Ben Hayes



Current country

United States

When did you unschool?


Where did you "graduate?"

New York City

Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

For the first 12 years of my life, I would describe my education as a mix of unschooling and homeschooling. My parents required me to study a small set of subjects (math, writing, music, languages), but the way I learned and what I did with the rest of my time was up to me. 

Looking back, I can see that my parents established structure around things they thought I would regret not studying. I rarely felt overly constrained. Generally, I didn’t impose much structure on myself unless I had something specific I was trying to accomplish.

Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.

Growing up, I was part of an organized group of homeschoolers in NYC, which was where I made most of my friends. There was a wide age range of kids in that group, so I’ve always been comfortable interacting with people both much older and much younger than me. Age isn’t really something I think about in my daily life.

Who made the decision to unschool you?

My parents initially decided, although they always gave me the option of going to school if I wanted to.

Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).

When I was 13, I started an internship at a game studio, which quickly evolved into a full time gig, so that took up a lot of my time. Aside from that, I studied for the SAT and GED to keep my options open for college (which was suggested by my parents but mostly self-directed). 

The best thing my parents did for me at this point in my life was to encourage me to focus on my long-term goals. Nothing ever felt arbitrary. I studied for the SAT/GED because I thought college sounded fun, not because they told me I had to go to college.

Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.

I played some sports and did some online gaming, but the vast majority of my time was spent at two different game studios, where I interned and later worked as a game designer. Most of my social interaction was with people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.

Through my internship and game design work, I got along well with people much older than me. As I spent more and more time with adults, I started having a hard time relating to people my own age or younger. 

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?

Yep, GED.

During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?

At 13, I worked as a game design intern as a game studio called Gamelab. My internship led to me working as the lead of their internship program, and that grew into a game designer role. Around 16, one of their design leads left to start his own company, Rebel Monkey, and I left to work as a game designer for him. 

How did you make the decision to go to college?

I was initially planning to go to Parsons School of Design to further my game design career. Just after I applied, a new design intern started at work (who I was in charge of managing), and I realized he was a graduate student in the program I was applying for, so pursuing that program seemed a bit silly.

Later I decided to go to Eugene Lang, mostly just to see what college was like.

What did you study?

I only went to Eugene Lang for one semester, during which I took classes in anthropology and literature. I don’t currently have a college degree and I’m not working towards one, but I am interested in someday getting a degree in education.

What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?

The hardest part of going to college was being surrounded by so many people I didn’t feel I could relate to. When I started college, I had already been working in a professional environment for almost four years, so I was at a very different place in my life than almost all of my peers in school. It was also demoralizing to see how many of my fellow students had zero interest in the classes we were taking.

The easiest part of going to college was interacting with my professors. I got along with most of them very well, which helped me feel less alone.

Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?

Definitely both. I had an easier time doing the work necessary to get accepted into college, but I also ran into bureaucratic speed bumps a few times due to various educational documentation that hadn’t been filed in my childhood.

Did you feel pressure to attend college?

I felt some societal pressure to attend college, but I never felt pressure from my family. Both of my parents told me that they enjoyed college a lot and that they thought I would like it too, but it was always my decision.

Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.

When I was very young I worked at a local farm, picking and selling produce. At 13 I got a game design internship, and from that point on I’ve worked professionally as a game designer in one way or another for the past 15 years. 

What is your current job?

Principal Game Designer, Magic: The Gathering R&D, Wizards of the Coast

Why did you choose your current job?

I’ve played Magic and D&D since I was a small child, so working at Wizards on Magic was an absolute dream opportunity.

Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?

Much easier. There’s no way I would have found my internship or had time to do it if I’d been in school. Even if I had found the internship, I wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time playing and thinking about games if I’d been in school, so I wouldn’t have been good enough to make an impression on my employer. My upbringing let me start my professional life when I was ready, instead of arbitrarily waiting for a certain time to begin. 

What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?

You have an amazing opportunity in front of you. Take advantage of this time and discover things you love doing.

What advice would you give to their parents?

Be a facilitator. Let your kid explore, clear obstacles out of their way, and give them the tools they need.

If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?

I would probably structure things similarly to how my parents did, although I’d want to adapt the experience to my own kids as they developed. I’m sure what worked for me might not work for them.

Published: October 2019