How Difficult Video Games Inspire Me in My Career at Microsoft

How Difficult Video Games Inspire Me in My Career at Microsoft

06/19/18 Amanda Lange

As a Software Engineer and former Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, I often have people — sometimes parents — ask me how I got my start in technology. The truth of the matter is, though I’ve been inspired by a lot of different sources over the years, my biggest source of inspiration to start in technology has always been video games. It was video games that made me curious to learn how to use the internet at a young age, so I could look up cheats and tips or just talk about my favorite games with friends all around the world. And it was also those early games that inspired me to learn exactly how they worked, so that I could modify them, with the dream of someday making my own.

Now that I’m an adult, I haven’t stopped playing games. My game library ranges all the way from the most popular games in the world, like the team shooter Overwatch (rated 13+ years), to a long list of lesser-known indie titles. Throughout my career I’ve been an artist, designer, community manager, and developer. I think being willing to try a variety of games also inspires me to try a variety of challenges in the real world. I’d like to discuss some games I’ve found inspirational in my career, and maybe it will encourage people to seek out such games, or think of their own examples.

The game that first taught me how to “hack” was actually a very famous one – the first person shooter Doom (rated 18+ years). Though the game’s content looks primitive now, it was actually pretty scary at the time, and there was some controversy about whether teenagers should play the title. I’m very glad my parents let me, though, because after I got bored with the levels in the game, I discovered that there was a level editor for the game available online. Soon I was able to create my own levels and skins, and share them around the internet. It’s an act that combines design, art, and programming, and can be self-taught at a fairly young age. I heard just the other day that a local high schooler also impressed a tech company by game modding, and had a sudden nostalgia.

Facing off with a Cacodemon in Doom. Source: Author

Other modern games that people might choose to mod:

Another type of game that’s inspired me later in life is difficult action platformers. Games in the masocore genre are very hard action games, but that’s part of their appeal. With difficult levels combined with unlimited lives, the games reward perseverance and courage under fire. The lesson learned from masocore is that it can be safe to fail, as long as you learn something new that helps you try again. That lesson has stuck with me when trying to learn something new gets tough, or just doesn’t work out.

One of many punishing levels from Super Meat Boy. Source

The indie game Super Meat Boy (rated 13+ years) is an example of such a game. Its simple and almost crude presentation hides slick level design. Although I found the game too hard at first, I realized that the trick to the game was typically not to hesitate, but to try to perform levels as quickly as possible. The go fast, fail fast attitude that it promotes helped me to understand game development itself with its design language. Super Meat Boy teaches that it’s better to keep trying, even if you fail, than hesitate and never start the level at all. And in development, a project never started is one also never completed. At the end of each successful level in Super Meat Boy, the game celebrates failure in a small way by replaying, all at once, all the mistakes the player made before finally completing the level. It’s a cute, if messy way to see just how far you’ve come.

Other difficult games that reward fast failure and perseverance:

There is another certain type of game that I’ve found inspirational in the workplace, and that is the puzzle adventure game. As a sharp contrast to action games, these games don’t rely much on reflexes, instead training your mind to find connections among clues in an environment. As a child, I was most fond of the King’s Quest (rated 10+ years) and Myst (rated E for Everyone) series. Now that I’m an adult, these games have grown up a lot, but they are still out there in different forms.

A puzzle from Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. Source

A team-building exercise within my group at Microsoft involved a “Room Escape” game – the type of live entertainment that has become popular around the world, which challenges players to solve puzzles within a locked room. I had never done a live room escape before that exercise. But I had trained my logic muscles on the video games Zero Escape, an adventure puzzle series involving the same kind of locked rooms and logic problems. Because of the Zero Escape series (rated 18+ years) — my favorite game in the series is Virtue’s Last Reward (rated 17+ years), where the story is full of strange twists and interesting characters — I felt confident solving difficult puzzles. And solving these sorts of puzzles can also help train the brain to think through logical problems when writing code. Many puzzle games also test spatial reasoning useful in design, and the skill set to code-switch between these two modes of thought.

Other challenging puzzle and exploration games I’ve found inspirational recently:

This just scratches the surface of games I’ve found inspirational throughout my career, but I hope it gives you a start to checking out some games for yourself. Whether you like to play with fast fingers, or using primarily your brain, there’s always a way to use video games as part of lifelong learning.

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About the Author

Amanda Lange is a Software Engineer at Microsoft in the Philadelphia area. She has worked on projects with Michigan State University, West Virginia University, and Schell Games studios in Pittsburgh. She is a gamer and well-rounded developer who is also interested in health, app development, design, Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality, AI and conversational frameworks, and the Internet of Things. Her website is http://secondtruth.com. She tweets at @second_truth, Twitch streams at twitch.tv/litagemini, and blogs at http://www.tap-repeatedly.com.


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