How Video Games Nurtured A Generation Of Entrepreneurs

Feb 5 2014, 1:54pm CST | by

How Video Games Nurtured A Generation Of Entrepreneurs

Nintendo’s Kid Icarus series is a cult classic video game. A quick google search turns up tons of fan sites dedicated to the game. Many critics have placed it on their list of all time top games. If you talk to folks who persevered through level after level of Kid Icarus Grecian-themed game play in their youth, you’ll notice they get a dreamy, nostalgic look in their eyes.

Kid Icarus is a great game. The music is unique. The artwork is impressively humorous (even considering the limited graphic capability of the times). The gameplay is challenging. But there’s more to it. There’s a message lingering right beneath the surface. It is more than just a game. Kid Icarus is interactive mythology.

In fact, all video games are like scripture for a new generation: part entertainment, part interactive experience, part persuasive storytelling. They are complex simulations that employ what author Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric” in his book Persuasive Games. In the act of solving a game’s challenges, the player engages and internalizes particular ways of experiencing the world.

Kid Icarus is not unique in having an implicit message, but its particular message serves as a great example to illustrate the relationship between gamers, geekdom, and the innovative internet entrepreneurship that’s so fashionable in the early 21st Century. It is not just the unique up-scrolling action of Kid Icarus that reflects the start-up mentality–always moving upward: growing, scaling, seeking higher valuations. It goes deeper than that.

“I remember loving the journey,” says Amanda Steinberg, founder of, “collecting hearts, shooting arrows at those cyclops ghost things.”

Amanda Steinberg considered herself a gamer when she was a prepubescent geek. She and I were schoolmates then. I remember her when she had pasty skin and knobby knees. Kid Icarus was her favorite game. Now, all grown-up, she’s founder of a high profile internet start-up. The other day, after listening to me give a talk on game based learning to the faculty of Miami Dade College, she told me that she credits all those hours playing video games for some of her success.

Many 21st Century business ninjas received some of their earliest training from video games. They fit the gamer stereotypes in their youth. Maybe they were alienated, pimple-faced geeks. Perhaps they were losers, slackers, nerds.

But everyone is awkward and alienated in puberty and adolescence. What is it about video games that contributed to making the geeks of the 20th Century into the innovative entrepreneurs of the 21st Century?

Consider Amanda Steinberg. Her business,, is a media company that delivers educational personal finance advice to millions of women everyday. Part feminism and part financial literacy, the team at works tirelessly to reframe women’s personal narratives around money.

On the surface, is about teaching basic skills for saving, investing, and thinking about finance. But read between the lines, and you discover a mythic journey to rescue a symbolic woman that’s held captive in a tower of stone–a tower constructed on a foundation of gender inequality.

By raising millions of dollars in venture capital and slowly using that money to navigate deeper into the finance media business, Steinberg is infiltrating the lair of an age old Wall Street boys club. She is metaphorically tearing down the tower, one stone at a time. She’s freeing the damsel in distress by changing the story. She’s replacing the helpless princess with a powerful woman–confident and productive, but also sexy and feminine. The image of a “DailyWorth Woman” is tantamount to a game protagonist with a sense of self-worth that correlates to work, services, and resources that sell at high market value., however, is more than just a business. It is also Amanda Steinberg’s avatar. She wields the controller. Email, social media, and investor decks are like thumbs on the gamepad. She moves the company through obstacles. She shoots arrows at proverbial foot soldiers and collects the rewards. The internet start-up world becomes like a real-life role-playing platformer. Steinberg perseveres, leveling up just a little bit more every day.

Amanda is not only an up and coming media mogul, it only takes one glance to see that she’s also the new tastemaker for stylish women. Picture a thin brunette whose piercing, dangerous eyes seem to contradict her happy-go-lucky spirit. Steinberg is simultaneously approachable and larger-than-life, flawlessly blending feminine sexuality with business success. In her very being, without saying a word, she challenges gender stereotypes. With her demeanor alone, she unearths the absurdity that underlies stereotypes like the bitchy-boss, the unattractive feminist, and the mean girl.

It makes sense looking at her today. She’s the subject of Cosmo spreads, Wall Street Journal articles, etc. But Steinberg wasn’t always one of the popular girls. Long before she became the down to earth founder of an internet start-up, she was an awkward tomboy. Within minutes of arriving home from school, you would have found an eleven year old ‘Mandy’ seated cross-legged on the floor a meter or two from the television. She was clutching a gamepad, controlling Kid Icarus’ protagonist, Pit, as he rescued Palutena, goddess of light, from Medusa, goddess of darkness.

Mandy’s childhood perfectly reflects the 1980s image of the divorced, split-parent household. Both parents were too busy or distracted to engage with her in the way that she craved. Kid Icarus became the kind of game-based babysitter that parenting gurus are always complaining about: a symbol of neglect.

From Steinberg’s perspective, however, Kid Icarus was a gift.

“It was finally something that could hold my attention for 8 hours at a time,” she told me, “I didn’t have to fight desperate levels of boredom.”

Steinberg is one among many successful 21st Century internet entrepreneurs who grew up playing video games. The ethos of the game equipped her with skills that she calls on everyday in her high profile entrepreneurial career. It taught her to be irrationally unfazed by things that would drive any rational person crazy.

“I learned resilience. Kid Icarus was super hard. But day after day of trying again and again taught me that if I stick to something, eventually I could figure it out. I think Kid Icarus gave me a sense of accomplishment and a healthy relationship to perseverance.”

As it turns out, there’s now a wealth of theory and research around motivation, systems thinking, and critical problem solving that concurs with Amanda’s assumptions. Video games do, indeed, reinforce these skills. But nobody knew it then.

Talking to Steinberg made me want to play Kid Icarus. I had heard of the game, but I had never played it. I didn’t have an NES when I was young. I also didn’t have a Gameboy, so I never even had the opportunity to play the sequel, Kid Icarus: Of Myths And Monsters. I played my first rounds of Kid Icarus thanks to Steinberg’s recommendation. I downloaded the original from Nintendo’s eShop to the Wii U.

There’s something really impressive about a game from 1987 that can still entertain me in 2014. You would think that 8-bit graphics wouldn’t be enthralling on a machine that’s capable of 1080p High Definition. Not so. I immediately played Kid Icarus for about an hour. My six and eight year old sons fought me for the controller. We were all mesmerized.

As I moved the protagonist, Pit, through a setting inspired by ancient Greek mythology, I felt like I was gazing into the past. Not ancient Greece, but rather, the 1980s–the formative age of video games. I could see how little the conventions of gameplay have changed. Playing Kid Icarus was like looking at digital cave drawings. It showed the primitive iterations of archetypal game mechanics that would eventually become the standard HD RPGs of the present.

I couldn’t help but think about mythology and interpret the symbolism.

Pit is Kid Icarus. Although many sources call him an angel and guardian, the game’s English title, Kid Icarus, is presumably meant to call attention to Pit’s angel-like wings and his toga-like costume (the Japanese title translates as “Light Myth: Palthena’s Mirror”). The English title contextualizes the game’s storyline within familiar Greek mythology by alluding to the wax and feather wings with which Daedalus’ son Icarus attempts to escape from King Minos’ prison tower.

But the choice is bizarre. After all, the mythological Icarus is hardly heroic. Instead, the ancient Greek character is a symbol of unrestrained ambition, of flying too high, of ungrounded carelessness. What’s more, Icarus is just a supporting character. He dies almost as soon as the story takes off. Icarus’ only claim to fame is his lineage. He’s son of the master craftsman, Daedalus.

Perhaps you remember the story from grade school. It may be the first iteration of the prison escape genre.

Daedalus wants to escape with his son from Minos’ tower. Daedalus fastens the wax and feather wings to his son’s back. “Don’t fly too close to the sun,” Daedalus warns. “Don’t swoop too low toward the sea.” The sun’s heat will melt the wax; the ocean’s water will weigh down the feathers.

But flying is too much fun; Icarus can’t resist. He soars high. He glides low. He feels the repercussions of his inability to follow directions, of his unwillingness to obey. Icarus dies and Daedalus finishes the flight alone and broken hearted.

Archetypal psychologists, who translate the mythological stories of the past into meaningful lessons for the present, might correlate Icarus’ plight with the modern definition of mania. Euphoric upswings give way to desparate dips downward. The manic individual mimics Icarus. He or she won’t “stay in the middle,” won’t “fly in between.” Instead, the manic individual soars for the sun. The wax, which represents the emotional and intellectual glue that enables a person to hold it together, melts. And it doesn’t matter how quickly one “beats his naked arms.” Without feathers, there’s no flight.  A fall into an ocean-like flood of negative emotions follows.

It sounds like doom. But it is also what drives the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos of 21st Century entrepreneurship. There’s a flip side to everything. Often our strengths and our fatal flaws are one and the same. Both Icarus’ and the entrepreneur are like the up-scrolling game avatar Pit. They keep flying higher and higher, closer and closer to the sun. Just one impetuous mistake, however, will lead to a fatal fall.

This interpretation of the myth describes something about Icarus. But Icarus is not really the protagonist of the ancient myth. Icarus is just Daedalus’ offspring, an extension of himself. Icarus might be understood as Daedalus’ avatar. Daedalus provides Icarus with the tools he needs–”like a bird that leads its tender young into the air”–and he suggests the proper navigation for the journey.

Sure, the journey is a failure for both Daedalus and Icarus. But had the escape from Minos’ tower been a video game, Icarus’ descent would have been accompanied by a downward melody in the soundtrack. It would have concluded with the phrase “I’m Finished!” or “Game Over.” And Daedalus would have restarted, trying again and again, persevering until he leveled up.

In Daedalus, then, we see a archaic representation of primordial character traits that will eventually be associated with 21st Century gamers and entrepreneurs. Daedalus is inventive and disruptive. He can solve any problem. With his ingenuity, he can navigate his way out of any situation.

He’s said to have invented carpentry. He designed the famous labyrinth that imprisoned the minotaur. He is the originator of robotics and animatronics, creating sculptures were made with “eyes as if open and limbs as if in motion, so his statues had to be chained to prevent them from running away.” For the ancient Greeks, Daedalus was the mythological ancestor that created the possibility for all technological feats of human ingenuity.

What’s more, it is not only the Greeks that celebrated Daedalus, in the early days of the industrial age, the Romantic poets also latched on to his image. He was symbolically associated with the artistic craftsman: passionate, disruptive, and rebellious. He changes the world around him through the creation of new systems, new inventions, and imaginative solutions to old problems.

In short, he’s an innovative tool maker. He matches the modern image of an entrepreneur.

And maybe, just maybe, Daedalus was also the first gamer.

Jordan Shapiro is author of  FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss. For information on his upcoming books and events click here.

Source: Forbes Business


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