Brigitte's Story - How Video Games Shaped My Career
A Story by Brigitte Gagne, DaBR Journalist
It was 1986. I was 11 and my grandmother died, leaving my mom an inheritance of a few thousand dollars. My older brother had been earning his engineering degree and convinced my mom that she should use her inheritance to buy us a home computer. He argued that it would help prepare us for what was to come.
My mom abandoned her other plans for the money and brought us home a shiny, new, heavy, bulky IBM PC. It ran on an 8-bit 8088 processor, had dual 5 ¼“ floppy drives, and we paid extra to upgrade it to 512 KB of RAM. It ran DOS 2.0, and came with applications like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 that you booted up from floppy disks. It had a dust cover for when it wasn’t in use. Even a separate one for the keyboard and one for the mouse.
And it was for work. Not for games.
My mom and dad heard somewhere that playing games on the PC would break the keys on the keyboard and permanently burn in the accompanying 4-colour CGA monitor. So the rule was that absolutely no games could be played on the computer. We could write letters, do book reports, and my dad could use it for work. Those were the only allowed uses.
Being kids, we found ways around those rules! We quickly discovered that code on a DOS screen looks pretty similar to anything else you could be legitimately typing up. You can only tell the difference in all those words if you’re up close, looking at the screen. And since everything was stored on floppies, you could simply hide your disk full of games and take them out to play them while no one is watching. So my sister and I started buying books with simple games like Snake, Bowling, and Blackjack typed out in BASIC. All we had to do is type out each line and run it!
Of course, along the way, we ran into the same problems that every coder does. We had typos and missed lines. Sometimes the books themselves had typos or bad logic. Without realizing it, we organically learned the BASIC language. And we taught ourselves to debug our programs (not that we knew that’s what it was called). In time, we were able not only to fix problems, but to adjust the games and make our own variations. It was a great self-paced learning with a real motivator. I’m pretty sure I still have a floppy disk or two somewhere with those early games on it!
Not too long after we’d taught ourselves some coding, my brother brought us home a present from university. My first ever real computer game: a bootleg copy of King’s Quest. The original one where you had to type your (mostly two-word) game commands and move Graham around with the arrow keys. To make it run without the copy protection of an original disk, my brother also brought home a hex editor. Each time you wanted to run the game, you had to open it in the hex editor and make some minor changes to the code. It was my first experience with seeing and editing compiled code. And it threw the door of possibilities wide open for me. It made me daydream about being just like Roberta Williams so I could make my own graphical video games!
Eventually our IBM PC got old enough that it didn’t get covered every day by its beloved dust cover, and we were able to play games even if our parents were nearby. The first ones allowed were educational games. Like Typing Tutor. Oh how I loved playing Letter Invaders. To this day, friends and colleagues are surprised by the speed and accuracy of my typing, and I have that game to thank.
I was one of only a few people I knew who had a computer back then, but when I got to high school, I found others who also gamed on their parents’ computers. And a few lucky kids who had their own. I made new friends by taking computer classes. We traded games, spent hours drawing out maps together, and working on solutions to challenging in-game puzzles before there was Google to find a walkthrough. It was a way for a disparate group of people to bond and work on something together. Age, colour, sex, religion, and even popularity didn’t matter – games and computers were the great connector.
Believe it or not, those early gaming events had a real impact on my life.
After my post-secondary education in Math and Business, I found myself doing software and toolkit support for cryptographic hardware devices. My job was interesting, but I was yearning to do more. I spoke with my boss who gave me a choice. He said I clearly had a head for helping people, and he suggested I become a software developer so I could bring that voice into the product. It was a big question, and one that I didn’t answer right away. I went home and thought it over. I reflected on all that I had learned, on my own and in courses I’d taken. While none of the material prepared me for a job as a C/C++ developer, I knew that I had the capacity to learn to code. Because it all started with learning to type out my own games.
So I took that job as a coder, and spent 10 years of my career in software development. Although I never did work for a gaming company, I still dream about video games I’d like to make!