Video Games to Livelihood

In a very real sense, I owe my livelihood to (love of) video games, yet my job and career of the last two decades which has paid for my house, cars, family, vacations, etc. has zero, zip, nada to do with games.

In junior high our school had a single Apple IIc. If we finished our work ahead of time, and it was done right, we could go use it. Ostensibly to learn programming or somesuch but really it was to play Castle Wolfenstein (the real one, with puzzles and strategy and disguises, not the 1st person shooter that presaged Doom. The controls were so difficult it took two people at once, one to control movement and the other to aim and fire).

Just after high school I Iived with a man who said, yeah sure you can use that computer (a Tandy 1000 and DOS 2.x if memory serves). Yeah there’s some games on it. No I’m not going to tell you how to get them started (though I’ll start one for you, just this once). However if you transcribe this document I’ll show you one or two commands that will get you there, eventually.

Which led to: ‘cd’ to change directory, ‘dir’ to list contents, ‘foo.exe’ to see what that program does. A few days later I learned how to get into Zork and Planetfall by myself. (All Hail InfoCom!). Some weeks after that, as I continued to poke about to see what ‘bar.exe’ and ‘snafu.com’ did I learned, to my extreme consternation, that ‘fdisk.exe’ in illiterate hands is a dangerous weapon. A foot gun. I killed the computer. It couldn’t do anything. Oh shit.

When I finally got the nerve to cop to my misdemeanor, my mentor just smiled and said, “well this is a good time to upgrade DOS”, and proceeded to teach me how to partition and format a hard drive and install an operating system from scratch.

He talked, I did. (A process I’ve repeated countless times since, and for good money.) Somewhere along the line in this period new games showed up, the most memorable being Leisure Suite Larry (ooooh! graphics!, sounds!).

Some years later, I was often hanging around an office in the building where my father worked. Waiting for rides I suppose. The manager said well, if you’re here anyway you might as well digitize these maps (and there’s a game you can play afterwards…). After some months I was on the payroll, doing a more work, and more games. Here I learned about modems, BBSes, and FidoNET — where one could talk about and acquire: you guessed it, games! Modems in these days were fussy things. You had to know what jumpers to set, what COM ports to configure for, handle IRQ conflicts (don’t interfere with the sound card! that messes up the games!), and a myriad of other things.

In this time period network DOOM! came out. That was just too cool to let go by. But, before we could get it to work I needed to learn how to wire BNC cable, install network cards (DMA and IRQ conflicts rear their ugly heads again), and figure out what parts of novell ipx/spx to load and ignore, without running out of ram under the 1024k barrier.

It took a month, but we did it. At the end, after the frag-fest had died to a dull roar (taking many days), the office had a working and stable local area network that completely transformed how business was done for years to come.

I’m now 41 and haven’t played a video game in a serious way for more than a decade, other stuff is more interesting. Yet all my core computing skill sets were learned because of wanting to play games. Games were my motivation.

The kids I see today are at least as game motivated as I was, but by and large there is no appreciable distance between the desire and the result for them, and consequently lesser opportunity to learn. Fire up a browser and type “online games” or what have you and there you are, games galore. One of Apple’s most successful memes is that “a two year old can do it”, and so they can.

I’m not calling for a return to difficult computing environments, I think the usability and user experience professions are among the most interesting and beneficial developments to date. The point is: the motivation is there, we just need to think about how to wield it intelligently.

Matt Wilkie, May 2012. A rework from an earlier essay c.2000.


Postscript, January 2024.

I'm now 53 and ’the kids’ I saw then at 11 are now 22. The gap of lesser opportunity has widened to a canyon bridged with successes. They've spent years commandering old computers, ripping out and replacing their guts, resurrecting as servers running a variety of operating systems, applying Minecraft and who knows what else mods, and punching holes in my firewall. (And financially contributing to our now unlimited-because-of-them bandwidth ISP connection.)

I'd like to tell you their success was because I mentored in kind, actively showed them the way. That would be a lie. The best I can claim to is that I didn't get in the way, too much. I reread the essay above today and feel my insides shrink a little. I let the shadowy indistinct archetype of “what grownups are supposed to be like” rule a wider domain than it needed to. Too heavy on The Should brake pedal and not enough on the Foster Curiosity accelerator.

(And yet, and yet, I still think they spend too much time playing games and not enough time doing and building real things. Nevermind that when I was 22 I spent all the money I had, which was miniscule, on getting stoned and partying! So, umm, yeah. Carry on kiddos.)