Games & Science : A misspent youth


Before I’d even considered a job in games (beyond an idle daydream), I’d been a huge games fan. Since early childhood I’d spent most of my spare time playing games. It was how I relaxed, learned stuff, hung out with friends. My parents had to hide cables to stop me playing when I’d not seen the sun for too long. When I wasn’t playing games I was hanging around talking about them with other like-minded people who also didn’t like sports.

Picking a direction

At secondary school I decided to take Art and Graphic Design GCSEs in the vain hope it would lead to something games related. I had no idea what programmers, designers, or artists even did in the industry, but figured if I threw my energy in that direction maybe something would happen. And I tried really hard. Got myself an E and a D, respectively, mostly due to my lack of understanding that art had rules and you had to actually be interested in artists and stupid stuff like that. Pfff. Losers.

Anyway, fast-forward to college. By this point I’d given up on Art and done a complete 180 to a Science track. (N.B. I also have this problem in RPGs, can never pick a single character type.) Despite not having any particular proficiency for Science, I persevered taking A-Levels in ALL the Sciences and Maths. My focus was not exactly razor sharp in year 1. A friend and I spent most of our time installing and playing games on the school network, having appropriated an admin account from a less than vigilant IT room supervisor. It was great fun. 15 player LAN games of Counterstrike 1.6 were a highlight, as was accidentally crashing the entire school server because someone copied the games directory a few too many times. Great fun but you may have accurately surmised that I didn’t get a huge amount of work done.

Second year I got super into Science. Turns out failing pretty much everything in my first year was a pretty good motivator to knuckle down and get stuff done. I’d also got very into Astrophysics and was determined to become some sort of research prodigy. Somehow, with a fairly ludicrous amount of extra work, tutoring and some decent teachers (thx everyone) I managed to scrape three Cs and land a uni place doing Physics at Exeter (A good University even!). My CS 1.6 game had fallen off considerably however, a cost I’ve never fully recovered from.

Committing to the wrong career path

Uni was awesome. I finally learnt how to talk to people about stuff other than games, and also got to talk a lot about games! Who knew a Physics course would be full of gaming nerds? Despite our ludicrous workload, we all found time to play a similarly ludicrous amount of games. I built my first PC and became embroiled in a sort of hardware arms race with my peers. It was fun and embarrassingly expensive.

During all this I couldn’t help but notice I wasn’t really enjoying the Physics bit of the course. Learning how things worked was cool, and learning how to solve complex problems was a helpful side-affect, but the day-to-day reality was a constant grind towards the next barrage of exams (I took around 40 seated exams) which was both exhausting and depressing most of the time.

My course was a four year undergraduate with a two-year research project at the end. I’d always like the idea of research; doing important work to help humanity in some grand way. The reality didn’t really work out that way. At the time, graphene was the new wonder material everyone was talking about. I’ll save you the spiel, but my project basically consisted of sticking graphite chunks to sellotape and looking at that under a microscope repeatedly for two years. It was desperately boring, but I was stuck with it and felt compelled to continue so as not to be a failure.

Digging a hole

I finished the course with a decent degree but no idea what to do with it. Having spent four years doing something that sucked 80% of the time, I now seemingly had to find a job doing that or what would the point have been? For some reason, I decided that maybe if I just did more Science it’d be OK. So I began applying for PhD studentships in the exact same field I was completely bored of. Why? Because I figured it was the only thing that I could do or would be remotely good at. Seems stupid to me now, but the notion that I should probably look for something that actually interested me hadn’t been a priority.

Anyhow, I managed to get a PhD studentship. I wrote a lengthy diatribe at the time so there’s no need to go over all of the reasons that that sucked again. Needless to say, I reached a point where I realised that doing something I felt I ought to be doing was worse for me than doing nothing at all. So I quit. For the last 6 months I’d spent more time reading games blogs and feeling guilty for reading games blogs than doing anything actually productive. There was also a huge amount of depression, anxiety, etc about being a failure but, to be honest, I was a terrible scientist and I’m cool with that now.

The silver lining from all these years spent toiling away was that I’d picked up some useful skills and tools along the way. These tools, coincidentally, were useful in training myself to becomes a games programmer. Having bungled my way through life from a gaming obsessed child to a professional game developer via a brief foray into science, I can’t say I’d recommend that route.

My main take-away from all this is that doubling down on a mistake doesn’t make it not a mistake. If you hate what you’re doing, stop doing it and try something new. And then if it turns out you suck at that then find something else.

Also videogames are great, do videogames.



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