Elon Musk owns a space company, an electric car company, and a solar energy company. And he credits video games for getting him started on his path.
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, most famous for hosting Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and for deciding Pluto isn’t a planet, had Musk on a recent episode of the radio show Startalk. The two covered many subjects, including Musk’s fear of superintelligent computers. But Tyson started their conversation by asking Musk to explain his origin story, and to answer that, the Tesla founder went straight into a tale about video games.
“My father took me on a trip to the United States when I was about 10,” said Musk. “And I remember it was a really awesome experience because the hotels all had arcades. So my No. 1 thing was, when we went to a new hotel, was to go to the arcades.”
Musk, who is a billionaire thanks to founding and selling the Internet money-transfer site PayPal, was born in South Africa. He explained that it wasn’t “all that different from Southern California.” He watched all of the same TV, saw the same movies, and read the same comic books as Americans.
And gaming was another hobby that was popular in the United States that was a part of Musk’s life.
“[Games] are incredibly engaging, and they made me want to learn how to program computers,” he told Tyson. “I thought I could make my own games. I wanted to see how games work. I wanted to create a video game. That’s what led me to learn how to program computers.”
Musk’s family owned a Magnavox Odyssey, which was the first home video game console.
“It had four games you could play, and you would pick which of the four you wanted to play,” he said. “That was it. And then it went from there to the Atari and Intellivision. And then one day I was in the store, and I saw a Commodore VIC-20. And I was like, ‘Holy crow! You can actually have a computer and make your own games.’ I thought this was just one of the most incredible things possible.”
The young Musk — he was around 10 years old at the time — took all of his saved allowance (and hounded his dad for the rest) to purchase the Commodore VIC-20. This was the predecessor to the Commodore 64. The VIC-20 had only 5KB of total RAM, and it only had 3.5KB free for programming.
But that was enough to hook Musk.
“It came with this manual about how to program BASIC,” he said. “I spent all night several days in a row absorbing that. I sorta got OCD on the thing. Well, it’s maybe not technically OCD, but I was definitely obsessive. When you first do it, you realize it’s incredible. You can type these commands and then something happens on the screen. That’s pretty amazing.”
If you’re wondering if Musk’s passion for gaming still burns, well he recently talked about some of his favorite games. Those include the turn-based strategy game Civilization, the real-time strategy series Warcraft, and the sci-fi first-person shooter BioShock. He even plays the space-flight simulator Kerbal Space Program. Although he probably has less time for all of those now that he’s a rocket scientist.