First Person Singular: Paul Barnett, creative director of a video-game company


Paul Barnett, 41, of Fairfax, is creative director of BioWare, a video-game company (BEnjamin C. Tankersley/For The Washington Post)
May 27, 2011

I was a sickly child. I have asthma. I can’t read very well; I can’t spell. I can’t hear very well. I retreated into my imagination and things I could handle: comics, because there’s lots to look at and not a lot of words; and computer games, because they were so simplistic that it all relied on my imagination. I was a happy child, but my parents were always worried that I should get some sun and about how I was going to do in life.

I got completely tricked into believing that I was supposed to live a proper life. I did all the things from 16 to 24 that you’re supposed to. I followed the official plan. I worked every part-time job under the sun. I worked in the sewer. I was a horse-racing commentator. I called bingo. I’ve been a trash man. I put up bill posters, was a caterer and did bar work. I ended up working in an office. I was completely unsuitable for all of these jobs. I thought it was all over. If this is what life is all about, I wasn’t particularly interested in it.

And then at 24, the Internet was born for me. I became obsessed with online games: imagination mixed with other people. It was all about living and creating and taking in stories. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I decided to make a game without a clue as to how. All games were all text-based then, so the dyslexic kid just started writing; 700,000 words and three years later, I had Legends of Terris, the largest text-based game in Europe.

What’s fabulous is it doesn’t really matter if it sold or didn’t, because it did prove that that’s what I wanted to do and that I could do it, if I tried hard enough. If you look at the length and the measure of where I am — hardly any education, can’t spell, can’t see colors, one-third deaf — I have no business having the job I have. I don’t deserve it, but I don’t deserve asthma either, so it all works out, right? I have this job only because there’s a lot of smart, lazy people not trying hard enough, and they’ll never catch me. The Internet is a great leveler; it doesn’t care how much money you have; it doesn’t care where you live, where you went to school or who will vouch for you. It opens every single door and gives everyone the same starting point. I go to these schools — MIT, GMU — and these smart kids with rich parents paying for them to listen to me want to know how to get the poor kid’s job. I tell them to just do something, anything. Just get to work.

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