Because I know I’ve made it confusing, it went:
- I spend two years learning how to actually be a student;
- then there was the SJ Games raid and the hacker crackdown;
- weeks later, I moved back to Austin;
- after taking two years getting a design degree, I take a job at Steve Jackson Games;
- then six months later was the Secret Service trial, and everything after;
- eventually I end up in California, and the whole story changes again.
First, here’s how I arrived at getting a design degree.
For about a year after getting suspended after my first year in college, I’d tried to press on into computer programming but I was frightened as hell that I would only ever be mediocre.
A big part of me still insisted that whatever I ended up learning or doing, there should be some aspect of it that was somehow fun, and all the programmers I knew were much, much better than I was, and it didn’t even look they were having any fun. I was even dissuaded by my dad, who had essentially been an early computer programmer in the Air Force. He was in personnel, which in American business culture we now call Human Relations or HR, and while he never one time thought of himself as a programmer (that I remember hearing about) it was his job to take mission requirements — such as must speak Vietnamese and also be diving-certified, to make up an example — and find the right personnel for the job.
It was a nice desk job, I’m sure, punching a series of long cards in exactly the right way to form exactly the right request which he then fed into a computer, which then did a search of all the folk it knew about and turned up the best people for the specified job. He was kind of like a recruiter, for people who kill people, though I thought he was undeniably a programmer. I think he didn’t think he’d ever been a programmer because in his world you only used a computer if you didn’t have someone more junior than you to use it for you, that’s how much of a pain in the ass it was.
If there were actual great programmers who were cool people and happy most of the time and easy going and reasonably well-socialized, I hadn’t met them. It didn’t sound fun being a mediocre programmer, is what I’m saying. Having already made peace with myself as a mediocre dancer, I had a hard time seeing a path forward. Luckily, I had a chance to get my basic courses out of the way before worrying about what I’d do for an actual college degree.
I’ve no memory of when the answer came to me. It’s too bad that, unlike when the Grinch got his wonderful, awful idea, we rarely have single, life-changing realizations which in one moment shift us radically and irrevocably down one long path or another. There’s usually a build up, or a long burn down, into change. Maybe it feels sudden, but with me, at least, it nearly always turns out to have been a series of cascading thoughts, one after another, like building a Lego sculpture without instructions, or a model, or any clue as to either how many or which pieces you have in the box. Then suddenly the true shape of the thing comes out and you race down the then-obvious path toward completion.
Still, by late 1989, it occurred to me that I was lucky enough to love computers, in a world where most people didn’t yet get how awesome they are, so I figured I should work with that. Computers were not going away, they’re only getting more interesting and more accessible to people who hadn’t yet gotten how awesome computers can be.
Computers were mostly becoming more accessible to average people by laying a graphical interface on top of the normal complexity. I wasn’t going to be a programmer, yet it felt crucially important to understand what the computer does under the hood, beneath the graphics, because knowing what’s really going on with something gives you power that people can’t usually tap into.
While most people saw users and programmers and nothing much in between, I imagined a kind of super-user, someone who knew how the system worked in its deep, dark details and who could use that knowledge to bend the system, to make it do something that other people couldn’t do.
Only years later did I realize that I’d taken a twisty path back around to rationalizing a career as a kind of hacker, all because I refused to let go of the stupid dream that had led me to want to combine computers and dance in the first place. The root of the dream was wanting to tell stories. In the early 1990s, the clearest intersection of art and technology in the service of a kind of storytelling was in what they called Desktop Publishing, which we now simply call “How everything gets published.”
But the scope of what was then desktop publishing wasn’t serious enough for me. I didn’t want to make baby shower invitations. I wanted to tell stories. So moving back to Austin, I first enrolled in the School of Art in order to improve my eye, then I quickly moved into the graphic design track in order to improve my mind.
It went really well. For the first time, I was doing work I really liked. Also, I was learning skills that would get me not just some random job out of college, but likely a decent one.
When I called the Mentor, while wrapping up my final college courses, he asked me what I wanted to do with my degree.
“I wanna make stories, really,” I said.
“How about games?” he asked. “Would you wanna make games?”
Yes, I did, I simply never thought it an option.
I would not end up working at Steve Jackson Games to make games, not at first, but I would — though as with most good things worth trusting, it would not come easily.