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Perceptual Perversity

The gaming world is perverse, as are its constituents. And what makes it all so perverse? Perceptions. Allow me to start by digressing.

When I first arrived at Hewlett Packard, a rosy-cheeked budding youth fresh out of college, I was rather a wild and crazy sort. To the dismay of some, the delight of others and the befuddlement of most of my corporate cohorts I was, in a word, unsubtle.

Over time I noticed their reactions coalesced into two basic camps and I came to think of this phenomenon as the 80/20 model of programmers.

The 80/20 model states there are two kinds of programmers: 80% of programmers like objective facts and figures and indisputable results. They love the fact that computers do what you tell them, behave consistently and never lie or play politics. 80%’ers see computers as an alternative to dealing with people and if they weren’t programmers they would be accountants or actuaries.

The other 20% like expressions of intricacy and complexity. They are creative types who are always looking for an outlet and simply see the computer as another medium. Infuse a nerd with ham and you’ve got a 20%’er. It’s rather an odd recipe and if these people weren’t programmers they would be artists of some sort or another.

After 25 years hopping all about the software industry this perception (and proportion) remains solid, albeit not particularly perverse. So what’s the point of digressing?

My point is: the gaming world is perverse because it totally violates the 80/20 model. Game programmers are almost exclusively 20%’ers, the ones who need to express themselves and have their product seen and enjoyed. The world of game development is populated with the most perverse programmers.

A second perverted aspect of the gaming world is that perception is the key to evaluating your work. No one says, “This word processor isn’t nearly as exciting as my C++ compiler.” Most software just needs to work, to meet technical specifications, which is a pretty objective criterion. You code away until text box A pops up when the user clicks button B. You know if it works and you know when you are done. Which is perfect for 80%’ers.

A video game is different. A video game still has to work from a technical standpoint but it also has to be fun, which is a very subjective criterion. And who is sitting in judgment of your work? Some eleven year old who is getting paid 50 Pounds and all the pizza he can eat.

You spend a year or more of your life pouring your heart and soul into the code, crafting and polishing each aspect and nuance from every angle you can imagine. All those days, nights and weekends lead up to that one special moment when you go sit behind the two-way mirror and watch your work presented to the “client.” After two minutes the little bugger tosses the controller aside and says, “this sucks.”

And you know what? He’s right! How do you deal with that? Egoless programming? I don’t think so. You have to take responsibility for that. You have to put yourself on the line. Good games don’t come from disengaged people, they come from neurotic oddballs who seek out this kind of emotional punishment. Why would anyone do this? Because when someone plays your game and loves it. . . of all the highs we had at Atari, that was the greatest.

Another pillar of perversity lies in how game programmers are perceived by the rest of the software world, which I promise you is not anywhere near the top rung of the esteem ladder. Amongst my software endeavors outside gaming are such diverse elements as operating systems, precision manufacturing, networking, CAD systems, quality assurance, industrial robotics and even compilers. Through all those experiences I have never found any job as broadly and deeply technically challenging as video game development.

Yet many people unfamiliar with game development really think it’s just mucking about and we spend most of our time playing games. They think they do “serious” software and then they cop an attitude that reeks of “Isn’t it cute that you’re a happy chap who’s done some games, but what makes you think you have the chops to do real coding?” In these moments I defer to the great American wit, Dick Cavett, who, when confronted with a similar situation was quick to quip: “Please don’t mistake my levity for shallowness any more than I mistake your gravity for depth.”

Take some strange people to start with, put them in the position of having their work dismissed and discarded on the word of preteens, then rob them of the respect of their professional peers and you get the video game industry. If that’s not perverse I don’t know what is.

Why do I prefer working in game development? It’s the most challenging and varied type of software I’ve seen, done by the most interesting characters I know. As for the idea it doesn’t get the respect it deserves? Well, there’s an aspect of that which appeals to me as well. At least that’s my perception. . . or perhaps my perversity.

The gaming world may not last forever, but for the foreseeable future I expect it will “perversevere.”

Boxout 1 (149 words):

At some point during virtually every interview I’ve had outside of gaming the interviewer would say, “Oh, you made games?” Chortle.

Many software people don’t take game development seriously. They confuse making games with playing games. When I explain to them that a video game is a real-time control system with zero lag-tolerance, state of the art graphics functionality, artificial intelligence, a quick resolution 3D collision detect system and real-time audio stitching with multi-channel streaming which is dynamically reactive to the environment and that console games have to ship on time and bug free since there is no opportunity for updates or bug-fix releases, well. . . they kind of glaze over a bit. But the attitude persists.

Nowadays I frequently interview game programming candidates and every once in a while I simply cannot resist the opportunity to glance up from the resume and say,

“Oh, you’ve never made games?” Chortle.

Boxout 2 (100 words):

When I graduated from college I was one of very few people with a good deal of experience in microprocessor based real-time control system programming. There were two primary applications for this type of skill at that time: games and the military. Intelligent weapons and cruise missiles were emerging and needed people with my kind of background to make them work. I even interviewed with the National Security Agency (my most frightening interview ever). We had a colorful phrase to describe this choice: “you can either entertain people or kill them for 12 cents a head.” I made my choice.

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