For most of my life, I haven’t really thought of myself as a person that had a lot of privilege around wealth. Now, having spent a few years looking at the kinds of privilege I do have, I can see that a little inheritance can go a long way -and a lot of it has to do with land ownership.
To tell this story is to tell, from a particular angle, the story of my life. That calls for an introduction. My name is Aubrey Pullman. I identify as a white man. My current job is Lead Lighting Artist for Hardsuit Labs. My career making video games started in 1997, but I’ve been an “artist” for nearly as long as I can remember.
I grew up on a small commune in the Columbia River Gorge, in Washington State. It was a pretty "rustic" experience. Two things of note here: 1) The commune was a corporation, where all the members earned shares. 2) The corporation bought/owned the land the commune was on. This becomes important later.
The Oregonian printed an article on the commune in 1996 after its dissolution (spoilers, ahoy)
We would regularly go to the (not really nearby) Janzen Beach mall to shop. It was there I was first introduced to video games. The first game I remember playing was Scramble -and I loved it. I would always ask one of the adults for spare quarters and they would usually oblige.
When I would go into town to shop with my dad, he would give me a handful of quarters to entertain myself, while he did the actual shopping. We didn't have much money, but we had enough that my dad could afford to leave me with, probably $3 in quarters ($9 in 2020) a few times a month. The other thing about the commune was there were usually adults around to look after the various kids. That allowed my parents the flexibility to work, attend school or whatever -without paying for childcare.
I suspect a number of the people that started the commune were pretty well off. They owned large houses in Portland, as well as what they contributed to the commune. Without their wealth, I doubt we could have purchased the land. I don’t really know all the details here.
When I was in about third grade, my mom started dating and then later married a professor in Portland. He bought a Kaypro II computer to write papers on. My step-brother and I played (text only) games on it and learned to write simple programs in BASIC.
When I was in fourth grade I lived with my dad, back on the commune. The school I was attending in Skamania County got a bunch of Apple computers. I think we had group computer classes a few times a week, so even though I didn’t have access to a computer at my dad's house, we had them at school. The neighbor kids had an Intellevision we’d play on together as well.
In fifth grade, I moved back to Portland and finished the rest of my schooling. My friend next door had a Commodore 64, that we used to play on together – much more fun than the Kaypro IV, my step dad had upgraded to. The neighborhood where we lived was fairly diverse in income. Some small apartment buildings, many old houses in various states of repair, and not too far away some pretty wealthy people. In 6th grade, I met a few friends whose families had Macintoshes. Those were the most spectacular computers I had ever seen. I would spend hours with my friends, playing games and learning how to use those sophisticated computers.
In 9th grade I started working at a restaurant with the goal of buying my own Mac Plus. My mom was kind enough and had the means to split the $4,000 ($9,000 in 2020) cost with me. When I was in 11th grade, my mom bought her own house, with help from her father. Around the same time, the commune was dissolved and sold at a profit, giving my family some money from the sale. (Here's the story of the commune sale)
When I was in 12th grade, my step-father passed away, leaving me about $8,000 for my education. I chose to spend most of it on a Mac Quadra 800, because I knew I wanted to work in computer graphics. This purchase would become invaluable to me when I was in art school (briefly) and later at a liberal arts college that didn’t have much of a computer graphics lab.
Having my own computer in college allowed me to spend much more time learning about computer graphics than the average student. I was able to build a portfolio of work that would help me get my first job at Sierra Online, in 1997. Once I got that first industry job, things got a whole lot easier. Sort of.
I was unemployed for a long time after the market crash in 2001. I was able to live with my mom for free for 6 months, since she had her house and a very reasonable mortgage. Her schooling (bachelor and masters) eventually allowed her to get good paying jobs and finally pay off her student loans. That allowed her to help me. After finally finding "full-time" employment as a Microsoft contractor in 2003, I had rung up a fair amount of debt from my unemployment ($5000?), which my mom paid off.
In 2008, the economy tanked because of sub-prime and predatory loans. For a long time, the housing market was depressed. In 2011, I was working at Hidden Path Entertainment and feeling lucky to have a job. My partner was working as well. We had enough of an income that we could contemplate a house payment -AND here’s the important connection to make:
My mom’s dad helped her with house buying, which allowed my mom put her money from the sale of the commune into an account to help me buy a house, which allowed my partner and I to have a down payment ready whenever we needed it. When so many people were losing their houses, we were able to buy at a very good price. This means our mortgage payments are now about ½ what most of my peers have. These low expenses have allowed us to more easily weather my inevitable instability as a game developer, allowing me to stay in the industry longer.
Small advantages of inherited wealth, especially in home ownership over a few generations can turn into big advantages. This is one of the reasons why redlining has been so detrimental to the ability of Black families to build wealth. In terms of getting into computer-based fields, having access to technology from wealth and proximity gave me a huge head start.
Recommended reading: The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein