nominalization of English throughout the 20th century, I suspect that the 1960/1965 origin for "game-changer" that you quoted is probably accurate. I would also hazard to guess that the first figurative use was in reference to either policy/politics or business.
  • I was also amused by the quote: "At the present moment, everybody seems to be going a bit nuts with noun creation. Journalists and bloggers seem to believe that a sign of being ironic and hip is to coin nouns with such suffixes as -fest (Google 'baconfest' and behold what you find), -athon, -head (Deadhead, Parrothead, gearhead), -oid, -orama, and -palooza." (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway, 2007) – TheMadDeveloper Jun 24 '16 at 10:45
  • "At the present moment"??? What about "-gate", ca 1974. And I'm sure there have been many others. (In fact, "-head" goes back centuries.) – Hot Licks Jun 24 '16 at 12:12
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Although N-gram shows the first use of “life[-]changer” as predating that of “game-changer” by more than 30 years, it also shows that the latter took a small lead in 2008, which could be partially attributed to it being used (especially in the jargon of winning large, life-changing, lottery jackpots) synonymously with “life-changer”:
“Winning Wednesday’s $1.4 billion Powerball lottery would be a game-changer for almost any American.”
(from The Fiscal Times with emphasis added)

This recent (albeit perhaps isolated in and limited to lottery winnings) merger of the meanings of these two expressions (one using “life” and the other using “game”) could of course be a result of many things, but I think it could shed some light on your interesting question.

Judging by N-gram, the general notion of “the game of life” has been used for a long time, which could by itself put it in contention for the “game” you seek.
(example of use of “game changer” in the context of “the game of life” from Game Changer by Kirk Cousins, via ‘Google Books’)

Beyond the general notion of “the game of life,” however, there is an official game with official rules of that name, which according to Wikipedia was copyrighted and successfully marketed by Milton Bradley in the 1960s, which time-frame does correspond with the first occurrences of “game[-]changer” on N-gram.

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