Tuesdays with T4A: Jim Greer (12/17/13)

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Jim Greer
Founder and CEO | Kongregate
Jim Greer is the founder and CEO of Kongregate, a web and mobile platform that combines over 75,000 games with achievements, profiles, and virtual goods and other community features. Kongregate reaches over 15 million unique visitors who spend 35 million hours per month there. Kongregate was acquired by GameStop in 2010 and operates as an independent subsidiary. Before founding Kongregate in 2006, Jim was Technical Director at Electronic Arts. He holds a Computer Science degree from Princeton. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Daphne Keller and two children.

Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?

I’m going to use up the whole page on the first question… I was born in the Dominican Republic – my sister/cofounder Emily was born in Guatemala a few years later. We then moved to:

Austin, TX
Madrid, Spain
back to Austin
back to Madrid
Princeton, NJ

Between high school and college I taught English in the Dominican Republic, worked as a cook in Telluride, CO, and got arrested in Newport Beach, CA (you’ll have to tell us more about that later! –Sam).

Then I went to college at Princeton.

During college I spent a summer in Austin that turned into a year, and I almost dropped out (see question 2), but did make it back to Princeton and switched majors from History to Computer Science. I graduated in 1995, and moved back to Austin to work on Ultima Online…

As for what I remember most – probably the most intense day of my life was my first day of school in Madrid. I was 10, and had spent the previous 6 years as a regular American kid in Austin. My parents, to their credit, thought I’d get more from an authentic experience in Spain from a “real” Spanish education. The school was the size of city block, 8 stories tall, and had 3,250 kids in 13 grades. Most of them had literally never met an American. I was literally swarmed at recess with kids 3 deep saying “Do you ride a horse to school?”, “Who shot JR?” (it was 1980). The best were the ones who asked me to translate elaborate Spanish oaths, like “¿Cómo se dice…’Me cago en las tetas de la Virgen María para que el Niño Jesús chupe mierda?'” (If anyone wants the answer to that one, email me. It’s not fit for publication.)

I adjusted to the school pretty well, mostly avoiding the cuffs on the head that the teachers doled out regularly. I even became a teacher’s pet – my 4th grade teacher would send me down to the tobacconist to buy him cigarettes – he smoked in class, ashing on the floor. On the plus side, I learned to handle myself in a very foreign environment. I got way ahead in math – they were doing binary arithmetic. I can draw a map of Spain freehand very well. And I could go anywhere in the city on public transportation by myself at age 10. It was a great place to be a free-range kid.

What was your first job?
During college I took a year off and worked for Origin Systems, in Austin TX. My boss was Richard Garriott, aka Lord British – a gaming pioneer and the first private citizen to go to space… I was working on Ultima VII – my title was “Wonderboy”. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. I loved games, but mostly I loved working with real people who had real passion for a real project.  It left me with no desire to go back to school…

What is your first political memory?

I remember watching the Ford/Carter debates with my grandmother. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew that it was important. It got my very sweet grandmother worked up.

I remember that my mother and father always voted the opposite of each other – to save time they had a pact that neither would vote, saving time and effort since their votes would cancel out anyway. That lasted until my father snuck off behind her back and voted anyway… she was as mad as I’ve ever seen her.

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter

What is your favorite book? Game?
My favorite recent book was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – I love both the detective story and the vivid alternate future. As a kid I loved sci-fi, particularly Arthur C. Clarke. His collection of predictions for the future was like my bible – Profiles of the Future.

For political reading, I’m a big fan of Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost – campaign finance is my #1 issue.

As for games, I’m a pretty serious poker player – I started SF Poker League, an office tournament series for game developers and techies (T4A.org members welcome!).

The company you founded, Kongregate, seeks to be 'the leading online hub for players and game developers to meet up, play games, and operate as a community.' How drew you into gaming & game development, and why are games such a great way to bring people together?

My mother got an Apple ][+ to write her dissertation – I think I was 11 at the time. I was immediately hooked – at that time the gulf between playing games and making them was much smaller. You turned on the machine and were typing at a BASIC prompt. I typed in lots of games from Softalk magazine. I literally typed for days – it was a great way to learn. I started by making my own modifications to the game – I changed the hero from an “@” sign to a “+”, and gave him new weapons, etc.

In high school I decided being a nerd wasn’t the way to get girls, so I pretended to be a jock. Joined the wrestling team, etc. It sort of worked, but I definitely felt like an impostor until my best friend (and CounterPAC cofounder) Zack Simpson got me a summer job at Origin Systems when I was 20.

You founded Kongregate with your sister Emily Greer. Were you two collaborative as children / adolescents? What are the biggest benefits – and challenges – of working with a sibling?
Our gaming career started with me conning her into spending her allowance on Ultima III. I had already spent all my money on videogames, and while on a family trip to Europe I enthralled her with tales of the wonderful times we would have together playing in Sosaria.

Of course things changed once she bought the game… to her credit she doesn’t hold it against me. At Kongregate I’ve definitely been the pitchman and she’s been the operator – she would never have started the company without me, but it wouldn’t have lasted a year without her…

The biggest benefit is probably that we can fight efficiently in meetings without freaking people out. The biggest drawback is that people sometimes assume we’re husband and wife, which is icky.

Who are your role models and why?
Benjamin Franklin – any engineer who aspires to have a broader impact has to admire him. I envy his energy level and perseverance… my CounterPAC cofounder Zack is much more like that than I am.
As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our Government and Democracy?
Philosophically, I think good government depends on the principled involvement of private citizens. Our economy depends on specialization – it’s astounding that 99% of us live on the food grown by the other 1%. I love capitalism, but I think something is lost when you specialize that much. You see others reacting in the same way – obviously the locavore movement, but the Maker movement too. We can’t leave governance to those who make it their career – I believe that the tech industry has tremendous potential to help, something we’ve barely started to do. How many names can we put up next to Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie? Gates? We need more of those. I nominiate Bezos, Brin, Hoffman, Mayer, Page, Williams, and Zuckerberg.

Obviously it’s easier to do when you’ve retired, so it’s not a fair comparison. And up until this year I haven’t walked the walk. I’m active in the San Francisco Bike Coalition, but hadn’t gotten involved in politics beyond campaign donations to politicians I admire: Obama and McCain in particular – as well as EFF, the Nature Conservancy, and CRP. Lacking time, I gave money. As I step back from Kongregate, I’m going to give more of both.

Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?
Delegating critical work to distant specialists doesn’t work very well. For a while we tried to have our software made for us in India. It worked, sort of. But it wasn’t the way to make inspiring products, and the pendulum has swung back to having the programmers right next to you. I think the same applies in politics, and it’s the reason people like their city supervisor better than their senator or president…

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
I have a lot to learn about young adults outside of their gaming habits. I’ll get back to you on that one.

In general I’d say that online communities have pulled our loyalty towards smaller groups and away from big ones. It’s a lot easier to find precisely like-minded people on Twitter than in the Big Tent of a political party.

What is your favorite journey?
Putting my two kids in front of me on our big red bike and cruising down Valencia St to their school.
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
PJ Harvey. Or Sarah Silverman.

If it has to be a guy, David Byrne.

What is your proudest moment?
Parenting offers lots of those, but honestly I’d say it was a few months ago, when I realized that three years after “selling out” to GameStop, only two of our programmers had left the company. And one of those came back.
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