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Daniel W. Rasmus at the E3 video-game convention.

I thought my video gaming days were over. Most of the arcades were gone, and those that still existed were often broken and sad. I kept promising myself I would find a way to have fun with my computer, but work always won out.

Then came the iPad, and Angry Birds. And then came Steam and virtual reality. Suddenly at 50ish I was playing games again, integrating them into my work and attending conferences where I quickly discovered I wasn’t the only person with grey hair standing in line for the Fallout 4 VR demo.

And then I started thinking about the journey back to gaming. Why gaming, and why now? Here is the journey, and here are the answers as they are for now.

Galaga and early computing

Lunches in the early-1980s often revolved around the Shakey’s Pizza Parlor on Sepulveda Boulevard in Torrance, Calif., and Midway’s Galaga. A couple of slices, a piece of chicken or two and then some gaming.

Photo by Jem Stone, via Flickr.
Photo by Jem Stone, via Flickr.

Galaga was my game. People often found “DWR” at the top of the leader board, and it remained there between visits. When I wandered into other places that housed game consoles, I always had to drop a quarter or two in Galaga as an attempt to leave the DWR legacy on the leaderboard for at least a little while. I even managed it a time or two at Disneyland’s once vaunted Starcade. It was as though I could project my brain into the electronics, yet there was something visceral as my fingers become one with the controllers.

Over the years I tried to bring gaming to my PC experience, first with a rough version of Asteroids that ran on my Radio Shack Model III, then a few games, whose names now escape me, on my 128K Macintosh. But I never found that same oneness with early computers. Part of it was their one-bit graphics, the lack of controllers designed for the experience. And I had to face it. I was trying to develop a career. Computers were for work, so I mastered MultiMate, Borland Paradox and Lotus 1-2-3 with the same aplomb I previously applied to Galaga.

Gaming become a nostalgic turn triggered by a Galaga console, or when my wife and I would sit at a PacMan tabletop waiting for a booth at a local coffeeshop.

The Microsoft Years

While negotiating for my position at Microsoft, gaming became part of the deal. My daughter Rachel demanded that she receive an Xbox as part of the conditions of my accepting the offer. On a final visit to Seattle to work the details, Rachel was presented with a big box wrapped in blue paper. It contained an Xbox, a couple of controllers and several games. They couldn’t say no to her, and I didn’t say no to them.

The Xbox belonged to my daughters, though I did play with them at times. On a visit to the company store I bought Flight Simulator for my PC and invested in a game controller. I promised myself that I would rediscover the joy of gaming and not simply equate computers with work. My focus on the New World of Work took me into uncharted territories of time. My game became master of the executive briefing, or navigating unknown airports in countries new to me. Gaming didn’t seem appropriate to my own personal new world of work.

Eventually Microsoft and I parted ways. Just before that, I created a big PC tower with a Quad Core CPU, three terabytes of storage and a kick-ass Radeon graphics board. I again promised myself time away from work to rediscover the fun held in these boxes. Starting my own business derailed that promise.

My Angry Birds Obsession

Photo by Per-Olof Forsberg, via Flickr.
Photo by Per-Olof Forsberg, via Flickr.

It wasn’t until I discovered Rovio’s Angry Birds on the iPad that I actually found challenge and pleasure in gaming again. And I went all in. When a new level ships I give myself two days to master it. I prefer the earlier version of Angry Birds, not because the puzzles prove simpler (which they do not in later stages) but because they haven’t been completely worked over by the interrupt-driven game design that asserts overly helpful suggestions when trying to learn a level, assaults the senses with advertising and upgrades even for purchased apps. That said, I have three stars on every level of every Angry Birds derivation.

In order to justify my obsession, I wrote 10 Lessons from Angry Birds That Can Make You a Better CIO for IDG’s CIO website. The post went viral, sweeping its way through the Twitter-verse. It was translated into several languages by IDG. I still give the occasional keynote on what some management group can learn from playing Angry Birds.

Gaming Redux

But the resurrection of my gameplay didn’t end with Angry Birds. I started attending E3 and PAX, exploring the confluence of popular culture and gaming where Marvel and DC superheroes and consoles collide. I was struck by the absolute beauty of some of the games, the art and the poetry that went into them, the subtle and often astoundingly captivating soundtracks. Not only had I relinquished gaming to my career, I had also pushed drawing and painting down the stack. I’m even coming around to understanding the role of first-person shooters not as an incentive to violence, but as a cathartic way of dealing with it.

All of this gameplay required better PC hardware than I currently owned. Logitech, Plantronics and Sandisk gear spruced up my nearly decade-old Quad Core tower. A 240GB solid state Sandisk drive made Windows 7 and the games boot incredibly fast. The wireless keyboard and mouse were replaced by a Logitech G410 Atlas Spectrum gaming keyboard, the mouse morphed into a Logitech G3030 Daedalus Apex Gaming Mouse. My head favored the comfort of the Plantronics Rig 500E and its virtual surround sound.

And then came Steam. Modeled on the success of online proprietors like Apple’s App Store, Steam became a portal into the gaming world. As a reviewer I receive Steam Keys to explore new games in hopes that I will write about them. I see games now in early access as they struggle toward minimum viable product. These early games offer developers the opportunity to learn what works and doesn’t, what appeals and what repulses, from a community of gamers around the world.

life-is-strange-logoMy games of choice include spending time as a teenage girl in Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange, a wonderfully imagined quirky world where rewinding time helps make situations better, or worse, depending on the choices made. It seems odd and weird until you think about role playing games as a kind of acting, and acting as a tool for gaining empathy. And I recently started exploring the world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a post-apocalyptic shooter from Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix. As transhumanism looms on our own future, here is a game that thrusts the player into a world devastated by augmented humans. Reestablishing trust plays into the plot early.

These are just a couple of examples. The examples are few because these are not games conquered over lunch or during commercials. Semi-distracting flinging won’t get you there. These are interactive novels that needed me to become a character nearly as much as any author needs to channel a character to write.

I’m not above mastering the latest release of a new Angry Birds level. That proves a different kind of intellectual challenge than games like Life is Strange and Dues Ex. And I also mix other games like Lara Croft Go and a Bejeweled-inspired Star Trek game on iOS. On the PC I’m exploring Doodle God, ARK: Survival Evolved and a fun through back space shooter called Deltazeal.

Keeping promises to myself

So why games and why now? First, I need to keep the promises I made to myself. Computing should be integrated into one’s work and pleasure. If we don’t discover the joy in computing—if we think of computers only as tools, we run the risk of becoming the stereotype of resentment and frustration depicted in clipart and satire. In some ways, I’ve always approached computing as a game, every technical issue or glitch a problem to be solved. The reward arrives as a working device and not a pile of virtual gold coins, but I find pleasure in keeping my electronics running.

Second, unlike pundits who see gaming as a disengagement from society, I see it as social exploration. Where else can you get a first-person view of the life of an awkward teenage girl, told not through the narrative of a film, but experienced first person as she lives out her virtual life? Where else can one become an augmented human, making choices about upgrades one moment, and facing moral dilemmas about using them the next? The answer is only in games. Games encourage agile thinking by forcing people into situations they would never face in the real world — situations that threaten their life, puzzle their mind or transport them into a future that might not be what their rational mind imagines. If social movements want others to understand their plight, they should invest in game development. Create experiences not sermons.

Finally, as virtual and augmented reality matures, these experiences will become more mentally connected, more immersive and more pervasive. If we can use today’s games to become better thinkers, more self-aware, more mindful of the perspectives of others, virtual and augmented reality will potentially take that to a new level. Rather than just our fingers and eyes as limited conduits between mind and machine, these new technologies will take us in completely. They swallow the real world and replace it — or they overlay it, creating a digital sixth sense that provides new forms of access to the world around us.

As I think about the future, the speculative insights offered to my clients would be incomplete, perhaps even disingenuous, if I didn’t just watch the gaming market, but understand it from the inside. While Big Data, machine learning and the Internet of Things converge to reshape the digital landscape, the human landscape will be reshaped by games just as it always has been. On the savannas of Africa our ancestors survived because they played the game of life better than their peers. Tomorrow’s realities will be increasingly virtual, and those who survive and thrive in the future will need skills and awareness best mastered not by reading, but by playing.

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