Pioneering the Future with an English Degree

Jonny Ebbert, senior designer at Blizzard Entertainment and a BYU alum, delivered the 2015 English Symposium’s keynote address, discussing how learning to create will change the world.

PROVO, Utah (March 19, 2015)— As the keynote speaker at the 2015 English Symposium, Jonny Ebbert described himself as a “spotty” student: “I had ability, but I’d have flashes of awesomeness and then kind of reel it in for half the semester and somehow pull something together by the end.” While he had a passion for literature, he had an even larger passion that eventually determined his future: gaming.

Ebbert is a senior designer at Blizzard Entertainment, one of the largest video game developers and publishers in the world. His passion for games has driven him, more than anything else, to create. “I’m so passionate about games because I think games are the new art form,” he said.

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According to Ebbert, games bring two things to the table that other art forms can’t bring. “The first is that you’re giving the audience a choice,” he said. “It’s not a passive experience, You’re presenting them with opportunities, and they’re the ones who decide how the story turns.”

As a burgeoning art form, Ebbert thinks that games are a more captivating form of art than more traditional mediums, such as music, literature or visual arts. This is because, he said, “experiencing something as the actor is always more engaging than watching somebody else do it.”

But what does gaming have to do with English?

Ebbert attributed the development of many of his analytical and creative skills to his training in the English discipline. At Blizzard, Ebbert noted that four out of five of the creative directors were English majors, and another significant portion of senior directors were humanities majors.

This is because, according to Ebbert, in English and the humanities “you develop strong analytical skills. You break down story structure and flow constantly, and breaking it down over and over again helps you to create it on your own.”

As English majors, you practice creative thinking constantly, he said: “The whole point is that you’re looking for connections that other people may not have seen.”

Ebbert said the skills students develop in the English major are meant to teach them to communicate, but Ebbert made the point that communicating effectively and communicating verbosely or voluminously are very different things. “English could teach us how to iterate quickly and effectively,” he said. While he does feel like English taught him how to iterate, he didn’t feel that he had enough practice in learning how to communicate quickly and effectively in collaboration with others. Ebbert noted that these are skills he developed working in his first few jobs.

Although many people assert that creativity is something one is born with or inherently possesses, Ebbert challenges that notion: “Creativity is a skill. It’s a skill you can practice. You start to learn to be creative by looking for connections that other people have not made. If you do it a lot, you get good at it. English does that for you.”

Ebbert explained why he creates games, but he said: “I’m not here to convince anyone to make games.” He articulated the purpose of his address as convincing students to find their own passion. “What I want you to do is to find that passion and become, like me, an obsessed maniac with that passion. And I want you to use the skills you learn as an English major to create.”

Because, according to Ebbert, that’s what humanity needs. Humanity needs people who create.

English is more an entrepreneurial major and typically doesn’t immediately translate to professional or career options. By virtue of being an English major, “You’re going to have to be kind of inventive in how you translate it into another industry,” said Ebbert. “And it’s an exciting time to be an English major because we live in the age of exponents.”

The age of exponents refers to the exponential possibilities opened up by the Internet. Ebbert listed the expansion of human ability since the advent of the Internet: Wikipedia gives any human on earth access to basically the sum of human knowledge; Amazon allows us access to almost any commodity on the planet; message forums have allowed people with ideas, who were otherwise isolated, to find others with similar interests.

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These developments are considered the first exponent of the Internet. Ebbert said, “we are now in the second phase,” or web 2.0, he called it. “Suddenly, basically any multimedia experience created after the year 2000 can be found on YouTube. Facebook is changing social structures as we know them. Twitter is changing information exchange as we know it. It has brought down governments, multiple governments. Skype is allowing us to collaborate in ways we hadn’t dreamed possible. I don’t think we appreciate it, but with a smart phone, I carry basically the Library of Congress in my pocket. I mean, that’s like Star Trek kind of stuff.”

Today we’re just barely feeling the effects of exponent one and learning how to use exponent two. According to Ebbert, we can only imagine what’s in the future ten years from now.

“I am riding on the tail-end of the first exponent, and you are going to ride on tail-end of the second exponent,” he said. “But more importantly, you are going to pioneer the third exponent, which is going to change things in ways we cannot even dream of.”

Addressing an auditorium filled with bright-eyed students, he emphasized that they could be the people who solve the problems that society faces. They could, if they choose, be the developers of the 2.0 versions of energy, education, politics, environmental balance and economics.

“You guys could be the people that pioneer that, with an English major. Do not sell your birthright to write texts for Banana Republic catalogues,” he said.

What it came down to was a basic request form Ebbert. “Here’s what I need you guys to do: I need you to find your passion. I need you to become an obsessed maniac. I need you to put your ideas out into the matrix. I need you to find people that share your passion. And I want you to create as no other people can create. This is my plea: I want you to take the things you learn from English, and I want you to make things, beautiful things, things that inspire wonder, things that inspire awe, things that bring people closer together. Create.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)

 

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