I remember the staggered look of surprise on the intern’s face as he perused the flash drive I’d packed full with character bios and backstory excerpts: With each flick of his scroll-wheel, his incredulous stare oscillated between “well, that’s thorough” and “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
At the time, we both worked at a game development start-up, producing an eco-friendly online virtual world for kids. The intern had eagerly volunteered to read through the game’s design and story documents, probably because rummaging through the narrative framework of a fantasy world targeted at 10-year-olds sounded easy.
To be fair, I don’t really know what he expected when he asked me for all of my world-building and storyline files. I do, however, know what he got: more than fifty Word documents, ranging from a few pages in length to a massive 15-page chronology laying out the game universe’s history.
From mission dialog transcripts to backstories for every character on the roster (including everyone from the principle cast all the way down to a couple background non-player characters, some of whom were no longer in the game), my treatment of the world was exhaustive. There were even a few short stories set within the virtual universe, intended to flesh out its main characters.
In retrospect, it was probably a bit excessive. But I’d been hired on as a writer, and I wasn’t about to let anyone accuse me of not doing my job.
As the project matured, however, the company’s skeleton development crew and the massive scope of the project meant I needed to step beyond my role as a writer and learn the necessary skills to contribute in other ways. No longer spending every waking moment sculpting the artifices of an imaginary world, a relentless nagging doubt finally found the time to bubble into my thoughts: most of what I did was… useless.
The management occasionally referred to the game’s narrative and abstract flavor text as ‘fluff,’ and based on what we’d seen with kids testing the game out, they cared less about the reason behind each mission they undertook as they did about the shiny trinket or cool costume that waited as a reward for its completion.
Designing the internal machinery of that conjured universe was easily my favorite part of the project, but when the company and I parted ways, the sensation that what I loved the most was intrinsically useless lingered.
And so, I stopped writing for fun. I stopped storing interesting facts and cool ideas in a folder I kept on my computer for inspiration. And even though I’d run tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons or Deadlands for my friends for years, I stopped designing bizarre and fantastic worlds for them to explore.
None of it seemed worthwhile.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, me suddenly waking up one morning and deciding I was now an avowed, unflinching disciple of pragmatism. It was more of a gradual process; a quiet resignation I never fully endorsed, but never bothered to fight, either.
Basically, I was miserable.
Some months later, I was sitting in the library, hammering out code for a computer science class when I came across a comic on a blog I frequented. The blog, called Magical Game Time, was full of one-off comics set in assorted video game worlds, which is about as far to the right of the Useful/Useless spectrum as you can get. But the comic resting at the top of the page caught my attention.
The comic asked the question, “What happens to a hero when the world no longer needs him?” The comic was so sad, terse and poignant, I suddenly felt compelled to explore the idea. I didn’t want to use someone else’s world to tell my story, so I started drafting up ideas for a universe of my own. Each detail I wrote down spurred questions that demanded answers, which in turn required more fabricated details to support them.
Pretty soon, the student worker at the library’s front desk made her rounds and told us the building was closing. It was 9 P.M., and I’d devoted almost six hours to building a world no one else would have any reason to care about. I had written fewer than a dozen lines of code for my homework assignment. And I was extremely satisfied with the way I’d spent my time.
Could I put that rough sketch of a world on a resume? Absolutely not. Did creating it hone any of those sweet, sweet marketable skills employers seem to get so hung up on? Not a chance.
But even though my world-building splurge was useless, I still got something from it: that ineffable tickle just beneath your scalp, that precise, autonomous compulsion to finish a project that means nothing to anyone but yourself.
Later, I found out there’s actually a term for that shared experience held by anyone who’s ever become deeply immersed in a creative endeavor: Flow.
Granted, not everything we do all the time can afford to be useless. But the stuff that’s the most fun tends to be the most useless, and to some degree, being alive is a walking study in loving useless things.