Elon Musk got his start in tech as a gamer
It’s one of the greatest fears for a modern parent: their kids’ love of video games will become an obsession, and young Noah or Emma will end up as a “vidiot,” spending their days and nights alone in a dark room, living on energy drinks and Soylent, as bloody scenes of mayhem cycle on the screen, and who-knows-what racket blasts on the earbuds.
Above: Elon Musk's early story (Source: Money Control / Story and Script: Avinash Mudaliar, Siddartha Bannerjee, Xema Pathek; Art: Harsho Mohan Chattoraj)
It’s a valid fear, but it’s not inevitable. Kids (and adults) have been vegging out on video games since the 1980s and, while some have ended up as wastrels, most manage to keep their alien-blasting sprees under control. For some, gaming has arguably been a positive influence, and perhaps the prime example of this is Elon Musk.
As Minda Zetlin writes in a recent article published on Inc.com, video games were Musk’s entry point into the world of tech. Gaming led to coding, which led to his early entrepreneurial efforts, and ultimately to his phenomenal achievements with Tesla and SpaceX.
When Musk was about 10, he traveled to the US with his father, and found that the hotels where they stayed all had video-game arcades. “My number one thing, when we went to a new hotel, was to go to the arcades,” Musk told Neil DeGrasse Tyson on an episode of Tyson’s Star Talk radio show. Video games “made me want to learn how to program computers,” said Musk. “I thought I could make my own games.”
Musk’s love of computer games soon led him to programming, at first with an eight-bit Commodore VIC-20. At age 12, he created a space game called Blastar, which combined aspects of the popular games Asteroids and Space Invaders, and sold it to a computer magazine for around $500. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he invested the money in a pharmaceutical stock, which he later sold for a healthy profit.
Elon and brother Kimbal made grand plans to open a video arcade, and even leased a building, but an adult was required to sign off on the permit, and their parents nixed the two teenagers’ business plan.
Above: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provides some video game recommendations (YouTube: Y Combinator)
In 1995, Elon and Kimbal founded a more practical company: Zip2. At the time, newspapers and other publications were just becoming aware of the internet, and a few visionaries were beginning to see the potential of locally-oriented internet content. The brothers Musk used a Yellow Pages CD-ROM, a mapping software application, and Elon’s coding skills to build online city guides that allowed users to find local businesses and view maps and door-to-door directions.
The Musks soon met the great venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, the beginning of a long collaboration. Jurvetson remembers how the “very young-looking” Kimbal and Elon pitched their Zip2 business plan to him in 1996. He helped the two entrepreneurs negotiate the Silicon Valley startup scene, and Zip2 soon boasted high-profile customers such as the New York Times, Knight-Ridder and Hearst. In 1999, riding the craze for “web portals,” Compaq’s AltaVista division acquired Zip2 for $341 million. Elon’s share was reported to be $22 million, and the rest is history.
Speaking at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game convention in Los Angeles in 2019, Elon explained how video games got him interested in programming, and said that he’s far from the only one. “I probably wouldn’t have started programming if it wasn’t for video games or wouldn’t have been as interested in computers and tech if it wasn’t for video games. I think video games are a very powerful force for getting young kids interested in technology—it has way bigger knock-on effects than people may realize.”
Most job-seekers would probably be reluctant to mention an interest in gaming at a job interview, but at Musk’s companies, it’s no liability. “If we’re interviewing somebody for a software engineering role at Tesla or SpaceX, many times we’ll [ask], ‘How’d you start programming?’” Musk says. “I think many of the best software engineers in the world are at, or spent much of their career at, video game houses.”
The kind of problem-solving required in video game design directly relates to the skills need to develop self-driving systems for Tesla’s Autopilot. “If people had to try to create incredibly realistic graphics using very little computer power, it’s a hard problem, so a lot of people had to write really tight code and come up with really clever ideas to do that,” says Musk, adding that Tesla’s simulation team has to create a photorealistic world of unexciting things such as concrete curves, shadows, faded pavement markings and even skid marks on the road—just as game designers create the background details for virtual worlds.
So, the next time your progeny refuses to come to the dinner table until he or she completes the next level in the latest hot game, don’t get mad. Maybe they aren’t wasting time, but developing valuable skills that they’ll use on a high-paying, glamorous job someday. Maybe.
Written by: Charles Morris