Ask Hackaday: Did Video Games Influence Your Career?

Apex Minecraft hosting recently held a scholarship competition. The person who sent in the best essay would win a $2,000 scholarship.  The winning essay starts, “Five years ago, at age 13, I built an entire computer from scratch. Assembled from basic components: wires, torches, repeaters, pistons, and blocks, it was capable of rendering images to a display, multiplying and dividing numbers, and even calculating square roots.” I  had to read it twice before it clicked that he was talking about a computer built entirely in a fictional universe.

It’s no wonder that he’s now a freshman at college, pursuing a degree in computer engineering. After reading this, I started to reminisce. The first computer I ever had access to was my mother’s laptop. It had an install of QBASIC on it, and I remember using it to make a few text based games. Later on when we got our first family computer I remember spending hours getting no better at video game programming using QBASIC.

It went on and on. I remember doing AI for video games in DarkBasic. I remember doing physics and collisions. Eventually I found my way to html, then php, to make websites about games (which are too terrible to share with you). So when the time came to program robots I was absolutely fearless. It just seemed like such a natural extension of what I already knew that it never occurred to me to be thankful for the time I spent trying to make my own simple little games until much later.

In the end I am still occasionally making little forays into game programming when I want to learn a new language or get back up to speed. It never occurred to me that perhaps this was just the way I’ve always learned a language.

Later on in the winner’s essay he goes on to describe his minecraft community. They taught new players. They taught themselves. They hung out and became friends. The writer gained a sense of self as a user of computers, a teacher of skills, a good member of a community, and a solver of problems. Unlike some of his classmates he won’t go to college and have to learn if he’s good enough. He’ll already know. All it took was a silly block based game.

Did any of you have seemingly frivolous endeavors show up as a foundation for your life and learning far into the future? Tell in the comments below how this ended up shaping your career.

47 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Did Video Games Influence Your Career?

  1. “Did Video Games Influence Your Career?”

    No, because I have never had any interest in games, not just video games but board games or sports. I don’t have anything against people who enjoy gaming ‘each to their own’ as the saying goes but for me I just find the whole idea a big waste of time and effort for no reward.

    1. Games are the way humans found to help them spend their energy and shape their communities. I am not a gamer myself (and in fact I don’t really like games) BUT THEY ARE NOT A BIG WASTE OF TIME. Games are one of the reasons humans are what we are.

  2. I started in electronics at the age of 13, when I first saw (and asked my parents to buy) a weekly “assemble your electronics lab” kind of magazine. I remember building and modifying AM radios, audible signal generators, led blinkings and even a musical keyboard. That early contact with the basics is relly paying off these days >>

  3. You and I have a very similar start. Spending unbelievable amounts of time trying to play with graphics, learn how they work, filling screens, etc. in QBasic, moving to Pascal to make tetris-like games or snake, and the like. A little different later on though. I specifically went to college and studied video game programming. GPU Techniques, game programming, helped start the video game development club at my college. Yet, somehow I didn’t end up in the industry, and I found out people care more about hardware than they do programming! So here I am!

    P.S. Learn GLSL (or any other shading language), it’ll give you a great understanding for how computers think under the hood. Registers, instructions, etc. The application of getting good at thinking about minimizing instructions will significantly help you out all over the place!

  4. Yup, Ultima VII The Black Gate

    I had to get my dad to take me to computer shows, research and purchase parts to upgrade the computer to be able to run the game.

    Then write batch files on a boot disk to move all the sound, hard drive, video, and mouse drivers into HiMem, so the game would have just enough memory free in the lower 640K to run. Was alot of trial and error.

    Not to mention the over clocking of the CPU, and soldering in extra Level 2 cache DIPs on the motherboard.

    Later on to get the performance of the game better I wrote a program to transfer the game to a RAM drive (I got a HUGE 8M DIMM) and still let you save games to the hard drive.

    And it is still the best RPG ever. :)

    CPU upgrade path on that PC over the years:
    486SX 25, 486DX 33, 486DX 66, Pentium Overdrive 83

    1. These CPU model numbers bring back memories. I went from a Harris 286 at 25 MHz straight to a i486DX-33 then DX2-66, AMD DX4-133 (o/c to 160 MHz with 40 MHz VLB). Then Quake made that obsolete but I couldn’t afford a Pentium until the Pentium MMX-233. Then Mendocino o/c from 300 to 450 MHz then 2x Athlon MP 1800+ in a Tyan Tiger for playing Diablo on Win98 even though Windows could only use one package. I used to compile kernels in Linux just to use both packages. I played games through university (MEng Soft Eng) then realised they were taking up too much of my life and stopped. They definitely produced a software architect though.

      1. Ohmahgawd… Tyan Tiger… probably my favorite motherboard of all time… S…2466? The time and money I spent trying to get all the magic that I could from that SMP setup. Trying to track down matched pairs of the mythical 2200+ chips that were unlocked for overclocking…

  5. “Did any of you have seemingly frivolous endeavors show up as a foundation for your life and learning far into the future?”

    I suppose “taking everything apart in the house” qualifies as “frivolous”? Not sure the parents felt the same way?

    1. It was the “taking things apart and then putting them back together and they were working” that helped me. I fixed a horrid gold painted clock kitchen clock so many times that my mom finally asked me to not fix it anymore because she wanted a new one.
      You learn what makes good design good and different way of doing things.
      Happy Thanksgiving peeps!

      1. Hackaday and other sites plus general tinkering and “fixing” things around the house have helped me considerably. I especially like the basic electronics skills I’ve picked up from this and other sites. It enabled me to figure out how to hack an older Lexus SUV passenger’s window controller to work again. Found an electrically equivalent relay at Digikey (although with a different pinout), de-soldered and removed the defective relay, and dead-bug soldered the new one into the right spots on the controller circuit. Saved me $500 vs what Lexus wanted. Also diagnosed a defective circuit board switch on a garage door opener unit enabling a free fix for a neighbor on a limited budget.

        Not programming related, but I appreciate the software and hardware skills that Hackaday helps to build in the community.

    2. Yep I was in the “take everything apart” stage when I was 8. My parents had the patience of saints for the first few years that I did this but didn’t have the ability to put the parts back together in working order. I remember in particular entirely dismantling a VCR and then panicking when I couldn’t remember where each of the million springs and screws went. I guess it payed off eventually after I got good at fixing things so we never have to pay for repairs or warranties.

      As for other frivolous endeavors, I would say making contraptions out of lego, knex, and erector sets definitely got me into CAD/mechanical design and robotics. Teaching myself to program PICs in assembly using notepad and burning the code using a homebuilt serial port programmer just to make blinky LEDs led to my current interest in embedded programming. I had so many different interests as a kid that built a broad foundation in my current technical skills and my parents always supported me in my curiosity.

  6. When I was a child I saw a computer from time to time. I think I had the opportunity to play a game maybe 2-3 times and I thought that it was fantastic how someone could do so many things with this obscure box. The first time I could actually use a computer was in 1999, I was 11 and the computer wasn’t mine. My school had this computer room, where the two best computers had win 95 and win 3.1, while the others ran on ms-dos. Given the ancient hardware, our professor printed for us some small programs in QBASIC, that we had to copy on the screen and test. Many of my friends already had used Windows and internet connection, so they were not so “Whoa! I’m using a computer!”. Actually they weren’t excited at all by this black screen. Of course the first thing I tried to do on my own were videogames and play music that i copied from the scores. Unfortunately in the next years I didn’t have access to books, manuals and other stuff to improve my skills, so I couldn’t do much with my “new” computer, that my uncle gave me (it was year 2002, the computer was a pentium mmx 166MHz w/win95). Maybe this is the reason why I “stayed hungry” and eventually learned to program as soon as i got an internet connection (and a new computer) around 2005.

  7. Yes! Specifically, trying to make my own games was how I learnt programming, which funneled me in the direction of jobs and degree choice. So much easier to motivate yourself to learn when the result you’re working towards is this game you want to share as opposed to some assignment you need to pass CS.

  8. After seeing an arcade game for the first time in my life (it was PONG btw.) i was obsessed with the question “how did they do that?”. So i started learning electronics with the goal to build myself a videogame. This was at the age of 8…(you can imagine how far i got). When i was ~10 years old i got introduced to a home computer (VC-20), and i quickly rejected the electronics-path in favor of the software-path. 36 years later, i am looking back at a 30-year-long career as game developer.

  9. Started with TI Basic on a TI99/4A programming a checkerboard graphic (never got around to finishing the game) as well as programming in realistic “Boggle” boards with the letter ASCII values stored in DATA statements. Copied a lot of hex programs from Compute! Magazine into our C64 including one for a spreadsheet. Took Pascal as an elective in college for fun (was an Chemical Engineering student). In my first job, I used Lotus 1-2-3 (in the late 80’s) to build a simulation of a rather complex washing/bleaching process with lots of feedback streams. The program included macros to goal seek before this was a standard feature in spreadsheet programs. The boss (in his 40’s) was suitably impressed. This previous experience gave me confidence to take up this fun electronics hobby later in life and learn the Arduino IDE programming environment which has been very enjoyable. This also led me to learn a bit of Processing with which I wrote a program to enable my wife to easily create a very artistic, very personalized weekly calendar that she carries around. Learning how to program outputting to a PDF file in Processing was interesting.

    So my early programming experiences have led to some successes at work but mostly in my hobby time, which is why I love hanging out and learning on Hackaday.

  10. Video games? Dial it way, way down. Circa mid 70’s. Moon Lander on one of the first Ti programmable calculators! One of Dad’s oldest, closest friends was a Prof of EE and showed me this with great delight. He always wanted me to study EE. So I “got” the concept of programming and used it to great effect as a “user” in my career – being able to effectively interact with IT and even straight out program what I needed.

    The thing is, now that I am no longer working I have stumbled into this electronics hobby domain and my eyes have been opened to the bigger picture and I finally understand what the old Prof was trying to tell me. I love this stuff, and it could have been my career! Why don’t kids listen?

  11. I guess so thinking about it. I was a physics major, then, after too many hours, days, weeks, playing coinop (space invaders, asteroids, gravitar, whatever), I switched majors to CS. Still low level embedded coding at 55. Good career if you can find the right path, and you enjoy it.

  12. I started off in electronic engineering but stumbled upon a few pirated Sierra games in the CAD lab. That prompted me to switch to a computing degree which I then followed up with 16 years working the game industry across 3 continents. So yeah, games did influence my career a bit…

  13. No, I never had any interest in videogames, nor board games (As Darren said). However, the “real” games ever seemed me a good way to leave the current project for a while and think better.

  14. I was actively interested in computers at an early age, playing games with my VIC 20, light programming. Then one fateful day we had an accident with Sea Monkeys. It was perched on a high shelf above our Commodore and it fell off the shelf and dumped the contents of the Sea Monkey aquarium right into the keyboard. Killing the VIC 20 and my next 10 years not having a computer.

    Think it was my Junior year in High School, we got a POS Packard Bell 486SX and I used it as a word processor and not much else. Back then I was only interested in skateboarding and girls. Was bored and bought a $5 shareware demo of Wolfenstein 3D. Thought it was pretty cool, but wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed. But it was cheap and it passed time, a month or so later I was browsing in Wal-Mart and came across another $5 demo disk but this time it was Doom. I recognized the logo “Same guys that made Wolf 3D. Aught to be alright”

    Well installed it, damn thing wouldn’t run. Back in those days they had a 800 number to call for tech support. Some gal answered and she had me try a few things just wouldn’t run. I was all, “It’s no big deal, only $5. Don’t worry bout it.” and went to go skate in front of the house. Mom yells to me that there is someone on the phone a short while later.

    It was the tech support people, some dude calling me back to try one more thing. Told me the trick of holding down the Shift key while booting to bipass the autoexec.bat and free up enough base memory.

    It worked, albeit with horrible sound coming from the PC speaker. But was instantly mesmerized by what I was seeing on my screen. Also peeked my interest by the Shift key trick.

    Spent the rest of that Summer learning, tinkering and modding Doom. Making levels, changing the artwork and sprites. Later moved on to doing the same with Duke 3D which I was very actively into.

    Briefly worked in the computer game business for a few years. But have worked in computers ever since that fateful tech support call. That single callback changed my life, thanks random dude at Id!

  15. QBasic and many attempts at game programming in my case. QBasic was actually to prove useful almost to this day, since I used it for device control and data collection at work. Thank you LPT.

  16. Yes, absolutely. I’m currently the coordinator of a Virtual & Augmented Reality community of practice at a research laboratory. All that time playing (and some time making) video games has been a huge help, and has provided countless inspirations.

  17. No love for ZZT? Mid-90s ASCII-based sorta-Roguelike game that, if you squint just right, could be thought of as a 2D precursor to Minecraft – the combination of creative and survival gameplay and the level editor built right in to the game. It also had programmable objects running a BASIC-like language, which you used to make programmable mobs and build more complex puzzles.

  18. Yes and no because it depends.

    I started playing with electronics (batteries motors lights speakers) at about 4. I had mastered transistors by about 8 when I made my first radio transmitter.

    Arcade games didn’t exist until I was about 10 and around a couple of years later I started programming on a TRS-80 and I was by them exposed to arcade machines so I wrote games on the only computer my school had. That was counter productive for me as the computer suddenly became very popular once it had some games to play but I am sure lots of other student benefited from that early exposure to a computer. Not long after hobbyists could get logic chips so switched to digital electronics.

    I then did EE when I left school as computers were rare and there was no work in that area. Then it wasn’t until my 20’s that the IBM PC/clones started so I switched to computers as an Computer Maintenance Engineer and then a Network Maintenance Engineer. I did that for decades and it was the bulk of my career.

    Later I was doing internet work with Server maintenance/admin, zone management etc and I started programming in php/sql.

    Now I am retired and I spend more time programming in VHDL or micro-controllers and little time making the hardware.

    So to answer the question “Did Video Games Influence Your Career?” –

    Yes it had an *influence* but it wasn’t the greatest influence. Simply having a hobby as a child is the greater influence. Kids with hobbies will find what that they want to do for work in later life and when that time comes they are years ahead of their fellow students looking for work and even further advantaged by getting the first stepping stone to their desired careers while their competitors are still flipping burgers, trying to decide what to do with their working career.

  19. “Did Video Games Influence Your Career?”

    Video Games certainly did influence my career, I was obsessed by them when I was in high school, I would copy (read cheat) the homework of my friends to get out of trouble because I played too much Xbox the day before. I ended failing a third of my classes in the 2nd year. I was then moved from a private school to a public school where education was really easy, yes I enjoyed myself during those years, playing games but I regret not pushing for higher education now.

    The funniest thing is that I now own a website that sells PC Digital Games, at least all those years made me an expert in a growing industry :)

  20. No, with one exception. Battlezone at a local bar. I knew analog at the time and was sure I cold make a much better vector display for the price, and I did, just as raster graphics was getting cheap enough to compete. Doh!

    But in the process of studying the Battlezone vector display, I got good enough to make a quarter last about an hour. I wish I had a machine today.

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