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Critical Decisions: Why I Went Back to School
2012, Q3 (September 30, 2012)
By Darren West, NCSU Technical Communications Student

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

All critical decisions derive from two points. The first is the moment of choice, when action is required and taken. This moment is easily defined yet rooted in utter chaos. When I chose to pursue Technical Communications as a major, as a career, I did so because I had painted myself into a corner. I had an undergraduate degree in English Education and spent several years as a teacher. I hated my job—hated the combative students, shortsighted parents, terrible hours, miserable pay, the whole broken, ineffectual system—and quit. Consequently, I was unemployed and unemployable for I couldn’t seem to convince anyone that teaching experience counted for anything much at all.

With no hope in sight, I set about to find a major to pursue for a graduate degree so that I could have some slim hope of gainful employment, and ultimately settled on Technical Communications. As an English major there didn’t seem to be much else that I could do that would actually utilize my skills and be remotely practical. Practicality was important for me, you see, because teaching high school English taught me that the answer to the question “When will I ever use this?” is, most often, “Never, unless you go to college, and then likely never again.” I wanted to do something that, perhaps, would not leave me quite so bitter about what I did every day.

That was the first point that led to my entry into technical communication: a cynical choice, made in a moment of desperation. But as I said before, all critical decisions come from two points. The second point is not necessarily a choice made, or a time, or even a single thing. It is merely something that stays with you, that comes unbidden into your thoughts at times, and which in some small or great way marks you. In this case, it was the 1996 computer game Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares.

I am pursuing technical communications because I was desperate, but also because many years ago I encountered proof that writing need not be fiction to be worthwhile, interesting, or affecting.

This is the moment when some of you will bemoan a younger generation, but I’d still like to explain. Master of Orion II is a strategy game in which the player creates an empire across a galaxy. It is not a simple game, featuring multiple planet types, ship customization, a branching technology tree, eight distinct species of creatures to control, and more. Perhaps the easiest way to express its complexity is to say that you can adjust the tax rate of your empire. Now, it is not the most complex example of the genre, but when I received it as a gift from my mother some time when I was in middle school, it was an overwhelming, alien experience. Back then, video games weren’t about establishing tax rates or setting up production lines, they were about running and jumping and doing battle with fat guys who built robots and turtle monsters with princess fixations.

As I’ve entered the world of tech comm, I've realized the Master of Orion II manual is a great piece of technical writing. The vocabulary alone is worthy of praise—seriously, how many video game manuals feature the word “lithosphere”? It is extremely focused and detailed, yet it always keeps a keen eye on what its reader wants and needs. It is what I think about when I am asked about good technical writing, because it showed me how something complex could be broken down into something so accessible and useful.

So there you have it. I am pursuing technical communications because I was desperate and didn’t know where else to turn. But I am also pursuing the field because many years ago I encountered proof that writing need not be fiction to be worthwhile, interesting, or affecting. It is my hope that someday I will be able to make a living from this work. It is also my hope that I will create something that is not only useful, but well-crafted. Something of which I can be proud. Perhaps those goals are at odds with one another, but such is the strange truth of critical decisions.

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