How Gaming Kickstarted My Career

Video games are commonly seen as a waste of time, but for me they changed my life for the better.

Photo by Rhett Noonan on Unsplash

Being raised in the early 90s, video games became increasingly more prevalent. Though I loved being outdoors as a kid, I was also fascinated with these shiny new electronic toys that kept appearing. From the Sega Genesis and the original Game Boy to the PlayStation 1 and the PC, I had to have a piece of the action.

As technology continued to evolve over the years, the fascination didn’t stop. I was about 10 years old when my oldest brother, Andy, picked me up from school and took me to the local internet cafe. He introduced me to a game that, unknowingly, would change my life in years to come. That game was Counter-Strike. I was hooked.

I looked up to Andy as a teenager. He was this carefree skater dude who played the drums, listened to cool music and made enough money to build his own computers. I was always looking over his shoulder when he was replacing hardware, tinkering in Photoshop or playing CS with his mates. I think this rubbed off on me.

Counter-Strike 1.5 back when it was a simple Half-Life modification.

Well thanks to him, I’d already been playing CS for a few years by the time I was 13. A pretty good team recruited me and I even started to play in a competitive eSports league. Gaming became less about filling time and more about mastering the mechanics of the game. The process of becoming an expert gave me a profound sense of achievement. It was addictive.

There was also the social aspect. If I wasn’t playing, I was on the team forums. And it was here that I first encountered the trend that would be the gateway to my career — forum signatures. These were small, personalised designs that you could add to appear under your posts. Naturally, I wanted to create my own, so I acquired a copy of Photoshop (version 8.0 at the time), and that was it. I’d found my new addiction.

In the same way that I was hooked to mastering the mechanics of games, I had to learn more about this crazy new software. Month after month, I’d experiment with different tools, download hundreds of brush packs and follow heaps of tutorials. Looking back, the stuff I produced was terrible, but I loved it.

Some of the hilariously bad signatures I made when I was 13!

And I wasn’t alone. Other members of my team would take part in sub-forums where we would hold competitions, share artwork and discover techniques. I remember hosting “Signature of the Week” events where members could test their skills against each other and earn small rewards (usually in the form of bragging rights).

At the time I was still in school and like most kids I didn’t know what to do when it was over. I was lost. Since I enjoyed English literature and reading/writing stories in my spare time, I decided to study an advanced diploma in publishing. It was during this course that I had the opportunity to see how my “skills” could be applied commercially. This involved designing stuff like magazine spreads, book covers, adverts and posters.

Finally, I had a sense of direction. Graphic design — now this is something I could do for a living. After two years when the course ended, my lecturers advised me to pursue a degree in creative writing or journalism. Instead, I decided to take my chances and attempt to get a job in design. This wouldn’t be easy and I knew I would have to expand my knowledge further to be taken seriously.

So I joined online communities such as DeviantArt, began following blogs, purchased books and subscribed to magazines. These channels opened up a new world for me. They inspired me to learn new techniques, discover industry professionals and understand more about the design business. These channels also introduced me to other disciplines such as advertising, branding and web design.

“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

It wasn’t all bunny rabbits and rainbows though. I didn’t have any structure around my learning. There was no agenda, no mentor and nobody to reassure me that I was doing the right thing. Without a network of students and teachers around me, I felt alone. I was often demotivated and doubted my own ability to become a professional designer. Months would go by without any progress whatsoever. It was really tough.

But I wasn’t ready to quit. At the time, I was working night shifts at the local supermarket as a freezer boy, and the thought of spending another fucking minute in that icy dungeon was enough to keep me going. I knew that I wouldn’t get anywhere without a portfolio, so I started doing pro bono jobs and side projects so I could showcase my work.

Since leaving college at the age of 18, it took about a year to build up the confidence to put myself out there. After much apprehension and deliberation, I had finally created my first portfolio. I even got it printed into a nice spiral bound book so I could hand out physical copies. I was ready. Now the hardest part… finding a job.

Over the years, I developed a very particular idea around the sort of company I wanted to join. It needed to be somewhere that would both challenge me and support me. I definitely wasn’t willing to settle for any old chop shop. In retrospect I was very stubborn, but the one thing I wouldn’t change is that I didn’t just look at advertised jobs.

Sure, I applied for a few vacancies here and there. But I also spent hours upon hours researching the local agencies and shortlisting the ones I would contact. I lost count of all the emails I sent introducing myself and expressing my interest in working with them. This was crucial as my portfolio wasn’t getting lost in an overflowing inbox of applications. And many companies appreciated the initiative, even if they weren’t hiring.

This helped me build connections and put me at the front of their minds when hiring. I was lucky enough to even get some freelance work out of it. And not only emails. I also picked up the phone and dropped off my portfolio in person. I did anything I could to leave a positive first impression.

Then it happened. At the age of 19, my efforts finally paid off and I was offered my first junior designer role at a small branding agency. It was here that I had my first exposure to the industry and realised that this is what I wanted to do for a living. What I originally thought was an innocent hobby actually turned out to be the first step to the rest of my life. I was ecstatic.

The studio at my first design job.

And that’s how gaming kickstarted my career. It’s been seven years since I got my first design job and a lot has changed since then. I’ve worked on some great projects, moved to Australia, helped grow an award winning startup and am now a UX Consultant at ThoughtWorks. It sounds silly, but if it weren’t for computer games, I doubt I would be where I am today. For that, I am thankful.

Thanks for reading.

Did you play too? Let me know!

Follow me on twitter