A Letter to Owen, Part 1
A woman contacted me on Facebook to tell me that she of a gift she was preparing for her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy is a very avid gamer, and she wanted to present him with a book of letters written by people who worked in the game industry. She asked me to make a contribution, and here is what I wrote.
Your grandmother asked me to write this letter to you describing how I came to work in the game industry. You are very lucky to have a mother who is so encouraging about such an unusual career, because my parents weren’t – at least, not as first.
You see, when I was your age back in the 1970s, video games consisted of simple blips on black & white television monitors. Technology was nowhere near advanced as it is today. Computers were the size of refrigerators, telephones carried voice conversations over wires, and calculators costs $100 a pop.
Despite having grown up as a sci-fi geek who read books about advances in technology, I never imagined playing games on a device like a computer and certainly not a phone. Although I did design my own board games, my career interests were in art, writing, and film. Because my eye-hand coordination wasn’t very good, and I hated math, I never saw myself using any equipment more sophisticated than a movie camera.
One thing I did know for certain was where I would be going to college. California State University in Northridge was just a couple of miles from my house, and it never occurred to me to enroll anywhere that wasn’t a short bicycle ride away. I also knew that the campus had a well-regarded Radio-Television-Film department.
However, when I bicycled down to pre-register for RTVF, my heart sank – the preregistration line was filled with hundreds of people. I didn’t believe that all these people would be able to find jobs in the very competitive entertainment industry, and I didn’t have enough faith in myself to believe that my chances were any better than theirs. So, I decided to enroll in a variety of courses to figure out what subject to major in.
Despite not seeing myself as an engineering-type, I decided to enroll in an introductory computer science course, because, as I said, I was a science fiction fan. At first, I did not like it one bit: coding, logic, flowcharts, processors, and binary arithmetic – none of it made sense to me. Until, as suddenly as turning on a light switch, it all made sense to me, and I figured out how to make a computer do my bidding.
A few weeks later I was sitting in the computer lab waiting to use the shared printer to print out my homework. To pass the time, I started typing out a Star Trek game in which the player was in control of the Enterprise and needed to combat Klingon warships in the adjoining sectors. Although I still wasn’t particularly fond of math, I figured out how to use algebraic equations to determine the distances between ships and plot out firing trajectories. As I was planning out attack scenarios, it occurred to me that a computer could be used to tell a story, but one in which the player interacted with the plot. I could see the computer as being as valid an artistic medium as an easel, typewriter or movie camera. And so, as soon as I printed out my homework, I went down to the administration office and changed my major from “Undecided” to “Computer Science”.