Here at Horrible Night, we are not only passionate about gaming, but also big believers in finding a balance between games and being a responsible person. My passion for video games has matured right along with me as I’ve gotten older. Even though my parents had no interest in video games and didn’t understand my obsession with them, they encouraged me to pursue other activities and stressed the importance of work-time versus play-time. When the important things, like homework and chores, were taken care of, though, they never stopped me from choosing how I wanted to spend my time, even though a lot of that free time was spent playing video games. I was fascinated by every detail of every game I played. I’m sure it had to worry my parents at times, so I thought I’d offer this reflection for other parents out there who may not know the unexpected ways that video games have shaped my educational and career choices.
Kids these days
Not to date myself right out of the gate, but I have to start at the beginning. I loved my Atari 2600. It was the ultimate motivation for me to finish chores, behave at the store, and patiently wait through birthday parties for the potential of opening a new game. Some of these games, with their brutal difficulties and ancient graphics, may turn off kids today, but I didn’t know any better and these early games forced me to utilize my imagination. You may see large blocks of pixels moving around the screen around smaller blocks of pixels, but I saw an epic and tense space battle that put Star Wars to shame. My mind used whatever was in front of me as a springboard for bigger ideas. When I was away from video games I would seek out every “Choose Your Own Adventure” book to transport me to new locations. I would turn to sketching and my inexperienced hands would make expansive universes that had no end. I built extravagant LEGO and Construx buildings for my (imaginary) friends to live inside. I was a reader, an artist, and an engineer. I may have lived in a fantasy land for most of my younger days, but it was all because I saw endless possibilities in everything around me. I was destined for a creative path from a very young age.
Yo, I’ll solve it
I didn’t always have my head in the clouds, though. Problem solving and logic puzzles always grounded me. Regardless of the action or the story, when I got bored or frustrated by video games, the thrill of conquering a seemingly impossible task always brought me back. Punch-Out!! may have seemed like a violent and cartoony distraction to my parents, but anyone who has taken down Mike Tyson knows that underneath the gloves, the game is an exercise in pattern recognition. It was a puzzle that could only be solved by trial and error and basically force me and my peers of that era to memorize our favorite games. That helped me to learn the value of persistence, patience, and practice. This awakened a confidence and competitive side of me that not only led to success in video games and sports, but in the classroom as well.
As the puzzles grew in depth and complexity, I branched out into different genres of video games. I took breaks from my plethora of action games to try more strategic games. I came across Populous as I witnessed my best friend’s dad playing the game. I knew that the game had to have been really hard and difficult to understand if an adult was enjoying it. However, I set my sights on learning it and, before I knew it, I was shaping lands at my will with a full understanding of how it affected my followers and my enemies. Every action had a reaction, and when used at the right time, to the right degree, could mean the difference between victory and defeat. I was blown away that a video game required me to plan out an entire series of moves in advance. I started paying attention to who was developing these “thinking” games and wanted to know how they came up with these puzzle systems. Here was a game reacting to me, and a person had been responsible for creating the game’s abilities to do just that. How did they do that?
The answer was, of course, the creative application of math and science into programming. Although I was still too young to dive into computer programming, I saw a potential use for my traditional classes. I wanted to conquer my math classes and understand as much as I could about the scientific method for advanced problem solving. I subconsciously understood that these skills would bring me closer to video game development. I found that I got the same thrills solving math and science problems as I did overcoming obstacles in video games. To me, it was all the same thing, and my imagination carried me through the hardest “levels.”
Things are getting real
Once my perspective on video games shifted from them being purely entertainment pieces to products made by actual people, my fascination with the video game industry erupted. I was much more aware of the competitive battles between Sega and Nintendo (and the newcomer, Sony). I researched my next console purchase, weighing the pros and cons of the N64 vs the PlayStation vs the Sega Saturn. Processing power, graphics abilities, accessories and what games were exclusive to each console were important factors. Around this time, I started getting heavily involved with PC gaming, which taught me about what components my computer needed to run certain games and outshine my console games. It was an expensive hobby, but playing Quake as purely as possible was important to me. I knew I couldn’t sell my parents on getting these upgrades just for a game, so my world opened up to the other more “productive” uses for a computer and I have been hooked ever since. Until that point, I had been a user of technology. Since then, I’ve been a consumer and promoter of technology. I knew I wanted to work with computers for the rest of my life.
Now that I understood the power and capabilities of technology, it was time to make something for myself. Through a great program at my high school, I was able to participate in a 3D modeling and animation course. That helped me to decide to go the “art” route to break into video games and movies. Pixar was starting to make waves at this point with Toy Story, and I didn’t care where I ended up, just that I wanted to make something on screen that someone else could enjoy. Making my first 3D model (and promptly animating it exploding) was the first tangible application of my passions into something that could lead to a career. Before long, I was making short 3D and 2D animated videos.
Armed with 3D models and animation skills, my next step was to figure out how to get some of these objects into a game. Mod communities were forming around my favorite PC titles. Fans of the games were able to create new levels, sounds, and features for their favorite games. I focused my efforts on Motocross Madness. Before long, I was creating motocross tracks for my friends and myself to enjoy. Meeting up with my friends in the school hallways just to give them the tracks soon proved to be a hassle and I needed an easier means to distribute my custom video game files. This ended up introducing me to where my current career lives and breathes, the internet. I created my first website to distribute video game files (and interestingly enough for Horrible Night, creative writing samples) to my friends.
I found something new and exciting that I could be a part of from the beginning. The internet allowed me to flex my design and problem solving skills as a web designer and developer. My initial platform of choice was Flash, as I could make websites and games. As I was coming into my own as a designer, I was drawn to the intricacies of user interfaces and understanding what makes people take certain actions on a website from clicking a button, to filling out a form, to leaving immediately and never returning. That’s when the epiphany hit me: designing the architecture of a website reminded me of the problem solving process that game developers go through. Although not identical, the relationship captured my attention. Understanding the audience and how to get it to engage with a website was infinitely interesting to me and set the foundation for my future career.
I am a gamer for life
Video games haven’t been one long educational research project or some overarching professional training program, but my fascination with the technology, the game experiences and the industry have fueled my passions in other fields. Video games opened me up to thinking differently as an artist, finding fulfillment in the challenge of problem solving, understanding and advocating the growth of technology, and drawing me to the psychology of user interactivity. When I get lost in a video game these days, I can’t help but smirk when the game coerces me into doing something that emits an emotional reaction out of me. Whether it is joy, fear, anger or laughter, it is those moments that pull me back into video games. When a web project I had a part in creating is able to pull in an audience that enjoys the experience enough to be compelled to share it with others, I know I have done my job. They aren’t the sole source of my success or satisfaction with my life and career, but video games have helped me get to where I am today.
Think of the Children is an ongoing series looking at the different issues we face as influential parties concerning children and the video game industry.
Giant Bomb (images)