Almost no one had a computer in the ’80s, so an Illinois window-washer was an unlikely early adopter. But Jon Cortelyou’s father thought it essential for his squeaky-clean business — a decision that, unwittingly, would catapult his son into the digital world.
While most of Cortelyou’s friends wielded Atari joysticks at home, few could afford a computer. And, though Cortelyou’s 48-kilobyte computer was arcane and severely limited — it ran off cassette tapes — he was lucky. As a little kid, he played primitive versions of blackjack and backgammon, and became digitally literate years before tech boomed.
“It introduced me to the very basics of video games,” the 52-year-old said.
By sixth grade, Cortelyou had learned to program in BASIC, an early coding language, at summer community college classes, where he spent free hours playing adventure video games and creating his own. Ta-da! A video game designer was born.
Back then, it was “embarrassing” to admit his passions. Gamers were the social equivalent of nerds, and the programming industry was green. Still, “I would never work on anything other than video games, as a computer programmer,” Cortelyou clarified. “Because: Boring.”
He enrolled at the University of Illinois to study programming — a classmate was Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, Cortelyou volunteered gleefully — and, upon graduation, he landed a job in Mountain View, California, where he knew absolutely no one.
The Silicon Valley destination was even more suburban than it is now, somehow. “Oh, it was so bad. I was like the only person in their early 20s in the entire city.”
A year later, he had swapped the ‘burbs for the city. He hit his mid-20s just before the dot-com boom, a time when coffee shops were still laptop-free and the city was “flooded with young people.” Some transplants included alumni from his high school, a couple of whom became 25-year-old millionaires, seemingly overnight.
In 1997, Cortelyou’s own career briefly heated up. He had finished his first game, “Uprising: Join or Die,” which earned rave reviews and pioneered a genre that combined a first-person-shooter game style with real-time strategy. The latter style, a bit complicated to users, didn’t take off, he admitted. But it’s still his favorite game.
Yet, even as a programmer living on tech’s periphery, he enjoyed the boom times. He attended soirees underwritten by 20-somethings who presciently bought URLs and sold them for $10,000 to companies that belatedly realized they were necessary. “I went to a house party funded by someone selling ‘heineken.com’ to Heineken,” he laughed.
When the bubble burst and his friends deserted the city, Cortelyou stayed behind, working for decades in video game development. He bounced around San Francisco before landing in the Mission last year. He’d always dreamed of living here, he said, and is hooked on its burritos.
Now retired, Cortelyou uses his computer mainly to goof off and read Reddit threads about local news. Still, he can’t ignore the stir AI is creating in his backyard. “I don’t think we can comprehend how much that’s going to change,” he said.
Once again, his timing was fortuitous. Video-game designers could be potentially wiped out as AI learns to create those worlds quickly and cheaply, Cortelyou said. He hopes creators heed warnings about AI’s impact and regulation. Still, he can’t help but be impressed.
“It is the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the history of computing,” Cortelyou said. “And that is happening right here.”