Jul 8, 2015

Posted by in Editorial, Featured, Game Development | 0 Comments

The Obsession, and Missed Opportunities

In an accounting of my current situation in life, I only have a few silos that I can say comprise my existence. There’s the situations that one would expect: family, job, and friend. I consider those to be “core” elements, the situations that (hopefully) everyone has in common with one another. We’re all members of a family — like it or not — whether we’re sons or daughters, spouses, or have children of our own. In my circles, pretty much everyone is of working age, and I hope that those who want jobs have them. In the West we define a lot about ourselves by our jobs, making what we do part of our identity. Our friends are the people who can tolerate us at a level that makes them want to return again and again, and as social creatures, humans need people like that.

Once we leave that human commonality behind, we start into the electives, and the things that divide us from and join us to a greater community at large. I have a personal moratorium against talking about politics or religion, but those two decisions tend to elicit strong feelings of identity in millions of people around the world. Of a less polarizing nature, another life-silo we have are our hobbies, the things we like to do once the daily responsibilities have been taken care of.

Hobbies are personally chosen activities that we enjoy engaging in. They can be solitary, or they can be group-oriented. Generally we don’t earn a living from our hobbies; we participate in these activities because we derive a lot of pleasure from them, or because there’s something about the act or the outcome that gives us a sense of accomplishment, pride, and community. It seems kind of odd that something that’s inherently inconsequential should contribute to a feeling of self worth, but I think that’s exactly why we have hobbies. They can provide us with mental, emotional, and social boosts that we cannot or do not get from other aspects of our lives.

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I’m currently reading Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan. I like reading about history (my brother loves reading about history, as does our father, so it might be genetic at some level), although this is seemingly a bit different from what one might consider to be “reading about history” since we’re still in the midst of the video game era.

Reading this recounting of the early days of the video game industry and the insane explosion of video games as a cultural and financial phenomenon is actually pretty exciting to me because unlike reading about, say, Ben Franklin or the Civil War, I have vivid memories of most of the results of the situations talked about in this book. I owned a Magnavox Odyssey2, and of course an Atari 2600. I played all kinds of arcade games in actual arcades. I remember the day my father came home with a Commodore 64, of typing out lengthy programs line by line from the back of a magazine, and of buying games on 3.25 floppies in Ziploc bags from the cardboard box by the register at my tiny local computer store.

What’s really fascinating is how much of an accident the video game industry was, and how the establishment at the time was totally wrong about the inventions they had on their hands. Thankfully there were those who saw the potential for what video games could be, and who had the know-how and who managed to finagle the opportunities to push reticent people just enough so that they would realize that the public was absolutely obsessed with the idea of video games.

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Video games had actually achieved over a billion dollars in sales as far back as 1981 with the release of Pac-Man, Defender, and Space Invaders, and visionaries had opined that someday video games might surpass the revenue of movies. It’s always fun to look back on prognostications and see those who were right on target with their predictions, especially when those predictions have an impact on us personally.

We’re still not so far into the spread of gaming throughout the public consciousness that previous generations (or even the trailing end of my generation) think it’s OK for adults to treat video games with the same fervor that others treat sports or even TV shows. Video games used to be something that everyone got into. Adults included. My mother was an ace at Pac-Man; she played it more than anyone else in the house. My wife and her entire family had tournaments with various Nintendo games at their house when she was a kid, her Quebecois parents included. But in 2015 we seem to have slid backwards to a point where many people believe that video games are “toys” that are the sole domain of children, and that no responsible adult should be concerning him or herself with such hobbies.

Around here, we know different. If you’re reading this, chances are you know this blog, it’s theme, my own obsession — and your own obsession — with video games. My social media feeds are filled with nothing but people talking about video games, broadcasting themselves playing video games, fretting and philosophizing about video games, and even making video games. The overwhelming majority of people I follow are adults, and have been gaming for the majority of their lives. We don’t feel that we’re doing anything wrong, or that we’re acting more like our shoe-size than our age when we talk in serious tones about the latest Pokemon game.

Sadly, that’s not to say we run into the streets to shout about our obsession to the wider world. A lot of people maintain two lives: their circle of gaming friends (the “pants-off”, comfortable crowd), and their family, professional, or more public facing persona who doesn’t mention anything about video games unless push comes to shove. In the case of the later situations, we’re still always on the lookout for signs of solidarity among the people we pass in the hallways at work or out on the streets. Who hasn’t been out in public in a game-themed shirt and felt that “holy shit!” moment when they pass by someone who, out of the blue, says “I like your shirt”? For all of the history, of the advancement that the games industry has made as a business, and for the penetration gaming has made into the greater, non-geek society, we’re still pretty cagey about our obsession.

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It’s sometimes customary for geeks and gamers to recite their gaming history to others in a high-tech throwback to recounting one’s lineage as a way of establishing oneself in the hierarchy of the community. For myself, I can reach back to the early days of the commercial video game industry through memories of buying a Centipede cartridge at Montgomery Ward’s, and how my brother and I raced each other to monopolize the PC for the day every summer morning after our parents left for work.

In reading the circumstances that gave birth to the video game industry, I kick myself now, at 41, for not having a specific kind of foresight. When I was younger, I was interested in technology. Being a young geek, I read science fiction and fantasy novels, was a pretty decent artist drawing scenes of battling giant robots and starfighters. I got into roleplaying games, both constructed and custom made. And I played a lot of video games. I decided at some point that I wanted to make robots for a living, because that seemed suitably geeky and “sci-fi” enough to merge my interests with my vocation, but somewhere along that trajectory I started to suck at math (which is a curse that extends to the modern era), and I switched from wanting to work with circuits and steel to wanting to work with organics and behavior. So I went to school for biology, specifically marine biology.

I never took a computer class outside of the one I had in junior high (which was spent tearing apart the Apple IIe computers we had, to the dismay of the teacher). I didn’t need to take any computer classes in college, and when you take a hard science as a major, you have very little time for electives outside of what you have to take to fulfill the requirements for a degree. My roommate was a computer science major, but switched out to business. I didn’t really see too many of my friends bothering with a degree in CS, I never spent much time with a computer (despite the brand new thing called “the Internet” being made available to us at the time), and while my friends and I did have a rotating crew of people playing through a certain Legend of Zelda game, and our hot-seat matches of Scorched Earth in the quad down the hall, the idea of angling towards computer science or even video games as a job was never a consideration.

Of course now I’m working as an application developer. I never made it to a career in biology for reasons too numerous to mention, but eventually my creative side took over and I learned to code because I wanted to make things. It started out as apps for creating and tracking role playing game characters, and even a stab at creating an RPG system. I built databases for my first real job after college, and then did some part-time work as a web developer which transitioned into a full-time gig after a short while. With years of development experience under my belt, and with the advancement of game development tools making it easier for non-professionals to create a game, it seems like my obsession with video games and my life’s trajectory have finally collided in an explosion of circumstance.

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I kick myself for not following through when I was younger, though. I really dropped the ball when I opted to switch from a career in robotics to a career in biology. I still love biology, and would love to “do science”, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d stuck with that technology angle and gone to school for some kind of technology degree, surfing on the back of my love of all things geeky and an obsession with video games, where would I be right now?

It’s my belief that our hobbies can only take us so far into obsession before we have to come out on the other side. What’s waiting for us there depends on the path we take. We either find ourselves totally out of the interest, because we’re burnt out or because we really do simply outgrow it, or we decide that we’ve consumed enough. Alternatively, we might feel a need to burrow down into the experience, to get deeper, and to become more integrated with the obsession. For me, that second path naturally extends the buying and playing of games to making games.

I’m finding, however, that my obsession isn’t enough to make that transition. I’ve tried working on games of my own using all kinds of tools: web-based games, game-maker software packages, game engine programming…progress was made with all of them, but all of them have fallen by the wayside. I’m always wondering why? By all accounts, I should be throwing myself into this endeavor with unbridled enthusiasm, only looking up when I realize that everything else has been neglected (as horrible as that sounds). But I can’t. I run into roadblocks that frustrate me, and which I can’t overcome working as a lone developer. I get distracted, which is something a lot of people reading this know a lot about. I lack the relevant skills, whether it’s art or audio or just the level of understanding of development needed to tackle game development. A million excuses, and all of them logical to me, but illogical when viewed through the lens of my obsession.

Maybe if I’d actually stuck with the technology track throughout my life, and worked to turn my obsession into a career, I’d be in a different place right now. I would never have been in the right place at the right time alongside the people in the book who fought to bring video games to the masses, when the entire industry was a wilderness unconstrained by skittish investors, rabid fanboys, and the real-world problems that are rotting the geek community from the inside. That’s why I think I obsess over this issue so much: these days, no one has to be in the right place at the right time. We don’t have to put up a fight to get people to see that our ideas are valid. We have a wealth of tools and resources available to us so that anyone of practically any skill level can get involved, assuming they have the drive and the time and the right level of obsession.

Sometimes I think my obsession with video games is too much, but at other times, I realize that it’s not enough for me to reach that level of accomplishment that I feel is leaving a big hole in my life.

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