"Gamester" was my first published story.
I had been submitting stories to the science-fiction magazines for a few years, and by 1980 had built up quite a collection of rejection slips. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was making progress.
No one tells beginning writers, but there is a definite hierarchy to rejection slips. At the very bottom is the form rejection: a generic printed slip saying "Your story does not meet our present needs. Thank you for your submission, and please try again." (I've heard rumors of an even lower slip which does not include the "please try again" line, but have never actually encountered one.) In computer terms, the form rejection is the "default" -- only exceptional submissions get anything else.
Occasionally, when an otherwise-good story has some easily-identified flaw, one moves up to the next step: a form rejection with a hand-scrawled note: "Character development weak" or "But if the alien breathed chlorine, why didn't the heroine smell him on page 2?" Despite appearances, this is a genuine improvement.
The next step up is the rejection letter. This is still a standard format -- "We're sorry that your story does not meet our needs, thank you and please try again" -- but it is freshly-printed and comes with an editor's signature. Generally, rejection letters go to promising writers who are not quite at the right level. A rejection letter is actually an encouraging sign -- in writing classes, I tell my students that if they receive a rejection letter, they have cause to celebrate. A soda-and-burger celebration, that is, not champagne-and-caviar.
The highest form of rejection is the personal letter, in which an editor actually comments on your story and tells you why it didn't make it. "Sorry, we've just published two stories on intelligent mollusks in the past six months, and I don't think our readers could stand a third, no matter how good." Sometimes these letters will include a request for revision: "If you would consider changing it to an intelligent armadillo, I'd be interested." A personal letter, especially a request for revision, deserves a nice sit-down dinner celebration.
In 1980 I had reached the point of personal letters from some markets, when I received a phone call from a small magazine called Questar. The editor, who had been impressed by some of my submissions, wanted to commission a story. Questar had a special department called "Quadratic," in which the same idea was pitched to four different writers -- two nonfiction, two fiction. The results were published all together so that readers could see how different writers tackled the same subject. If the story I wrote was acceptable, the magazine would buy and publish it -- and if it were not acceptable, I would still get a nominal payment or "kill fee."
The chosen subject was a single word: "Video."
What to write? I wracked my brain for any ideas connected with video. Other writers would probably head in the direction of television production, telepresence, etc., but I wanted something different.
In 1980 it was impossible to ignore the still-new fad of video games -- once that connection occured to me, it was the work of a moment to come up with the story of a girl who defended Earth while believing she was only playing a video game. I had the story done in a week, and soon after got a contract.
"Gamester" was published in the June 1981 issue of Questar.
This story is set in the pre-Imperial period of the Scattered Worlds universe, about the year 2103. The chronological sequence number is 3.96.