Jason Rohrer's story: how to get off the rails and do what you want with your life.

(This is an interview I did years ago, for another – now unavailable – set of interviews called "The Weirdness Studies", where I interviewed people doing weird and fantastic things. I really loved listening to Jason's story, so I got his permission to share it with you. This was a conversation, and has been edited for clarity. –A)  

So, how did you choose your weird career?

 

Right, right, so basically you want to know how I got off the rails? I went to college for computer science. When I was in school, there was no such thing as studying video games or game design. There was a big video game industry, but there was no mention of it in academia at all. I don’t know that I was particularly interested in becoming a game designer back then – at the time I had a dream of making 3-D graphics for movies, working for someone like LucasArts.

So I went into college to study programming and computer graphics, but after doing some graphics and stuff for a while I got a little disillusioned with it. I got interested in artificial intelligence and distributed systems and operating systems and peer-to-peer networking and other stuff I was in college, and then I came out of college and went on to graduate school. There I was still doing stuff like hypertext systems, and I made a big anonymous peer-to-peer search and download kind of file sharing system, and other stuff like that.

Then I left my PhD program, had a baby, and realized I didn’t want to continue to be in grad school and work on the thesis while being a parent. My wife and I had some savings set aside, so we moved to a tiny town in upstate New York and bought a house for very cheap, and decided we could live for four or five years on our savings if we lived really frugally, while our baby was young, with the idea that eventually our child would go to school,  and we’d get jobs then.

During that time I spent time parenting and I also spent time working on my own projects. I had as much time as I wanted to work on my own projects, with no real constraints: the projects I was working on didn’t have to bring in money or didn’t have to meet some certain criteria, I could just work on whatever I wanted. So it was during that time that I said “well, why don’t I try making a game now, after all these years of programming” and I made and released some games and I slowly got sucked into the independent game design community, where it became more and more part of my life.

So I stopped working on peer-to-peer stuff and some of the other stuff I had been working on. After about four years of living like that, well, various things brought me a little bit more money here and there, and we had enough money for another year. So then we saw that it was actually working, sort of becoming self-sustaining. We also decided that we didn't want our kid to go to school. We hadn’t really thought about it before, but we decided to homeschool. So our life just kept rolling in that direction, and the idea of someday going back and getting a real job was less and less feasible.

So we just kind of got off the rails temporarily and found out that being off the rails was so good that we never got back on.

What do you think lead you to choose this life?

 

I was born in 1977, so I’m the primary target age for someone who’s played video games his whole life, so making a game is kind of like being a baseball player or making your own rock album. It’s kind of in the back of your mind, but it’s so out of reach, because making a video game is so hard: I'd been programming in eight years or something like that before I successfully made a game.

Along the way everyone around us was sort of questioning what we were doing, of course – from our parents, to our relatives, to our friends who had real jobs and had stayed on the rails – asking us “why you guys doing this?” or “is this really going to work?”.

Especially for me as a man...if a woman is a stay-at-home parent in this day-and-age I guess some people whisper behind her back, or whatever –  like “didn’t she have any ambition?” but for a lot of women, especially modern women in modern parenting circles, it seems to be okay. But for the man to do it… maybe if the woman has a really high-powered career the man can be a stay-at-home parent – maybe – and people don’t kind of look sideways at him, but most of them are like “what’s wrong with you, dude? Can’t you go out and get a job? Can’t you support your family? All these bills are going to be coming and how are you going to pay them?"

We were basically minimizing our bills to the point that they didn’t exist.

 

Did you have people doubt your path? How did you deal with them?

 

It wasn’t a challenge for me, it just sort of bolstered my desire to stick with it because I wanted to prove everyone wrong. You know, I’ve always sort of been a contrary, Devil’s advocate kind of guy – the one who kind of questions these accepted truths about how everything “has to be”, and “that’s just the way it’s done”.

I've always been, even as a child, I’ve always asked “why do we have to do it that way? Just because always been that way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it." Trying this experiment and sticking with it, and having everyone doubt us just sort of helped.

It was tiring I guess to have to keep defending ourselves over and over again. Finally it’s like “Okay, here I am in Esquire magazine in the genius issue. Now is that good enough for you?” I guess I kind of proved that this five-year thing was worth it because of what came out of it... but now it's “are you making a money yet?”

 

What kind of resistance did you face, and how did you overcome it?

 

I’m really fond of arguing, I guess, so I just kind of argued with people a lot more – you know, pointed out holes in their arguments.

If you actually look at what you’re spending money on, as compared to the amount of money that’s coming in, the actual money you need to survive – you realize that most of the money that you’re spending is in order to support the job that you have. Once you cut out all those job related expenses, you realize that you actually don’t need to spend all that money to survive.

For example, in order to have a job you have to live near the job, and where there are really good jobs that pay good money there is expensive living, because everyone’s living there because they all have jobs: therefore a good chunk of money is going to cover the fact that you’re living in this place that’s expensive. Whereas if you can live somewhere not so expensive, like upstate New York, and you can buy a house without a mortgage, then your expenses go down.

Without a job, you’ll also have more of your own time so you can cook more of your food – a lot of people who work jobs are so tired at the end of the day that they just have to buy expensive convenience foods, and they go out to eat a lot more. They’re also so dead that they have to buy some sort of entertainment to make themselves sane over the weekend.

Some of the needs you used to have start to fall away because you no longer are supporting the job.

Another is reliable transportation! With a job you need a car, you need a good car, or both people need good cars because you both have jobs, and so then you have these expensive car loans. So when you actually look at your expenses you realize that 60% to 70% of the money you’re making at the job is actually being spent to keep you able to keep going to your job.

So having those arguments with people was basically what I was doing and proving to people how little money we were actually spending. For me, I’m the type of person who was always going a different way and is sort of proud to be doing it. I guess other people can kind of get beaten down by that and feel like that if everyone’s against them – that they just can’t deal with all the pressure around them – I guess you just kind of have to keep a thick skin and keep doing what you believe is interesting and what you want to do, in the face of all that criticism.

 

How have you been able to affect other people’s lives with your work?

 

I’ve been making games that lots of people have downloaded, or bought, or played, or whatever – and they have affected people in various ways... and I guess through this life I spend a lot of time with my children. Of course, even with the amount of time that I’ve spent with them I still... my oldest child is nine years old now and is almost as tall some of my friends – even with all the time I’ve spent with him it really feels like it went by very quickly, and I feel like I was so caught up in everything that I missed a lot of those moments, I guess.

On the other hand I don’t have huge regrets, like wishing I hasn't worked so hard, or traveled so much, or something like that, because I was home for pretty much that entire nine-year period. So being able to have that kind of relationship with him and being able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with him and my other children every day, and taking them out in the afternoon to spent time with them has definitely had an impact on their lives.

I didn’t really get to spend that much time with my father – he worked a lot and came home a little bit late most days. I spent time with him on the weekends, but I was definitely away from him eight hours a day while was at school and he was at work.

 

Have you ever lived someone else’s life – conformed to what other people expected of you?

 

Well, I did go to school... I went to school from the time I was four until the time I was 23 or 24, so that’s a long time in school. Looking back at it now, when I ask myself why I was doing that, It’s because that’s what I was told I was going to do. I went along through it, went into grade school and in high school applied to college.

Then my first little movement off the rails was in college. Instead of accepting that I was going to go to college for four years and get a job, which is basically what everyone supposed to do, I started thinking of going to grad school and getting into academia, which was one sort of small step away from the rails.

Academia is kind of not a real job, you can do what you want and do your own research and it seemed like the best possible way to do what I wanted to do with my life – you don’t necessarily have a boss and so on. But still… pretty “on the rails” way of doing it.

My parents were a little bit disappointed, you know, “You’re going to be a professor? Oh, they don’t make any money” and so without really realizing it, it was almost like I didn’t even realize there was any other possibility in the world: I was just going to college and finishing school – what other possibility was there?

My world was so closed. The idea of dropping out of college never even occurred to me.

I have friends now who are extremely successful video game designers, I talk to them now and they’re like “Oh, yeah – I dropped out of college” and I’m like “Wow, I never even thought of that” . It wasn't terrifying or anything, it never just occurred to me.

I guess it was such a natural transition from one thing to another that I really didn’t question breaking away from it. It’s kind of funny and a little bit disturbing, the very first thing I ever encountered that really made me think about going off the rails or that the idea that going off the rails was possible was when I was reading in the newspaper about Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Now, he obviously did some horrible things and really hurt and killed some people. But he was this professor with a PhD from Harvard – he was a guy who was pretty much was as mainstream as you can be in terms of success in the world. Then he decided to break away from that, and was living out in the woods someplace.

That idea that somebody would do that – that someone really smart would want to do that – not that they would want to bomb people and hurt people, but that they would want to get off the rails and go live in a cabin in the woods and that would be a fulfilling life.  So after hearing about him I was always talking to my friends, asking them “why do you guys want to go get jobs? You don’t really need a job. Who needs a job? You don’t need a job, you don’t need money: you need shelter, clothing, a house – you don’t need money” and you know having those kinds of arguments with people and thinking about it, and I was thinking of some sort of exit, but dropping out never occurred to me.

Anything else you would like to share?

 

In living this way for the past eight or nine years I’ve encountered a lot of people who look at our life and are sort of jealous. They're like “Oh my gosh, you don’t go to work? Oh my gosh you don’t have this? You don’t have that? You don’t have to do this? Aw, I hate my job, I wish I could be like you.”

I think that a lot of people are just terrified of taking the leap, and can’t imagine taking that kind of risk – or they feel that it’s too scary even though they want to. I guess I feel like there isn’t that much risk – you know you can always go back and get a job later if it doesn’t work, and you should at least try it – especially when you’re younger and you have less responsibility and you don’t have children to take care of, and so on.

You should be flexible with your life and try some experimental things...see what works and see if you can live a dream that might seem impossible to you; don’t be afraid of taking the leap. You can always patch things up later, it’s not like you’re going to end up homeless on the street – living under a bridge some place, freezing to death – you can always come back, if you have to.

And...I would warn people that a lot of people who have looked at us and wished they could do what we’re doing, but can’t, are stuck because of the debt they’re saddled with. My wife and I were lucky that we came through college without any debt, our parents had college savings for the both of us, but most of the people we know are saddled with the whole huge amount of college debt and are stuck working some job they don’t like in order to pay that back, over the course of decades, and they just can’t leave.

So I would caution people who are considering college, to not just automatically take out a huge amount of debt and assume that it will be worth it: for a lot of people it’s not worth it. There is this huge, looming debt crisis coming, where people are coming out of college not able to get jobs to pay back their loans.

So don’t get into debt because that really restricts your ability to make your own choices later on down the line.

Thanks for the chat! Amazing story.

 

I'm proud to be weird!

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Learn more about Jason and this games here.