I first knew that I wanted to be a scientist when I played Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier on my Amiga 500. Given the title and the character’s ability to jump large distances, I thought that Willy was a jetpack-wielding astronaut who was forced into tidying his mansion by a cruel maid who didn’t understand the hardships of scientific life. It was only as an adult that I realised that the Jet Set of the title had absolutely nothing to do with a jetpack, and everything to do with a hedonistic lifestyle far removed from the existence of a typical scientist. A cursory glance at the accompanying artwork would probably have set me straight on the matter, but all of my Amiga 500 games came on unbranded yellow floppy disks, courtesy of my ‘Uncle’ Phillip.
So my first foray into the world of computer game scientists was a complete non sequitur, something that would sadly continue through my childhood and prepubescent gaming experiences. The other major scientific role models of this period included Dr Robotnik and Dr Neo Cortex from the Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot franchises, respectively, meaning that at this point my only option as a scientist (whose cultural references came almost entirely from video games) was to become an evil madman with an aversion to being jumped on.
Then along game Dr Gordon Freeman and everything changed. Here was a scientist (a theoretical physicist no less) who made science cool. The Half Life series not only revolutionised the FPS genre, it also taught me that it was perfectly possible to be a scientist and not succumb to the forces of darkness.
It’s fair to say that I was therefore somewhat disappointed during my physics undergraduate degree to find that repelling an alien invasion was not part of the core syllabus. Although that might just have been Leicester, things at MIT (the alma mater of Dr Freeman) could well have been different.
By now you would have thought that I’d learnt my lesson, that I should stop taking my career advice from the actions of my on-screen heroes (and villains), but sadly it was not to be. My love of JRPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, was a driving force behind me moving to Japan on a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship. Sadly my mastery of the dialect never got to the point where I was finally being able to play the Japanese-language version of Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon that I had bought from a car boot sale in Wetherby, but living in Tokyo and rural Japan give me a whole new appreciation for the Persona and Shenmue series that I had grown up with.
Recently I thought that I had finally escaped my predilection for virtual scientists, only to find myself once more called in to help out a comrade in need, this time in the form of a reluctant astronaut called Taylor in the iOS game Lifeline. Still, at least this one acknowledged my existence! In my current role as a lecturer in Science Communication, my research involves looking at the different format and media in which science can be communicated to a varied public, and interactions with characters such as Taylor seem like a very logical step for further study and future engagement.
It is strange to think that my career and life have been guided to such a large extent by the portrayal of scientists in video games; I’m just glad that I somehow managed to avoid growing a cartoon moustache whilst shooting at hedgehogs.
~Dr Sam Illingworth, PhD (but alas, without a crowbar to his name)