When does commitment to game development tip over into obsession?

In a bit of news relating to an entirely other kind of classic gaming, I recently celebrated my 13th wedding anniversary. Which was very lucky for me, and I guess I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. In honour of this fact, I would like to explain how this relates directly to the topic of classic gaming of the video kind.

You see, this wasn’t my first foray into the world of matrimony (far from it, truth be known), and in point of fact I had a previous marriage which took place while I worked at Atari. To point a little further, I married another Atari employee (which is not a development that classic gaming is about, but all this did take place with classic game development all about). Now, I should further say that I wasn’t at work at Atari during the ceremony – though it wouldn’t be far from the truth, since I did work almost all the time at Atari (out of pure desire, if not warped need). This fact led to a divorce from a prior marriage shortly after I started at Atari, clearing the way for the marriage I had while at Atari. The during-Atari wedding happened on a weekend holiday in Las Vegas – though not spontaneously, we had planned to marry in Las Vegas.

For my current marriage, I was a tad jittery in the run-up to our big day 13 years ago. Why the jitters? Well, I hadn’t been married in over two decades, so I was hoping to remember how to do it. And in additional fact, perhaps I was hoping to make a better go of it this time round since the prior attempts were successful enough to leave me legally available for this marriage. In any case, the gaming industry in general (and the classic gaming world in particular) has a reputation for being very hard on relationships, and that reputation is earnestly earned. So this month I thought a little discussion of the why and the how would be in order.

Who better to shed some light than two other veterans of the video game family court system, none other than Tod Frye and Nolan Bushnell? They say it beautifully in episode one of the Once Upon Atari documentary series:

Nolan: “What happens is your life becomes seamlessly integrated with your projects.”

Tod: “I was so intensely involved with [developing Swordquest: Fireworld on the Atari 2600] at the time, that I didn’t remember my best friends’ names. I didn’t remember people’s names. I remembered my co-workers’ names – I saw them every day.”

Nolan: “Several of the programmers ended up running into personal or family or wife problems. You know, because the passion sometimes becomes all-consuming and squeezes out the significant others.”

This was so true. Not all, certainly, but many of the programmers (and most of the successful ones) had social lives that were either troubled or non-existent. And we weren’t simply nerds incapable of engaging socially. We were dynamic and interesting people, but many of us were hell-bent on creating something original, cool, and fun, and we did that to the practical exclusion of virtually everything else in the world.

Programmer Tod Frye was one of Atari’s more high-profile developers, with his work including Atari 2600 hits Pac-Man and the Swordquest series

It wasn’t about being a workaholic, it was more insidious. A driving need, bordering on obsession, to pursue the elusive answer to a lifelong riddle waiting around the corner just out of reach. That sounds a bit melodramatic. Perhaps it was just the fervent desire to bring joy to countless teens or to author a million seller or to be master of the machine, culling magic out of precious few registers and bytes of RAM. Maybe it was just to make something special and, by virtue of the act, become someone special. Whatever the motivation, the end result was the same, and no one ever phrased it better than Tod in episode one: “It was my family, it was my home, it was my job. It was my future… my past… my hopes and my fears… it was everything. Atari was everything to me.”

That’s how we felt, and it was a bond that unified us. We saw stories about “addicted” teens who never left home, unable to pry themselves from a controller… and we’d smile. Behind the scenes we were the enablers, the people who never went home. Consequently, it became just as Tod said, we were with our family at work and home was where we felt “away”. This was a lesson I learned about succeeding in the corporate world.

Hollywood gossip columns exist because the entertainment industry is rife with brief high-intensity relationships. Why? That’s the structure of creative projects. Most artistic productions (video games included) require intense focus and near-total consumption of one’s time during the project. This forces a small band of interdependent people to spend all their time together in an isolated environment full of tension and arousal. This creates the illusion of bonding (which is really just stress reactions seeking relief). Generally speaking, entertainers are a tad highly strung and insecure to begin with. When you lay on the tension, they go running for cover and start pairing up. But soon the storm passes, bonds are shed, and people scurry away in search of a next project with the promise of new bonds, better bonds. That’s entertainment!

Fortunately, I came to appreciate how this outlook undermined me in many ways. Unfortunately, unlearning is a slow process. But even more fortunately, I finally did graduate from the school of work-in-perspective. My graduation present is a 13th anniversary and the actuality of a beautiful life I am a part of rather than apart from. And I know I’m better equipped to appreciate this new life now because I clearly remember a time when Atari was everything to me, too.

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