Origins

On a winter morning in early 2017, I was sitting on the couch with a game controller on my lap. I was taking a break from gaming and browsing the Pelaaja magazine. It’s a popular gaming magazine in Finland. On the back cover of the magazine, I saw an ad that would later change my life. It was an ad for the Game Development Studies program at the Kajaani University of Applied Sciences in Kajaani, Northern Finland. I remember looking at the ad for a while and pondering. At the time, I had a low self-esteem and no direction in my life, so something cool like making gaming felt out of my reach. So I threw the magazine on the table and reached for the controller.

Later in the winter, I moved to my own place. It was my late grandmother’s cabin in the countryside of Eastern Finland, hundreds of kilometres from my family back in Southern Finland. When I wasn’t shoving logs into the oven, I spent most of my time gaming. Every now and then I was also doing a little studying for the entrance exam, since I had decided to apply after all. In the spring, my father took me to the entrance exam in Kajaani. The letter came in the early summer, and I was nervous since I had already been refused from a university some years earlier – twice, actually. The letter said yes, however, and in my mind, a world of opportunities presented itself.

In August, I left the beautiful nature of North Karelia behind and moved with my little possessions to Kajaani. Kajaani is a small town in Kainuu, a province in Northern Finland. Before my visit in Kajaani for the entrance exam, my knowledge about the town was limited to the fact that it existed. Indeed, I only knew the town by name, and that was it. But it didn’t bother me, because after spending the past half a year in a cabin in the countryside, entering the student life in Kajaani felt like a fresh change. At the end of the month, I was standing in a circle with other freshmen at the parking lot, doing goofy orientation games and getting to know the other students.

Back at School

Up to the point when I started my studies at the KUAS, I had spent most of my adult life feeling guilt over not having much if anything going on in my life. After graduating from high school, I spent around five years jumping back and forth from doing various odd jobs and traveling in Europe with my younger brother. It was pretty cool to not be tied to anything and to get to visit all the places we went to. However, deep inside I knew that chasing highs wasn’t really going to change where I was in life. Now, after going back to school, I finally had a place to channel all the ambition and energy that had accumulated inside me, and I decided to fully embrace it.

The first year autumn semester consisted of general ICT studies such as cyber security in organisations and other mandatory courses such as Swedish. After the autumn semester, it was time to specialise in one of three areas of game development taught at the school: programming, art, or finally, production and design. While I had studied some C++ on my own time a couple of years earlier, I did not really have a passion to become a programmer. Also, since I couldn’t even draw a frog, art was out of question as well. I wasn’t sure about the design part since it sounded quite abstract, but production seemed interesting, so I ended up specialising in production.

The Game Development program at the Kajaani UAS consistsed mostly of game projects with some related courses here and there. In the beginning of a game project, the students were given by the teachers a rough criteria for what kind of game they would need to make for that course – e.g. a 2D game for mobile or a 3D game for PC. The students would then scatter around and form their own project teams consisting of programmers, artists, a designer, and a producer. The last two roles sometimes overlapped in that one person would take care of both, which was, of course, discouraged, and sometimes teams would have to survive without one or the other.

Distractions

Despite all my excitement for my new chance, I noticed during the first autumn semester that I was becoming increasingly withdrawn and had hard time socialising with the other students. This presented a major problem, because producing is essentially project management and requires excellent interpersonal skills. What I did not know about myself at that point was that I am in fact an introvert. An introvert has only a limited amount of social energy, and after it has been consumed, they become drained and feel the need to withdraw and recharge. I felt like I did not have what it would take to be successful at producing, and started regretting putting myself in that position.

Thinking back, the negative mentality that I had about my own capabilities closely resembles what has been described as the “impostor syndrome”. Those who experience this phenomenon, quoting Wikipedia, attribute their success to luck or interpret it as having resulted from deceiving others. Looking at my fellow students who were, on average, several years younger than me, expressed themselves more easily, and even seemed to have a passion for making games, I certainly felt like a hoax. At the end of the first autumn semester, I had almost had enough, and was looking for other study programs where I could just keep my head down.

In the end, I ended up sticking around. I did not really have a plan B and besides, I recognised that I had a major opportunity to change my life for the better. Since I didn’t find enjoyment in socialising, I kept myself busy and distracted in other ways, including by volunteering in organising my school’s student-run events such as Nordic eSports Academy and Northern Game Summit. I also started an app project with students from the School of Tourism and Sports, and even ended up talking about it on Finnish television. These projects kept me busy even during evenings and weekends, and I did not really mind since I was having something productive to do.

Hong Kong and Japan

During the spring semester, an opportunity represented itself for me to get a fresh change of environment. I received news that I was accepted for a student exchange in Japan. The exchange would be at the beginning of the second year’s autumn semester. At my school, students had the opportunity to go on a student exchange twice during their studies. The study program also consisted of a five month internship, which could be completed abroad. Since I exchanged twice and ended up interning at two different companies, both abroad, I went abroad for a total of four times during my studies. However, before my exchange in Japan, I had to find work for the summer.

Through a stroke of good luck, I got accepted for an internship in Hong Kong. I now had around four weeks to prepare for my first trip in Asia. The three month internship revolved around digital marketing of Japanese kawaii products. It did not have much to do with games, but I didn’t mind since I had a chance to see the world and prepare for my exchange in Japan. I spent the weekends hiking, exploring the city, participating in events and meetups, and also visited Macau and Shenzhen. Three months went by super fast, and I’m glad that I got to experience Hong Kong before the recent events. Hopefully, peace will one day return to the city.

From Hong Kong, I flew straight to Nagoya in Japan. Japan is a major player in the global video game industry, and naturally, many gamedev students make a pilgrimage there. The two and a half month exchange program took place at the Trident College of Information Technology. I produced a team of Finnish, Japanese, and Singaporean students. We worked on a VR game, which was displayed at the Tokyo Game Show the next year. On my free time, I explored the businesslike city of Nagoya and its surroundings, including Gifu, Korankei Gorge, and Kyoto. After the exchange was over, I took a Shinkansen to Tokyo and spent the Christmas exploring the megacity.

Interim

After almost half a year abroad, I flew back to Finland to spend the New Year with my family. While in Japan, I had received two pieces of good news. First news was that I got a part-time job in a construction and software company back in Kajaani. I could now earn some extra money, and I could even work remotely on my laptop. The second news was that I was accepted on another exchange program, this time to Singapore in the next summer. I was now back in Kajaani for half a year, and I spent my days studying, working, and exercising. I remember that half a year period as one of the busiest but also as one of the most productive periods in my life.

Back at the school, I noticed that my experience abroad had helped me to grow as a person. Of course, it did not magically change me to a new person. However, it did result in new friends and myself becoming more confident in expressing myself. I still had a lot to improve in many aspects, but noticing this change certainly gave me hope. In my opinion, going on a student exchange gives you the opportunity to experience and find your own place in a new social setting with new people. Putting yourself in new situations will likely result in finding new aspects of yourself. For me, this kind of repetition was important. As they say, repetition is the key to learning.

Before going to Singapore, I had some loose ends that I wanted to tie up. The app project that I had started in my first year was still in progress, but only namely. The original goal was to launch an online platform where people could connect locally and set up their organic hobbyist groups. Reflecting on my own experience, I wanted to reduce social exclusion among young and elderly people. In the end, we did not have the time that was needed to finish the app, as I was now working and the other students were about to graduate. Recognising this, we decided to put the idea back to the drawing board and step back with a year and a half worth of great experiences together.

Singapore and Portugal

In the middle of June in 2019, I landed at Changi Airport for my three month exchange in Singapore. Due to the small land area of the city-state, the campuses, including that of my school, Nanyang Polytechnic, were huge and housed tens of thousands of students. In Singapore, I reunited with my Singaporean friends whom I had met while in Japan, and also had a friend come over from Hong Kong. At the school, I produced as many as three game projects simultaneously. Outside of school, I went out with a Filipino woman and explored the small island with her, and we even visited Malaysia and Indonesia. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, since I knew that I had met my future wife.

From Singapore, I flew to straight to Portugal. I was accepted for a two and a half month internship in a Lisbon-based startup called Doppio Games. I worked as a Production Coordinator, and got to be part of the launch of Doppio’s latest voice-guided game, The 3% Challenge. In Lisbon, I had less time for exploring – spending the nights out while in Singapore had left me with a backlog of uncompleted school assignments. The highlight of my internship was representing Doppio at Web Summit, the largest tech event in the world. After the internship was over, I flew back to Finland for 10 days, and then flew to the Philippines for a well-deserved two and a half month holiday.

Finishing the Studies

I finally returned to Finland in Mid-February to finish my studies. I was well ahead of schedule since I only had to finish my thesis to graduate. Normally, it takes around three and a half years to complete BBA studies in Finland, but I completed the mandatory internships early on and also took advantage of my job to complete some courses. My return coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the school to switch to remote teaching. Luckily, the special arrangements did not affect me, since I would have written the thesis at home anyways. I wrote the thesis about voice game, and the thesis was commissioned by the game company I interned at.

Looking back, the highlights of my studies were the student exchanges I made to Japan and Singapore, and the internships I completed in Hong Kong and Portugal. I also fondly remember the RYE Connect conference at the Levi Ski Resort in Lapland in early 2018, the Young Entrepreneurs’ finals in Helsinki in the spring of 2018, Nordic eSports Academy in Kajaani in the summer of 2018, and the Nordic Health Hackathon competition in Helsinki in early 2019. All these experiences were voluntary, and required me to use my own time and resources to make them happen. I could have stayed in the comfort of my own home, but instead, I left my comfort zone and did not regret it.

Lessons Learned

One of the first assignments given to us at the beginning of our studies was to create a LinkedIn profile. I was initially reluctant, but then realised the professional value of having one. The opportunities that I enjoyed during my studies were partly due to the fact that I spent time building a strong LinkedIn profile and networking with people. However, I recognise that it has sometimes been difficult to find a balance between focusing on the depth of learning and experiences as opposed to constantly seeking what one would call “good resume material”. My advise would be to try to find a good balance between the two while not forgetting either, because I have seen people do both.

I am an avid reader, and there are a few books that influenced me and contributed to my personal growth during my studies. The most influential books that I read during my studies were Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen, which introduced me to the GTD productivity method, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, which helped me to better understand myself, and Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, which helped me to achieve a better focus in my professional life. For anyone out there looking for personal growth, I would suggest looking into these books.

During my studies, I developed a habit of utilising three productivity tools that I rely on a daily basis. These tools are a to-do list, a calendar, and a diary. The to-do list and calendar help me to keep track of my commitments without me having to remember everything by myself, and I use them in accordance with the GTD method. The calendar helps me to keep track of what is going on inside my own head, and thus supplements the other two tools. For anyone who would like to look into improving their productivity, I would suggest looking into the GTD method described in David Allen’s book. I might want to write about productivity on my blog in the future, so be sure to be on the lookout for that.

Final Words

Enrolling in the Game Development studies at the Kajaani UAS has been the single best decision of my life. After 2 years and 9 months of studying, I graduated to a new life full of opportunities and optimism, and also challenges to overcome. It all goes back to the ad I saw by chance at the back of that gaming magazine. I was at one point tempted thank that ad for changing the course of my life. However, I realised that it would have meant crediting everything to luck and ignoring all my hard work. That ad was an opportunity, which I, myself decided to take, and it lead to other opportunities, some of which I also decided to take. And those decisions lead me to where I am today.

Wow, this turned out to be a long post!