My Holy Grail, At Last?

Anyone who has been around this weblog for long enough has realized that I care a lot about mainly two categories of things. The first is Girls, and specifically how to entice an especially awesome, as-yet-unpinpointed one to eventually marry me. The second is The Stuff I Am Passionate About. This second category is usually seen in long diatribes about how I have so many passions that the thought of finding one thing to do in my life (my life’s project, so to speak) is incredibly daunting. I usually think of such pursuits as falling under one of the following headings: Philosophy, Theology, Music, Language, Coding, Writing, or Design. Importantly, I’m interested in the creative elements of each.

I often laugh derisively at any suggestion that these things could be combined into a single role or project; for what pursuit can bring together such disparate fields as philosophy and computer programming, not to mention the others? It struck me today that maybe there is such a project: the design and implementation of a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), of which the current most popular example is World of Warcraft.

Clearly, since a MMORPG is a piece of software, it involves coding. But it also involves World Design–the overarching story and history of a fantastical place (a la The Silmarillion, my favorite book). Clearly creating such an immersive world involves a foray into philosophy (and probably theology, since worlds without magic or arcane technology are boring). Beyond that, what can provide more immersion than Tolkien’s strategy of language creation? Of course, histories of entire civilizations and languages need to be conveyed in as powerful and encompassing wording as possible, thus requiring a skilled writer. Finally, what is a venture into an unknown world without the appropriate stunning visual and audio design? The score would need to be more immense than any 2-hour movie.

Well, there it is! It doesn’t seem like anything important is missing. And it certainly explains my fascination with the concepts behind MMORPGs in the first place. Unfortunately, I don’t know that working for a MMO house would be fulfilling at all to me; curiously, I don’t know why. I certainly don’t think that a life spent to encourage the use of the imagination is wasted–Tolkien and Lewis are my heroes precisely for that reason. Maybe it’s just that my experience with MMORPG culture has made me doubt whether the kind of imagination encouraged is actually of any enduring value. I suppose that at the end of the day I do believe that imagination has a function–that of re-envisioning a broken and fractured reality–and I don’t know that World of Warcraft really inspires this, rather than a mindless grind for powerful virtual items that give one a sense of superiority over other players.

Maybe that’s the difference between The Silmarillion and World of Warcraft–since The Silmarillion is a story, it asks you to enter in and wander around by yourself, unlocking experiences with the imagination. Warcraft, on the other hand, is unavoidably a game, and one not of collaborative imagination as often as competitive un-imagination. (What I mean by unimagination is that many players purposefully de-mystify any imaginative elements in MMORPGs, reducing it to the underlying code systems, so that they might more easily “win” the game. My motivations in playing MMORPGs, on the other hand, are generally rather to have an immersive, imaginative experience). Perhaps there are ways to create a game like this; perhaps that is what real-life role-playing groups find attractive about their sessions (which frankly don’t appeal to me, for some reason); however, I doubt that, even given the possibility of designing such a game, that the result would be compelling to enough people to build a multi-million-dollar franchise on top of (which seems to be the point of most computer games).

But what do you think, O Reader? Should I go try and get hired by Blizzard? I haven’t said anything about the physical pursuits I enjoy (which are also many), or about any actual positive results of work for the poorer and more downtrodden in the world (who might not be able to afford my computer game). What is there to say about that? (But note that I’m not asking the question, “Was Tolkien wrong in writing his novels when he could have been helping poor children elsewhere, very materially?” since I take it for granted that the answer’s no.)

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan has been making things out of code as long as he can remember. Jonathan is the architect and project lead for Appium, the popular open source automation framework. He is also the founding Principal of Cloud Grey, a consulting firm devoted to helping clients leverage the power of Appium successfully. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over 15 years, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver, he’s an avid musician, and also writes on the philosophy of technology.

6 replies on “My Holy Grail, At Last?”

It’s always very exhilarating when you combine passions into one particular role. This one seems to combine many of them for you, and that’s awesome.

I think the bottom line for you is one of lifestyle. Would you be willing to work 16 hour days to build this? Silicon Valley tends to build awesome things in ways that prevent other passions.

I wish I had some insightful advice for you! Have you considered convening a so-called “clearness committee”?

I have analyzed my own life / career decisions every way I can think, and I feel like I can’t really get past some gut feelings and what feels like some general divine inclinations. To borrow from what I thought was a decent line from what everybody agrees was a poor sequel, I feel like I’ve already decided what I need to do, now I need to understand my choice.

Too bad we can’t sit down over a nice cup of coffee in that Menlo Park cafe anytime soon… it would be interesting to compare career / major life decision notes.

Thanks for the reactions, guys. I pretty much take it that I’m not going to go work for a game development house, but my surety there confused me in this case because, on the surface of things, it does look like it could be a good fit. But I’m not serious enough about that idea to convene any “clearness committees” 🙂 There is certainly also the question of lifestyle, as Justin says; EA would not be a good choice, likewise any big publisher, and there really aren’t any small ones, as far as I have heard. (Maybe that’s because an MMO is “massive” in terms of the work required to create it in addition to its subscriber base… How could just one person create such a huge thing?)

Mike, it has been too long since you last visited! My coffee shop chats are few and far between, and there certainly needs to be more of them. Also, the Matrix: Reloaded was not a horrible sequel!

Pavi, thanks for distilling the essence of the post; I’m really interested to hear what other roles you think can draw so many seemingly-disparate skills under that one roof of re-envisioning?

Jonathan, it sounds like you are struggling with your finitude. Like Pavi distilled, you want “to use every skill, every passion, every bit of energy within you…” I resonate with that sentiment and often pit specialization of function as my arch-nemesis in reaching such a holistic outcome.

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