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May 2, 2012

From Westminster to the World of Warcraft

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last Monday, Greg Street, a 1991 McDaniel College graduate and the lead systems designer of World of Warcraft, shared his reality of how he journeyed from Texas to Westminster, and then South Carolina to California and Northrend, the crescent-shaped continent in northern Azeroth, in the virtual reality world of gamers.


For Dr. Street, it has been a long, strange, and wonderful trip from Westminster to the Mists of Pandaria.


The audience that gathered at Decker Center Forum on the Westminster college campus was an eclectic combination and – yes, one-third of the audience were hard-core gamers – who know Dr. Street by his screen name “Ghostcrawler” on gamer message boards, where he is a constant presence in search of feedback on the World of Warcraft.


The World of Warcraft was first released in 1994 as “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.” The popular computer game currently enjoys a worldwide audience of 10.2 million subscribers as of December 2011.


Monday’s presentation was part of the popular and well-received “SmartTalk” series in which the college “brings notable alumni back to campus for an on-stage conversation with President Roger Casey on their subject of expertise,” according to the McDaniel website.


The particular emphasis of Dr. Street’s presentation was how he drew upon the core values he acquired as a result of a liberal arts education to lead him to being one of the creative geniuses behind the curtain in the world of computer games.


Past SmartTALK presenters have included the media duo of Judy Woodruff, of the PBS NewsHour, and her husband, Al Hunt, of Bloomberg News, who visited McDaniel College for a program entitled “Conversation with Washington Insiders,” on April 15.


Dr. Street’s articulate, engaging, and charismatic presentation had something for everyone in the audience, gamers, and non-gamers alike, especially for individuals looking for insight into profession choices - career paths, the creative process, confirmation bias on the efficacy of a liberal arts education or just how it is that a Texan with a doctorate in marine biology ended-up in California working for Blizzard Entertainment designing computer games.


Actually, for writers, storytellers, and artists – whether or not you are a gamer – the world of creating “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” is extraordinarily similar to executing a piece of art or writing. The same basic artistic-mental and philosophical knowledge discipline, skills, and abilities apply.


At one point Dr. Street reflected upon data-driven, statistics and probability modality decisions versus decisions based on intuition, instincts and “your gut.” He further observed that the computer game based on a fantasy universe is “never finished.” This concept of “never finished” was compared to that of an author’s approach to a novel.


That, at some point the game – or novel or piece of art – is as close to good as you can practically get it.


Dr. Street, who was a double major at McDaniel in biology and philosophy, referred to the quote by François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," from “Dictionnaire Philosophique” (1764.) The literal translation is the best is the enemy of great.


For much of the audience, who were non-gamers, the true takeaway from the evening was his discussion about using his liberal arts education to go from philosopher and marine biologist to making his love of computer games into his livelihood.


Dr. Street, whose grandfather attended Western Maryland College – now known as McDaniel College – credited his experience there for helping to provide him with the self-confidence and creativity to succeed.


Also critical to his success were concepts such as thinking globally and embracing diversity, in addition to learning interpersonal skills such as how to have arguments which do not lead to fights and learning the mechanics of research and academic study.


He also explained eloquently the value of learning from failure: “The best scientists fail a lot…, and learn from their failures… I got really good at failing… This college (McDaniel) was a very safe place to fail…”


After graduating from McDaniel, Dr. Street continued his studies at the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his doctorate in marine biology.


From there, he did post-graduate work at the University of South Carolina, where he eventually stayed on as a research assistant professor until August 1998 when he made a profound change in direction and went to work for Ensemble Studios.


According to an explanation Dr. Street provided on November 20, 2006 in an interview with Michael Phillips for Inside Mac Games, “I am a former (I like to say recovering) marine biologist who made a career change into gaming about eight years ago.”


In a two-part Baltimore Sun series, Dave Gilmore quoted Dr. Street as saying: “I got a taste of what the rest of my life would be like; writing papers, grant proposals, not really spending time in the field near the ocean … I had always been a big gamer. I had a computer in high school… In college we had a Nintendo in the dorm room that we spent a lot of time on...”


Dr. Street stayed with Ensemble until February 2008 when he went over to Blizzard Entertainment, where he is currently working on the latest expansion of the World of Warcraft – the Mists of Pandaria.


He encouraged the audience to “embrace your inner geek,” and learn to do something you love… “Find something that you love and feel passionate about…”


Monday’s the audience at McDaniel was given a rare glimpse into the complexity, versatility and depth Dr. Street molded and morphed incongruously and boldly into a successful career as a game designer and left you with an appreciation for the artistic and creative juices and disciplines necessary to be a success – no matter where your career path may lead.


… I’m just saying.


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