Game Design: Respect, Acceptance, and Admiration

I've been thinking about the reasons why I wanted to become a game designer. I grew up in an era when arcade machines were plentiful and ubiquitous, and the home video game experience could be had in media like cartridges, cassettes, and floppy disks. I looked forward to magazines like Popular Computing, K-Power, Compute, and the occasional Byte Magazine. They had interviews with designers and programmers in there and treated them like a form of programmer royalty. I remember one cover in particular with Chris Crawford with him on the cover as "Atari's Secret Weapon".

Popular Computing Magazine cover. Picture of Chris Crawford holding an Atari Joystick with the heading 'Atari's Secret Weapon: Chris Crawford'

Secret Weapon? Do go on.

It's probably no surprise that growing up I was not the most popular kid in school. I was different from most kids (a sentiment I now know is true for a lot of folks). My interest in computers stemmed from curiosity about the machines, but more importantly about the narrative that I was being told about the folks who programmed these machines. The ones who were really good got their faces on the cover of computer magazines. They became household names like David Crane, Garry Kitchen, Bill Budge, and a whole host of others at companies like Activision, Electronic Arts, and so on.

In fifth grade I didn't want to be Batman anymore. I wanted to be Chris Crawford.

My mom took that cover and did her best to make a fifth grader look like Chris Crawford for a Halloween Party. This, predictably, did nothing for my reputation in school.

A lot books and magazines at the time had programs you could type in to a BASIC interpreter. As people became more familiar with the machines the quality of those programs improved. I patiently typed in many of those programs, trying to understand what was going on. Of course my tastes for games at that time were all about fast action and graphics, which meant the games I was typing in had a lot of machine code encoded as DATA statements. This didn't do much for my learning about the code of how to make the machine work; instead it taught me how to find typing errors in long strings of text. A useful skill, but not one that held the keys to what I wanted to know.

I went through classes in school for computer programming in high school and college. Sometimes I did my best. Sometimes I just tried to get the best grade I could without really understanding the material. Over time I built up a lot of self-doubt in my abilities. Couple this with a learned anxiety in math classes, and my belief that I could ever become one of those rock-star developers faded. Not the desire to become that kind of person, but the belief that I could ever measure up to those levels.

Never mind that I was comparing myself against scads of professionals who were regarded by their peers as exceptional designers and developers, all I knew is that whatever I did I wouldn't be able to do that.

It's taken me a bit to realize why I imprinted on these folks. Part of it was that being a "famous game designer" meant that I was somehow the top of my field. What I saw was the admiration of others and the acceptance that eluded me as a kid. Unfortunately instead of motivating me in a positive direction it motivated me into self-doubt. I knew where I was and there was no way I was going to make Space Invaders, let alone Eastern Front.

When I re-discovered tabletop RPGs and board games I fell in love again with the idea of game design. It also helped that the game design books I'd read said to play lots of different games in order to mine from different disciplines. Yessiree, I signed up for that and started buying all the games. I was going to crack this nut again.

Google+ was also formative in this. A lot of tabletop designers and RPG folks hung out there and created communities. Now I could talk with folks who were actually designing games. And, they'd reply. Huzzah! Acceptance! Sometimes even respect. The adrenaline hits kept me glued to Google+. After all, thinking about game design is the same as game design, right?

When Google+ disappeared I was heartbroken. Now I'd have to find other avenues to talk with folks about game design. I've been slightly successful with different platforms, but none quite the same as Google+. Take that as a data point, Google.

A few years back several of the game designers of tabletop RPGs that I like were at a semi-local gaming convention called U-Con. I thought about going, but talked myself out of it. My reasoning is I wanted to meet them as a fellow game designer, and not as a drooling fan-boy. I wanted that level of acceptance from folks that I admire, and some level of mutual respect for each others' designs. I kinda regret that now.

It's easy to blame a lot of the foolishness of adulthood on mistaken notions we've kept since we were children. It's easy to say that childish dreams lead us down pathways that didn't pan out. But in some ways they did pan out. I have created games and learned a ton about game design. I've been exposed to different ways of thinking that have shaped my own ideas about game design. I've made a career out of programming computers that would never have happened without those initial sparks. I've just never quite understood the motivation I've had for it other than it's something I've wanted to do.

The great thing about understanding our motivations for things is we can determine if those motivations are still true. Do I still crave respect? Doubtless, yes. Do I still hunger for acceptance? Of course. Do I still wish for admiration? It'd be nice, but it's not necessary.

Do I still want to be a 1980s-era rock-star developer on the cover of Popular Computing? Do I still want to be Atari's Secret Weapon? Not anymore. That position was filled long ago, and the person who filled that role became one of the game designers I admire the most.

I still have self-doubts. I still don't believe I could ever make a living off of my games like some have. But I've cleared away some of the beliefs and emotional attachments I have to the fantasies that I cultivated when I was younger. I've also realized where these beliefs came from and now I can work with them to uncover if they're still true. It's like pulling a nasty and discolored dust-cover off of an object and realizing the beauty of the object underneath.

I'm not sure where this will lead, but I'm more curious than ever to find out.