News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Introducing an 'old dork'

In 2015, when my nephew Eli was about 9 years old, I explained “Dungeons & Dragons” to him while my daughter Alyx was present. I left the room after delivering a long-winded monologue where I told him that I’d started playing D&D when I was his age and that it had inspired me to write stories and helped me make new friends. He seemed to be chewing thoughtfully on my revelations.

Later, Alyx informed me: “Dad, after you left, he said to me, ‘You know, your dad is kind of an old dork… no offense.’”

In late 1993, when we lived in Seattle, my wife brought me the Sunday paper and pointed out a tiny job ad seeking editors for an unnamed roleplaying game company. I’d been working downtown since the beginning of the year in a converted autobody shop with windowless cinderblock walls, proofreading municipal codes. I had recently been promoted and trained as an indexer. I hated it.

Knowing that most independent game companies struggled to survive, I answered the ad without much hope. Within a few days I received a package from a “Wizards of the Coast,” not exactly the name of a blue-chip company. Their editing test comprised several pages of a badly punctuated and inconsistent key to a map that detailed a fantasy metropolis. The enclosed letter instructed me to mark up the pages and attempt to catch all the mistakes. I turned the test around in a couple of days, and then I heard nothing back: not the following week, nor the next, nor the next, and I put it out of my mind. Meanwhile, feeling desperate about my career prospects, I spiraled into clinical depression that obliged me to quit my job.

Three months later found me playing “Doom” at my computer, when the roleplaying-game company unexpectedly phoned and asked if I’d come down to Renton to interview. I wanted to quickly dismiss them. After all, I didn’t need a poverty-wage gig that would probably end up as dispiriting as the one I’d just left. And what’s more, they’d interrupted my good run at slaughtering demons and zombies.

With the handset balanced on my shoulder and fingers still on the keyboard, I bluntly asked what they were paying.

“Eleven an hour to start.”

I hit pause.

That was a FORTUNE.

“Wizards” flagship product, a card game called “Magic: The Gathering,” created by math professor Richard Garfield, was climbing an exponential sales curve, and the company promised I could work on their roleplaying games after I’d edited the vampire-themed follow-up to “Magic” that Richard had just finished. Each weekend, Richard drove from Whitman College to Renton to oversee his projects, and before my official start date, I met with him several times so he could teach me his games.

Richard and his cohort of highly educated colleagues (like Jonathan Tweet and Skaff Elias, who have made guest appearances at Paulina) impressed me with what statistics brought or could bring to games, even the roleplaying games that I thought of primarily as an exercise in storytelling.

I asked Richard once what led to his becoming a designer, and he said, “Life is a game.” A year earlier my dad had observed, “Life is hard,” just when I needed that confirmation, and both struck me as sage pronouncements. Life is a hard game that becomes unnecessarily hard when we haven’t figured out how, or even why, to play. My work at “Wizards” led me to an interest in game theory and equipped me with a more strategic career outlook. For example, I realized that if I’d viewed the municipal code job as an opportunity to gain skills and set myself a firm one-year deadline for getting out, my life would have followed the same path with a fraction of the angst. I got a better perspective on what academic pursuits and work options might be approached as a fun game and which would be losing propositions.

After three years at “Wizards,” I took a year off to work on publishing projects and attend a science-fiction writing workshop. During my hiatus, “Wizards” purchased the parent company of “Dungeons & Dragons,” and I hoped to make my dad swallow a rhetorical question he’d leveled at me when I was in high school: “What do you think you’re going to do for a living? Work on ‘Dungeons & Dragons’?”

However, the newly acquired team dragged their feet on the question of my rehire, and I became the editor of Microsoft’s Internet Gaming Zone instead. From there, I founded an e-book publishing company and worked my way into programming an e-commerce site and other database-driven web applications, transitioning primarily to software development, which I’ve done full-time for the past two decades.

Within a year after my rebuke by Eli, I had my revenge. He’d adopted the persona of Viz the Wizard in a D&D campaign I’d started up for him, his brother Max, and their friends Lex, Gavin, Chester, and others. Nineteen Sisters kids total joined their adventures at one time or another, along with my daughter and a few parents and other adults. As the game was winding down, my sister Katie, an occupational therapist, asked me to mentor a kid at the high school who’d been going through difficulties. I played some Magic with him and his friends, and after I got to know them, they asked if I’d teach them to program computer games, which I did once a week until COVID ended the experiment.

Now both groups of students have grown up, but a new class has begun forming gaming clubs at school and attending regular “Magic: The Gathering” nights at Paulina Springs, and as AI comes bearing down on us all, I plan to integrate it with game-programming instruction to offer generally useful skills to anyone interested. We’ve got a fantastic little town offering all kinds of opportunity for adventure, and I look forward to relating what my fellow dorks get up to.

 

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