I had coffee today with a friend of mine who is a computer programmer like myself. It’s always fun to talk shop.
It turns out that our histories have some interesting parallels.
I got into programming when I was 10 years old with the sole intent of becoming a video game creator. My friend Patrick and I even wrote a primitive side-scroller for the Commodore 64 title Mutated Samurai Slugs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage that year. I remember later cutting my teeth in development hell trying to get the Direct X binaries to compile under Borland C++. My goal was to remake the Legend of Zelda. I got as far as the map screen. I wasn’t even allowed to own a Nintendo as my parents were certain it would rot my brain, but all I wanted to do was make games after leaving home.
When I went to college in the fall of ’99, I declared a major of computer engineering for this very purpose. I was quickly derailed by God. Maybe. It would probably be more accurate to say I was derailed by the people of God. I came to the conclusion that a career connected to the “entertainment industry” was a much too worldly endeavor and that to be more pleasing to my Lord Jesus (which I very much wished to do and STILL wish to do), I should choose a redeeming career. Being a missionary to Africa or a pastor was of course the best, but if you couldn’t cut the mustard for that sort of devotion, then being a teacher was considered fairly acceptable. That’s how I eventually ended up with a music degree – with the intent to teach. I threw my enthusiasm for path-finding algorithms, adaptive enemy AI, and my pirated copy of SoftImage in the trash. Gaming was bad for the kingdom of God. Or at least very suspect. Kind of like beer.
My friend worked at Microsoft during much of the late 1990’s developing Office products. When the new XBox team was forming (later to be very successful) he had the opportunity to join them. It would have been much more exciting than working on Outlook. Are you kidding? But no. He ultimately declined for similar reasons as mine.
Fast-forward ten years to today. He’s working on a software driver for an electrical engineering company. The device in question will be used to transmit data for several new U.S. military satellites. As he put it today, “I’m helping to make sure we can more accurately kill people.” His work is very respectable. Nobody would raise an eyebrow as if he had run off to Hollywood.
Myself? I’m also a programmer, though I work mostly with databases and websites. If I do my job well, more people will decide to borrow money chasing after the increasingly dubious rewards of higher education. If they can be convinced to go into even more debt, it’s called “enrollment retention”. Of course my job is very respectable as well.
Looking at the situation, we both asked ourselves, “Are we really any better off now?” We traded helping people kill each other’s spaceships with fake bombs in a fantasy world for helping them kill real people in a not-so-distant desert. We traded spending digital gold doubloons in a pirate adventure or even just Monopoly money for being an accessory to bankrupting our neighbors. Was the gaming “entertainment industry” really that much more evil? One thing is certain: The programming and problem solving was much more fun!
(The picture above is called “Trapped!” from a wonderful and whimsical collection of work by artist Daniel Lieske.)