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Vol. 14, no. 1
February - March 2011

  >>   A Tale of Two Kumu
  >>   Exploring the Noodleverse
  >>   Youth Patrol
  >>   The People's Theater

Ahead of the Game 
Story by Julia Steele
Photos by
Dana Edmunds

Henk Rogers made a fortune in video games; now he's on a mission to transform Hawai'i into a model of clean, green energy self-sufficiency. To that end, he drives an electric Tesla.

Henk Rogers was
at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in 1988 when he first saw the little blocks falling out of the ether—the little blocks that would take him to the software ministry of the Soviet Union, make him hugely rich and radically change his life. He was 34 that day in Las Vegas, Dutch-born with European and Indonesian blood. It was early days still for video games, but Henk knew which way the world was going and he knew potential when he saw it. The aim of the game? Pack the blocks perfectly as they piled up the well. Basic. Elegant. Highly addicting. Henk was hooked, among the first of millions.


Being in the vanguard wasn’t a new thing. Henk had programmed his first computer in 1970 as a student at New York City’s renowned Stuyvesant High School. It was the dawning of the Information Age, and the ramifications, Henk realized, were staggering. He was a teenager then, the oldest of nine, with an ever-aspiring but never-thriving entrepreneur for a father. The family moved around the globe chasing the patriarch’s dreams and schemes: When they left the nightclub in New York it was to deal gemstones in Japan. The plane stopped in Hawai‘i en route, and the family got off, for two weeks that became a year. Henk, ripped from the fervor of Manhattan and planted in the languor of La‘ie, learned to surf and to dive. Eager for computer time, he started heading into town to the University of Hawai‘i campus. When the family continued east, he stayed in the Islands to allow more time at the university —at least until he fell in love with a Japanese exchange student and followed her back to her homeland.


In Japan, Henk worked for his father until, to prove that he could, he started his own company. He wrote software for nine months, and at the end of that time, he had The Black Onyx, Japan’s first computer role-playing game, inspired largely by his marathon sessions of Dungeons & Dragons at UH.


The Black Onyx was a smash. In no time it was Japan’s number-one video game, and Henk was on his way. He made more games in Japan, and then came that fateful trip to Las Vegas and the little blocks that would launch him into the stratosphere. The game Henk saw that day was a little-known creation controlled by the Soviet software ministry. It was called Tetris. A year later Henk was on a plane to Moscow in an audacious—and successful — quest to secure the licensing rights to Tetris; he also forged an enduring friendship with the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov. Next he convinced Nintendo of America to bundle Tetris into its hugely popular Gameboy. Tetris sold more than thirty-five million copies on Gameboy alone, then branched out to other devices and began its march to becoming one of the most popular games of all time. Henk was buoyant, successful and loving life.