Name and Twitter handle?
Stephen McGreal. I don’t have a Twitter handle (but could get one if it would be useful to people?)
Where are you currently residing in the world?
What’s your favourite video game of all time?
There’s an old game called Chaos, that came out on the ZX Spectrum in 1983. It’s a turn-based strategy game about duelling wizards summoning creatures to attack each other, and it’s brilliant. It’s really old and it looks terrible by today’s standards, but it’s great fun. The guy who did it is working on a remake, which is pretty exciting.
What was the last game you enjoyed and why?
There are newer games that I liked, but the one that keeps me coming back is Minecraft. You can play it however you like, from a lone-wolf survival horror FPS to a massively multiplayer collaborative city-building game, and pretty much everything in between, and however you want to play it, you can just get lost in it. For months, sometimes…
Please describe very briefly any of the bullying you experienced.
I’ve been the perpetrator of bullying as well as the victim.
In primary school, I was the bully. I was socially awkward, clumsy (which made me frustrated), and smart (which made me bored), and had “stuff” going on in my home life. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control over my life or my body. So I used to lash out at other kids, and at teachers.
A teacher introduced me to programming in BBC BASIC. Having control over a thing without the mess of human interaction or the constraints of physical dexterity had a massively soothing effect on me, turned me into a nerd, and set me on the path that I’m still following to this day.
In secondary school, I was bullied, for being a nerd. I wouldn’t say that it was severe, but it was there, and it kind of soaked into every strand of my everyday life. Although on a few occasions there were kids who instigated fights, I had a reputation for being scrappy, and fearless about giving bigger kids as good as they got. I rarely started fights, always ended them, and was not challenged to rematches. The verbal abuse was reasonably constant though, from a handful of kids. I never found a way to make that stop.
The really pervasive bit was the sense of social ostracism from the other kids as a whole. I was a computer nerd, and as such was unworthy of friends (except the three other computer nerds, none of whom I particularly liked but we stuck together because we had nobody else). Once, when the school ran a mock election, I stood as a candidate and spoke in front of a room full of kids who thought I was a twat (which was tough, but, I thought at the time, character building). The candidate who came onstage after me eschewed his talk of his policies in favour of calling my sexuality into question. Four or five hundred kids laughed. It was only when it transpired that one of the “cool kids” was also kind of into computers that I had the beginnings of a social circle open up for me. By the time I got to college I was popular, and accepted, although crippled with paranoia and self-harm issues that took a few more years to get out of my system.
When did you manage the bullying?
Do you mean when did I experience it, or when did I overcome it? I experienced it as a perpetrator during primary school (between the ages of about 7 and 11), and as a victim throughout secondary school (aged 11 to 16). Even though my situation improved after I left school, and I wasn’t bullied (and didn’t bully anybody else), it took me until my twenties to really feel better. The difficulties you face in school can come from other sources as well as bullying – a difficult home life, a lack of confidence in social situations, self-doubt, paranoia. Being a kid and a teenager is tough, and anybody who says otherwise is lying, or has forgotten what it was like. As I went through my college and university years, I found friends who accepted me for who I am, I found more confidence in myself and better ways to cope with what the world threw at me, and slowly but surely, school just faded away.
What effect do you think it had on you?
I was an unhappy kid anyway, but the bullying didn’t help. It’s impossible for me to say now how much of how I felt came from the bullying and how much came from my own awkwardness at the time. But, you know, I went through phases of wearing black and cutting myself and writing really terrible poetry. I contemplated suicide. I felt paranoid and isolated and worthless. I thought that things would never get better.
What do you do now?
I program games I made console and handheld games for a few years (including some Harry Potter games and some Grand Theft Auto games – which your parents shouldn’t be letting you play, by the way), and then I decided that mobile and social games where what I really wanted to do. I like the smaller teams and projects, it gives me a really good feeling that I played a big part in each game that comes out. Tomorrow I’m starting a new job at a company making iPhone and iPad games, which I’m pretty excited about. Also, I found a soul-mate girlfriend a few years ago, and became a dad a few months ago, which I suppose is my real job now, regardless of what I do for a day job. It’s pretty exciting.
How is your life better now?
The biggest thing is that I can look back on that time when I thought things would never get any better, and know that they did. And although my life isn’t perfect now, I know that I can make sure that things will keep getting better. I’ve had great jobs, and continue to do so, and they help pay for a nice flat and cool stuff to fill it with and interesting hobbies. I’ve played in a bunch of bands, built robots and synthesisers, planned and performed my own massive fireworks displays, won prestigious prizes, made a thousand people laugh all at once, made games that millions of people have enjoyed, and met some of my childhood heroes… I’ve got a decent amount of friends, including some really good ones who I know would do anything for me (and they know I’d do the same for them). I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend and an awesome baby boy. I’ve got confidence. I know myself well, and although I’m not proud of every little thing about me, overall I know that I turned out pretty well.
Did you think your life was ever going to be this good?
Nope, I had no idea. For a long time I thought that things were never going to get better, or that I’d be dead before I experienced anything good. But life, even at its darkest points is a fantastic adventure.
What would you like to say to a youngster thinking about getting into video games who is experiencing bullying right now?
In school, it’s the kids who are introverted, smart, creative, or just different who the bullies consider to be easy targets. Out in the wider world, and particularly in careers like the games industry, those are the exact same people who can really thrive. Amongst the people who make games, being a “nerd” or a “geek” is a badge of honour rather than shame, and some – maybe most – of the most talented people I know were bullied in school and overcame it to go on to have fantastic lives and careers. We turn thoughts and ideas into fun that’s enjoyed by millions, we get to work with other people who know what bullying is like and work against it to be respectful and supportive. If you get into games, you’ll be in good company. And although life isn’t a competition, you’ll generally find that the people who make it their mission to be the most feared kids in the playground will find it a lot harder to find their place in the world than those who have a passion for something and want to see it through.