The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Requiem for a Dream Job

A dream of mine — or, more specifically, a dream job of mine — may be dying. At the very least it’s in the ICU of broken dreams. The doctors are stumped. The priest has been called.

I haven’t written much lately about my longstanding love of computer/video games. It started back when I was growing up. We got a gaming console. I don’t recall what kind it was, but (and I’m dating myself here) it played Pong.

For those who don’t remember or are too young to remember Pong, it looked something like this.

And played something like this.

Then came the Commodore VIC 20. (Even then I longed to upgrade to a Commodore 64, or at least get a tape drive for the VIC 20, but that was too expensive according to my folks.)

And I graduated to Space Invaders, which looked like this.

And played like this.

Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m old. I realized this yet again when I took Parker to a birthday party at Chucky Cheese, and — there in the arcade — I saw it. I misted up a bit at the sight of a Space Invaders game there in Chucky Cheese. I waved Parker over to show it to him. I started to tell him how this was one of the first computer games Daddy ever played. (And, played well, if I may say.)

But Parker was under-whelmed in that way that only a six-year-old can be when a 40-year-old is trying to show him something “Really cool.”

What was I thinking? Showing Space Invaders to a kid who’s been playing Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga since we got the Wii back in December? (Yes, the Wii was just as much for Daddy as it was for Parker.) We moved on to Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Batman since then. Needless to say, Parker and I have bonded over video games. I’m currently helping him play through all six episodes in Lego Star Wars.

In between now and then there was Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Sim City (the whole franchise), the Sims, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Spore, and too many others to name.

Since becoming an adult, I’ve always had in the back of my mind an idea about how cool it would be if I’d grown up to be a professional gamer.

A few years ago, Johnathan Wendel was just another kid in high school with a yen for playing fast-paced computer games such as “Quake III.”

Nowadays, the 22-year-old is drawing the attention of MTV documentarians, courting endorsements from major chipmakers and launching his own PC line, all based on those same “Quake” skills.

By most standards, Wendel, better-known as Fatal1ty, is the top star on the burgeoning tournament gaming scene, in which computer gaming buffs compete head-to-head in shooting games such as “Quake” and “Unreal Tournament,” gunning for fame and five-digit prize packages.

Wendel was one of the first tournament gamers to go pro. Gaming has been his life the past few years, and he estimates he earns an average of $50,000 a year from tournaments, not counting perks such as free travel to the top tournaments and increasingly lucrative endorsement contracts from tech companies looking to boost credibility with the lucrative hardcore gamer market. Now he’s working on plans to sell his own high-end line of Fatal1ty-branded PCs.

But don’t get too jealous. He travels too much to settle down and still lives in the basement of his father’s house.

Well, OK. All but the part about living in your parents’ basement. The rest still sounds cool. I just never got around to figuring out how to do it.

Too bad I never got around to it. Now, it may be too late, because professional gamers are now having to get “real jobs.”

Until recently, Emmanuel Rodriguez worked on a stage, under bright lights, amid intense competition and before cheering fans. He was a professional video-game player, and a world champion.

…For Rodriguez and others like him around the world, playing video games had become a career.

That, however, has changed for many players. Video games may be as popular as ever — people in more than 65 percent of American households play, according to the Entertainment Software Association — but the professional sport of gaming has nearly collapsed.

Major companies have pulled sponsorships and several tournaments have folded. And in November, News Corporation and DirecTV unexpectedly shut down the Championship Gaming Series.

Rodriguez and more than 100 salaried players had their short-lived dreams dashed. He returned to the job he left in 2007, at Sam’s Club.



Next thing ya know, bloggers will have to get “real jobs.”

That brings to mind a question that, in all my years of living and working, I still haven’t figured out.

Why is it that doing something that you’re good at and something that you love you love — and getting paid to do it — isn’t a “real job”? Why is a “real job” what you for a paycheck while dream of doing something else?

What is a “real job”?

real job

1. (idiomatic) A job which requires the employee to, work regular hours for a consistent wage that often exceeds the provisions of applicable minimum wage legislation. A job that produces a living wage.

Yeah, but why is only that a “real job”?

…When asked to describe a “real job,” why don’t people concentrate on the feeling they’d get from it, rather than the actual job? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to hear people describe how a real job is…

1. a job that’s fulfilling!
2. a job that’s stimulating!
3. a job that’s challenging!
4. a job that’s rewarding!
5. a job that’s enjoyable!

In other words, shouldn’t the single defining factor of how “real” a job is be determined by how it makes you feel? After all, you listen to your feelings when you decide which jobs aren’t real — and it makes them easy to identify because jobs that aren’t real feel wrong.

Consequently, you’re anxious to leave them. You may stay put for longer than you’d like (under the influence of sensibility and reason), but the feeling of displacement is undeniable. You’re always on the lookout for something better, something more real, something that feels right.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps there are a lot of people out there who are punching a clock at a “real job” because it’s the “responsible,” “grown-up” thing to do, whether it makes them happy or not. (Speaking of which, why does doing what makes you happy — or being happy, for that matter — take a back seat to everything else if you’re going to “grow up”? How many times was I told, how many times were you told that you needed to “grow-up” and “come down to reality”? Speaking of which, why is “reality” always down?)

I’m gonna go even further out on a limb and say that there are a lot people who’ve only ever known a “real job” never even had the experience of doing what they love and making a living at it, even for a while.

My guess is that the tragically large number of people in the circumstances above are the major reason why there seems to be an overwhelming tendency to laugh at and ridicule people like Rodriguez and his fellow gamers. I can almost hear the self-satisfied, schaudenfreude-laden taunts and chuckles now: “Ha! Thought you could make it as a ‘professional gamer’ [Ed. Note: These last two words should be spoken with a sneer.], huh?” “Loser!” “Time to grow up and get a real job, like the rest of us.” “Another starry-eyed dream brought back down to reality…”

That’s probably because of the same reason I think Rodriguez and the rest of his colleagues are to be admired: They’ve had something most people never have the cajones to even try to attain. For even a brief moment, they lived their dream. They did what felt right, and got rewarded for it.

So, they know something that a lot of people don’t: It can happen. It can be done. It’s possible.

Around the time I was getting fired from my first “real job,” the executive director who negotiated me out the door recommended a book to me, and even offered to reimburse me if I bought it along with that year’s edition of What Color is Your Parachute? as part of helping me “transition” out of that job. (She and my boss were lawyers, and what I didn’t know then was that by purchasing the books I was basically “signing” a verbal contract, ensuring that I would leave, and on their terms. But that’s another story.)

The book was Do What You Love, And the Money Will Come. Rodriguez knows that sometimes if you do, it does.

Levine helped develop a model in which independent players could sign with a team, then compete around the world and online. Success garnered sponsorships, in part to cover travel expenses and entry fees. He said that top players could earn from $50,000 to $60,000 a year in winnings and endorsements.

Rodriguez began playing in this fragmented circuit. He graduated from high school in 2003 and soon after he focused on Dead or Alive, entering online tournaments and small live events.

“I was spending between $200 to $400 to go somewhere to win $200 to $400,” he said, laughing. “Personally, I wanted to see how far I could go. I didn’t play for the money.”

By 2007, he had won several major tournaments. Big money and stability arrived for him and others with the Championship Gaming Series, playing Counter-Strike, Dead or Alive and other games. The league held a draft, established franchises and opened a competition in which players chased $1 million in prize money during the playoffs.

In 2006, Major League Gaming was the first to offer contracts to top players. The Championship Gaming Series did the same, and there was a rush to sign the best gamers.

I guess I do, too. If anyone told me I’d be doing anything that I’ve done in the past five years, since starting this blog back in October 2003, I’d have laughed. I just loved writing, so I did it. It felt right, and it still does. I only wish I got to do more of it. And if I’d had the opportunity at 23, like Rodriguez, and the ability to take it and run with it, I might be further along in that career path now.

But Rodriguez has an advantage over many other people. He knows what’s possible, and when the next opportunity comes along he’ll recognize it.

I just hope he won’t be too afraid to reach for it, and that having a “real job” in this economy doesn’t grind him down as it does so many people, like the ones in this article I linked to in a previous post.

The mainstream media has generally sketched a picture of a labor market in which, under the pressure of an economic meltdown, workers succumb to two types of downsizing. In one, a fierce recession forces businesses, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, to lay off workers. They, in turn, face grim prospects for gainful employment elsewhere. In a kinder, gentler version of the same, employers, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, offer — or sometimes force workers to take — “furloughs,” salary cuts, union give-backs, four-day work weeks, or un-paid holidays rather than axing large numbers of them.

In this case, tough as it may be, workers benefit, retaining at least some of their income, while businesses wait out the recession. In both cases, businesses are largely depicted as unenthusiastic dispensers of pink-slips. Managers and bosses are just facing up to an unpalatable reality and unavoidable pressures imposed on them by the worst economic moment in recent memory.

In some cases, under the guise of “recession” pressure, they may be waging a secret war against their own workers, using even the most innocuous transgressions of work-place rules as the trigger for firings — and so, of course, putting the fear of god into those who remain. In this way, company payrolls are not only being reduced by mass layoffs, but workers are being squeezed for ever greater productivity in return for lower wages, worse hours, and less benefits. The weapon of choice is the specter of unemployment, a kind of death by a thousand (or a million) cuts.

Companies stand to gain a lot these days from such small-scale but decisive actions. After all, they reap a double benefit. Not only do they pare down the size of their payroll, often without needing — as in Juanita’s case — to consent to unemployment compensation, but they also contribute to a climate of intensifying fear. Workers who remain on the job are now not only on edge about lay-offs or scaled-back hours, but also know that a late return from a bathroom or lunch break might mean being shown the door, becoming another member of the legions of unemployed — now at 12.5 million and rising fast.

The more I learn about this economy, the more it seems to designed to grind people down and crush not only their dreams, but to discourage even the temerity to have dreams, and instead to inculcate a sense of fear and hopelessness that almost become job requirements.

Living without that safety net, knowing that if something goes wrong, that’s just too bad, changes you. Living without any real hope of the future, knowing that the shitty job you’ve got now is probably about as good a job you’re ever going to have, changes you.

And it changes your sense of what hard work is, of what it means to be deserving…

…But a lot of folks never get lucky despite the fact that they work hard…

But still, most of them work hard and earn their money, whether it’s barely more than minimum wage or they did get a bit of luck and got one of the few remaining good blue collar jobs.

But when they look in the mirror, they know that the guy or gal looking in the mirror ten or twenty years from now is probably going to be doing the same thing. And they know that they’re one bad break away from losing even the little they have–one illness, one plant closure, one argument with their boss.

They don’t have a lot of hope for the future, except that it won’t get worse. The life they live now is the best it’s probably gonna get.

Living like that changes you. It makes you see people differently. You understand that there are a lot of bad jobs out there, and that someone’s going to be stuck with them. You know that most of those jobs are either hard or humiliating, and often both. You know that for too many people, a shitty job where they’re abused by their boss is as good as it gets.

And at some point, you give up. That’s probably the point at which you become a lot better — and a lot more compliant — at the “real job” you now know your lucky to have, if you want to continue your habit of living indoors and having regular meals.

At some point, you accept that having dreams — let along a “dream job” — is a luxury you can’t afford, reserved for those who can. You accept that work doesn’t have to be, and maybe isn’t supposed to be fulfilling, stimulating, challenging, rewarding, or enjoyable. It’s just work.

Here’s hoping that Rodriquez and his colleagues — and really everyone who’s forced to downgrade their dreams in this economy, and settle for a “real job” (now with less pay and fewer benefits) in exchange for a real livelihood and a “real life” — can resist long enough for the country and the economy to change course.

That is, if we can change its course.


  1. This is beyond contempt.

    …. bonding…. by playing ….. virtual-but-male-priviledged-violence…. sitting on your butts… How ‘nice…., progressive…. liberal…., creative…..’!!!

    If that’s the future you wish for yourself and your child…. don’t complain about the world: you are creating it!!!

  2. I’m surprised I haven’t been dammed sooner for (a) enjoying computer/video games and (b) allowing my child to play them.

    Now, “Grand Theft Auto” (or anything like it) has never made an appearance in our house, and never will as long as I have anything to say about it. But I honestly never thought of “Star Wars” as “virtual-but-male-privileged violence.”

    Of course, my preference has usual tended towards simulation games like SimCity, TheSims, or The Movies, etc. — which really aren’t all that violent (though the economic structure in SimCity is troublesome), and which appeal to me because of their open-endedness and potential as mediums for storytelling.

    As for my son, yes, he plays video games sometimes, and I play with him. If nothing else, I know what he’s playing, and his attention to the storylines has led to some interesting discussions and teachable moments about the destructiveness being controlled by anger, the moral code of the “Jedi”, etc.

    But playing video games is about 10% of what we do on any given day. It’s certainly not the only thing he does, or that we do with him. As his parents, we limit the time he spends playing his video game, and make sure he does lots of other activities too.

    There’s swimming classes, bike rides, nature walks, regular trips to the library, playing outside with the other kids in the neighborhood, etc. At night, before bedtime, I either help him with his homework, or play a board game with him. Lately, though, he prefers math “puzzle” cards a friend gave to him.

    Then I read him a story (usually one of the books he checked out of the library). We’ve done this for years. Eventually, he started out asking me to point to a word. Then, he would want to “read” or say that word whenever we came to it. Then, he’d point to a word and ask me what the letters spelled, and he’d read that word whenever we got to it.

    His reading skills have gotten so good that not only does he correct me when I skip a word or read some words out of order, but a few times he’s read to me. I’m proud of him. I was an early reader at his age, and I hoped he would be too. I’m also an avid reader, so he’s always seen me with my nose in a book. When he was much younger, he’d imitate me sometimes by pretending to read intently whatever book he’d picked up. I’d hoped to encourage a love of reading in my son, and it looks like that’s what happened. He enjoys trips to the library ever three weeks, where we return the old books and help him pick out books about what he’s interested in.

    He took an interest in cooking, and asked to check out a cookbook. So we found one for children, let him pick out some recipes, and then made them with him. He was particularly proud when he made something that we then had for family dinner. He eventually asked us to buy him a cookbook of his own. We did, and enjoy selections from it on a regular basis.

    He’s joined a “Mad Science” group in school, in which he and other kindergartners learn science and conduct “experiments” under the guidance of a teacher. His Papa often does experiments with him. Last week, he showed us how they made invisible ink. (But we, as did the teacher, took care of the part with the candle.)

    All told, he spends far more time with all of the above than he does playing computer games. His parents (including the Dad who enjoys gaming) make sure of that.

    So, because someone plays computer/video games doesn’t mean they’re all playing GTA or some other ultra-violent title. (The Sims is actually more like a virtual dollhouse.) And it doesn’t mean that all they do, or even what they do most of the time.

    Video games in and of themselves aren’t bad, in my opinion, any more than any entertainment medium is entirely bad. It depends on the content. Some are actually educational and can inspire creativity that manifests far beyond the game itself. And they’re fun, but they shouldn’t be the only thing one does.

    So, if I enjoy a half-an-hour of gaming with my son, before I help him with his homework, use his math cards with him, read him a story, sing him a couple of songs, tuck him in and give him a goodnight hug…cut me some slack, OK?

    There are a lot of parents doing a far worse job of it than me.