When Elon Musk arrived at the E3 video game convention in Los Angeles, he must have felt like the man who gulped pure oxygen after living with high-altitude sickness. After dealing with countless issues and enduring Congressional scrutiny with both Tesla and Space X, he spent a day stepping back into his roots — video gaming.
“I’ve always been into video games,” he told a packed house at the Microsoft Novo Theatre. “The first time I programmed I was 10 or 11, but it was published when I was 12. It was called Blaster.” That drew a lot of nods from gamers now in their 40s and 50s. “You’re a space fighter, blasting and fighting space aliens. I wrote the game, and did graphics and sound. There was no one else to do it, but it was a very simple game. I want to emphasize that.”
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Musk and video games have both come a long way since his first programming efforts. He appeared at E3 to announce a pair of video games coming to Tesla vehicles, Beach Buggy Racing 2 and Fallout Shelter, in conjunction with video game shop Bethesda Softworks. “I’ve been a fan of Bethesda Softworks games for a long time,” he said. “I’ve played the Fallout 3 game a lot. I’ve explored every corner of that game. Also played Fallout 4; that’s great. I’m such a Fallout fan that one time, I was having a birthday, and I wanted the statue of Vault Boy in my house.”
Fallout Shelter will bring the “Fallout” series to Tesla screens. It will join the run-and-gun video game Cuphead and Beach Buggy Racing 2 as games in development. They will be available to every Tesla model with an over-the-air software update. Beach Buggy Racing 2 includes quite a feature — direct wiring to the car’s braking and steering. “If you have a racing game, and you have a steering wheel — sitting right there…” Musk teased. “The way we have it, the brake is wired in. The scroll wheel is wired to the gas pedal. Sitting on the brake if you’re stationary isn’t a problem; sitting on the gas might be.”
To that point, Musk and Bethesda Softworks chief Todd Howard emphasized that the games will only work when the Tesla is parked. ““You have to park the car to play these. The fun police make us park the car,” Musk chuckled. Later, he added, “Our games come from a question we all ask at Tesla: ‘How can we make being in the car the most fun?’ First, we look for things other people don’t have. If you just park somewhere, waiting for someone or on a road trip, it would be pretty cool to go to the car screen and play.”
The Tesla software, screen and controller are designed to house and stream a variety of video games, according to Musk. “You can play almost all the Tari games in the car,” he explained. “You can connect Xbox or PS4 controller and have some pretty good control feedback. We have some cool games, and the more people like them, the more games we’ll create and the higher up game development will be on our list. We’ll also put games into an archive you can screen-tap to download. Besides video games, we’re going to enable passengers to stream videos through the browser, watch Netflix or YouTube, if the car is parked and connected to wi-fi, say at a supercharging station.
“Our games come from a question we all ask at Tesla: ‘How can we make being in the car the most fun?’ First, we look for things other people don’t have. If you just park somewhere, waiting for someone or on a road trip, it would be pretty cool to go to the car screen and play,” he added.
Today, many compare Musk to Thomas Edison; in fact, some consider him the most important inventor on the planet since Edison. The founder of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City sits on the front lines of sustainable driving, space exploration and green energy — and is pushing the envelope on Mars exploration. “We’re even looking at developing video game platforms for our space capsule, for crews going to Mars,” he said. “That’s going to be a long flight out there.”
However, he is not a profiteering late-adopter to video games. He’s more of a video game pioneer. He is very clear that without falling into video games as a boy, we never would have seen the larger products and technologies of his visionary mind.
“I thought seriously about creating video games as a career, for sure. Seemed like it would be sort of fun,” he recalled. “I even worked at a gaming start-up, strangely enough called Rocket Science. Fate loves irony, right? I worked there programming games, about 25 years ago. The reason I got interested in technology was video games. I wouldn’t have been as interested in computers and technology if not for video games. They’re a powerful force for getting kids in technology. The positive effects for kids, in this day and age, are far more positive than people realize. When we’re interviewing someone for a software engineering role at Tesla or Space X, we’ll ask, ‘How did you get started programming?’ More often than not, they’ll say, ‘video games.’
“Many of the best software engineers have spent parts of their careers at video game houses. If people tried to create realistic graphics using very little computer power, that’s a hard problem. So a lot of people had to write really tight code and come up with really great ideas to do that. Problem solving in video games transfers to a lot of software engineering skills, and demand is going to keep growing for that.”
Robert Yehling is an award-winning author, the founding editor of Innovation & Tech Today, and Executive Editor of STEM Today magazine.