Juvenoia | Lessons for life from online games

A 28-year-old draws parallels between life at a start-up and inhabiting the gaming culture of Civilization and Age of Wonders

Ranjith Ramachandran is 28. He is a core member of a start-up in Bangalore's hip Indiranagar neighbourhood. His company spent the last three years in refining a data analytics software program, including scrapping the entire idea at one point and returning to the drawing board and resuming from naught.

Sounds like a typical, Bangalore story? What makes Ranjith's path exceptional is that this 'millennial' is on a course that is almost entirely self-made. Growing up in a small town in Coorg, Ranjith studied in a Kannada medium school before going to Mysore to pursue electronics engineering. He was the first person in his immediate family to graduate. “I didn't have any guidance and no one to really look up to in my family or the neighbourhood,” says Ranjith.

When he was a boy of 10, he learnt to play chess from his uncle, and soon gathered the acumen to beat him at the game. Although he pursued electronics, Ranjith was more interested in software. “As a child, I was interested in logic and mathematics and that naturally led me to programming,” he says. “The thing is schools and colleges don't teach you what to do in the real world. They teach you six subjects and then measure you on those...but that's just their culture, and it ends up defining how we behave.”

Fortunately for him, electronics and programming are not entirely unrelated subjects. “I didn't learn programming in class. I did it on my own, out of my interest. I used the Internet to figure out what I wanted to do, and it took a while to build this skill set,” he recalls. “I was on many Internet forums and chat channels which helped me learn... these were places where I could ask questions or discuss things. That's when I figured that the Internet is a place full of people willing to help out – that's how beautiful the Internet is.”

By the time Ranjith earned his electronics degree, he was as much a programmer as a qualified one with a year of work experience. He secured a placement at a multinational software company after college. Unlike some of his friends, who faced “crisis after a crisis” for trying to make a career in a field they were uninterested in, Ranjith took on freelance assignments to hone his skills. “Even if I knew the programming language, without real project experience, I couldn't claim to a potential employer that I am skilled in that language. So, I took on freelance projects.”

...gaming helps not just in programming but also in life. You need to be patient, you need to plan strategy for the long-term and you need to think of tactics for the short-term. You understand some fundamental principles of the game and then optimise them. Similarly, in life, when there are difficult phases, you really need to think about ways in dealing with them”

The upside of his after-hours effort was that he earned an additional $3,000 in 3-4 months and received glowing recommendations from these commissions. This was significant because Ranjith was clear that he wanted to quit the multinational before the end of his first year. “Partly because they wanted me to take English training, which, in principle, I disagreed with. I felt it was a waste of my time,” he declares. “They weren't really employing me for a skill that I had. Rather, they were trying to fit me into a certain role by asking me to do some training or the other. And secondly, because I knew that I wanted to be at a startup, doing programming.”

All along this journey, Ranjith had also been passionate about strategy games, such as Civilization and Age of Wonders. In Civilization, he explains, the game starts way back in time, in 4000 BC. The player plays with a villager and a warrior in an “attempt to expand and develop their empires through the ages from the ancient era until modern and near-future times”. When Ranjith first played Civilization, he didn't fathom the entire game, which can take nearly 48 non-stop hours of playing to come to an end. It took him 3-4 months of playing to get a handle on it. Ranjith estimates that he must've spent about 2,500 hours playing online computer games in the last 4-5 years.

He had immersed himself in the world of online computer gaming so much that he even started following gaming commentary of the likes of Swede Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, a legend in the world of computer gaming commentary and the highest earner on YouTube. But why spend hours of what could otherwise be productive time? “Strategy gaming is different from other games where players get hooked to the thrill of speed,” he says. “When you play chess, for instance, you have a problem to solve. You open the game, play the middle game where you avoid traps, etc and then the end game. Likewise, in strategic online games, the player has to look at the larger plan without losing sight of the micro. In that sense, gaming helps not just in programming but also in life. You need to be patient, you need to plan strategy for the long-term and you need to think of tactics for the short-term. You understand some fundamental principles of the game and then optimise them. Similarly, in life, when there are difficult phases, you really need to think about ways in dealing with them.”

He is reluctant to make a direct connection from gaming to his own life experiences. He does share how being able to look at the big picture in online games helped him sail through a rough patch at work. After having worked at a start-up for a year, he suddenly found himself in a tight spot when a majority of the company’s employees quit. “I was suddenly the senior-most and the only experienced person left,” he says, explaining that this exodus put in jeopardy the future of the data analytics tool the company had been building the past 12 months.

“It was an odd situation but it taught me a lot.” Looking at the big picture, he decided that the data analytics tool ought to be rebuilt from scratch even if that meant pouring water on months of work. It was a difficult decision to make, he says, especially because the young man was weighing this against other career options – which were more appealing than having to start from naught. “But at the time, that was the best call to make. We were just two developers and my boss then. If we had disbanded, then the idea would've died. We've grown from there to a company of 20 plus people today. So, it's been a long and interesting journey!”

(Juvenoia is a fortnightly column that sneaks a peep into the minds of 'Indian millennials' – born after the liberalisation in India and before the first iPhone released. Mail: marisha@thegoodstate.com)

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