English major building a game app, week 1

police quest sonny bonds

I still remember the day my my brother received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, years ago.  In his Engineering department ceremony, a professor said to the crowd of newly minted Engineers and parents (and I paraphrase):

“At least you know they won’t move back home with you like an English major.”  Laughter ensued.

Though I never moved back in with either of my parents, grandparents, and/or uncles/aunts, I was indeed an English major.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and … I still am.  But now, I’m putting that degree to (dis)use.  I’m going to build an app.  A game app, to be exact.

My background?  I played Police Quest and Pitfall Harry.

Sonny … meet Harry

Sonny Bonds, Police Quest

Sonny Bonds (my hero!)

Pitfall Harry

Run, Harry, RUN!


Among other classics.

Though the same aforementioned brother would faithfully play Police Quest at our Dad’s restaurant Apollo’s during the quiet hours (on the Commodore 64, or C64 as the cool kids called it) and bought me a Pitfall t-shirt recently for Christmas, he now is somewhat amused by my continued interest in these games (having moved on to — or perhaps past by this point — MMOCs like World of Warcraft).

See  there?  I already learned some new lingo.  And this is just the first week!

What I love(d) about these two games was not their graphical interface (though one can’t help but admire the clever arranging of squares) but the adventure involved.  As Sonny Bonds, SURE I had mundane things to do like open his police car door (type: “open door”).

police quest



But I also had a much more important mission:  To find and capture the “death angel” Jessie Bains and break up his gambling ring!

police quest card game


Who is Mr. Banksten? I have no idea. But he’s definitely part of the Ring.

In other words (which I can type properly as an English major) Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel  was no laughing matter. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, my go-to research source, “Police Quest I was reported to have been used as a training tool for police officers.”*

(*As an aside, perhaps they should have used a friendlier game, like Mrs. Pac-Man. As a second aside, why did she have to adopt his surname?)

And as for Pitfall?  Those of you who’ve played know that as Harry you had a deep responsibility on his quest to …

pitfall harry

Watch out for the square shapes!

Actually I  can’t recall his specific goal.  But wasn’t jumping over the swamps of alligators fun?  Which leads me to:

On fun. On mantras. Womantras.

Last year I realized that, despite being annoyed by mantras, and the very word “mantra” itself and how it sounds when I say or type it (M-A-N-T-R-A. Blech!) I had one:  FUN.


Girls do wanna have fun.

It’s sort of the opposite of suffering, which I’m against, for the record. Or at least our causing it for others.  Unwanted restraint of any kind. And it represents an approach I enjoy to life: finding the game and fun in sometimes tedious or serious tasks.

I credit this approach both to a childhood spent at both my father’s restaurants, whereby I’d play with rock families in the gravel parking lot while he worked (up til age 19 – my rock cultures became very sophisticated!) and attending many of my Mom’s  classical concerts (though many of these were fun, particularly when she played for Music Comedy Northwest and I crushed on the devil in Damn Yankees. This crush immediately replaced my crush on Richard Simmons.).

richard simmons

Am I right?

The third nail in the coffin of fun was recent.  I’d just finished a course on Behavioral Economics and read their supplemental material on gamification, a concept I heard about around 2012 but had largely forgotten. Gamification, for those of you on the edges of your stand-up desks, is the process of applying game elements (competition, leaderboards, adventure) to non-game activities.

Such as: the Swedish government installing a speed camera lottery system that fined speeding drivers, then entered those obeying the speed limit into a lottery paid for by the speeders’ fines. Brilliant!  Or the app gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou mentions Pain Squad that allows kids with cancer to identify their pain as “detectives,” or ChoreWars which promises to make household chores “fun.”

This leads me to:

English major building a game app, week 1

Should “major” be capitalized?  I don’t even know.  We didn’t cover a lot of grammar for the degree. Or I didn’t pay attention because it wasn’t “fun.” But I can quote Jane Austin.*

After reading about examples of gamification, then seeing this Ted Talk by one of the early adopters and aforementioned Yu-kai Chou, I decided to dive deep into the topic, signing up for courses right and left, up and down, and even diagonally.  I reserved books at the NY Public Library, and began researching app development and game design.

*Not really. Please don’t take me up at that next time we’re hanging.

On learning/retaining information

Each week, I’ll post a few tips and lessons learned from my exploration into the app/game world.  I’ll post failures, too.  Actually, you can expect mostly failures.  So if you’re feeling down, like you just can’t make life work,  read my posts. You’ll feel better.

gingerbread house

Gingerbread house and failure, together at last*

Do you also like to learn, collecting knowledge like Beanie Babies in the 90s?  First, if you want to continue your learning for free on just about any topic of interest, I highly recommend sites like EDX and Coursera.  The majority of the courses I’m taking are found there.  These platforms are called MOOCs, which I think used to be an insult if you were hurling the word at an Italian.  But here, I use it as “Massive Open Online Courses.”

* Failure takeaway by husband Rob: “Usually you wait to assemble the house until the cookies are dry, and don’t attempt a roof until the walls are set.”

In order to prepare for my app-building, and just become better in general, I signed up for over ten courses.  Next week, I’ll share their names and lessons learned from the three or so “priority” courses I’m taking.  I’ll also share more about the app I’m hoping to develop, and ask for your ideas.

The problem with all this learning?  Retention of information. One of the best ways to retain information? Teach it to others. (Thanks again Wikipedia!)  So it is me who thanks you for this series of posts (implying you would thank me for these blogs, otherwise).

Would you like to follow this experiment?  Sign up for my newsletter below and I’ll send you a monthly blast with highlights from the weekly posts, tips, lessons learned, and terrible mistakes.

You can also “like” my Facebook here or follow me on Twitter.


For now, I’m off to find the Death Angel.

police quest death angel

What a time for affection

What were your top games as a kid?  Comment below.




English major building a game app, week 1 — 3 Comments

  1. Pac-Man. Frogger. Astroids. My 7-yr-old son plays modern-day versions of some of these on my Kindle. I can’t quite get the hang of using swipes and taps instead of an actual joystick, so he thinks I suck at all video games! If only I could get a fake ID for him to take him to my local watering hole and show him how I kick everyone’s ass at Ms. Pac-Man (note the omission of the “r”; is that then still considered a surname?)

    • LOVE all of those games! We played them on an old Atari that we acquired a few years ago and gave away :(. The joystick took some getting used to again, but I totally know what you mean. Kids definitely rule the gameosphere!
      You have decoded the mystery of MS. Pac-Man — you must be an editor by profession?

  2. Both great games! It’s amazing how much your mind can make up for the lack of graphic quality.

    I’ve heard great things about Khan — I’ll have to check it out for future courses to supplement what I’m learning on the other platforms. Thanks for the tip!