Game culture and engineering culture

October 5, 2008

I’ve never liked games. I didn’t get into D&D or Pacman as a teenager; bridge and poker put me to sleep about the time most people feel they’re just getting warmed up; I lack the reflexes for video games, even really slow ones like Wii Bowling or Sim City; and I can’t even imagine learning the rules to Settlers of Catan (although it always amuses me to hear players muttering things like “I must have sheep!”). On the two occasions I’ve forced myself to gamble in Vegas — on the nickel slots, no less — the experience was duller than life itself.

It’s probably the area in which I am the least engineer-like, and I’ve always been somewhat self-conscious about it. A shared love of games is embedded in engineering culture to the extent that people have become completely lazy and herd-thinkily unquestioning about it. Programming classes are almost invariably taught using games as the use case of choice. The vast majority of job interviews in Silicon Valley feature “brain teasers” that are supposed to measure your “raw horsepower” by means that are even more bullshit than the GREs. After hours, game nights are one of the most common social events in the Valley. Even my beloved Rands in Repose, in most matters the most reasonable and insightful of men, unhesitatingly defines nerds as those who most love toys and puzzles. I wonder how many non-gamers — who I’m guessing are mostly chicks — see this type of stereotype perpetuated over and over before deciding engineering must not be for them.

I really struggled with this “deficiency” for a long time, until finally it occurred to me: it’s not GAMES per se that define an engineer. I think a more general formulation might be that engineers are drawn to meaningless technical challenges with lots of rules and/or quantitative data (e.g. “scores”) to geek out on — and by that standard, I am easily in the fold. It’s just that interviewers don’t think to ask whether you’ve undertaken bizarre chick tasks like designing knitted garments using mathematical principles, planning long trips while optimizing over multiple variables, calculating the gear ratio when converting your bike to a fixie, or embarking on Iron-Chef style challenges to maximize the amount of nutrition per calorie for a given menu.

My point isn’t that games are bad, but that they’re limited and inevitably exclusionary and quite likely somewhat gendered. What if you, as an interviewer, had to expand your notion of “general interest” domains? What if you just weren’t allowed to ask puzzle questions? What if you were specifically enjoined to judge candidates’ interests by their real-world applicability — in which case trip planning would come in miles ahead of Grand Theft Auto or WoW for most of us? How would engineering be different?

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