If you’ve ever come home from a hard day’s research to unwind with a few rounds of Street Fighter, or disappear into the magical worlds of Final Fantasy, you’ll know the relaxing thrill (a paradox, surely?) of videogames. But what happens when research science meets videogaming? Two unlikely allies, you might be thinking. The world of videogames is full of colour and imagination, and completely without the familiar limitations of our good old friend ‘reality’. Research, on the other hand – well, it has its rewards, but also comes with a sizable share of challenges and obstacles. So what happens when the boundaries of academic achievement are defined only by the imagination?
Let’s dive deep into a parallel world, and take a close look at the careers of some of videogaming’s most distinguished research scientists.
1. Hal Emmerich, aka Otacon (Metal Gear Solid)
🔬 Research Fields: Programming, Robotics, Weapons Technology
We begin with Otacon – the very picture of a nervous, socially awkward, but prodigiously talented researcher. The son of a pre-eminent military scientist, his talents were identified early, and he flew through education, going on to earn multiple degrees – including a PhD – from both MIT and Princeton.
It wasn’t long before Hal was hired by ArmsTech, a weapons manufacturer, where he developed such wonders as wearable light-deflecting camouflage and, finally, a hulking bipedal tank capable of launching a nuclear missile from anywhere in the world.
If this sounds like a dream career for a researcher, then we completely understand (not least for Otacon’s ability to find consistent work after his PhD). But actually, Hal’s dazzling career path tells us a lot about how popular culture perceives the figure of the researcher. Although Otacon develops his novel technology with good intentions, it (inevitably) ends up being misused by various government agencies and shadowy forces, to the extent that our scientist regrets having ever conceived of it in the first place. There are clear echoes in the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his regret over leading the development of nuclear weapons in the 40’s.
Research getting out of hand - this won’t be the last time we encounter that theme in this article…
2. Professor Oak (Pokémon)
🔬 Research Fields: Biology, Taxonomy, Animal Husbandry
Professor Oak is a serious man doing serious research. Research that just happens to involve capturing wild animals and forcing them to fight in a highly organised and ritualistic spectacle. But of course, Oak himself doesn’t do the dirty work, oh no – it’s up to a naïve and inexperienced adventurer (or as they’re known in the real world, ‘lab assistant’) to gather the reams of hard field-data our man requires.
Professor Oak is truly a fascinating reflection of the academic system and its various players. Perceived and presented as wise, benevolent and all-knowing, he passes down tasks from the top of the tree to his eager juniors, who hurry out into the world to complete those long hours of laborious fieldwork. Of course, the parallel is not exact – pokemon do not exist in reality, and your lab supervisor is hardly likely to entrust hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of experimental technology to a local teenager so he can polish off his latest research project – but
Oak’s actions may nonetheless raise a wry smile in those of you who recognise the principles of the situation.
3. Dr Thomas Light (Mega Man)
🔬 Research Fields: Robotics, Engineering, AI
Dr Light (along with his ill-intentioned counterpart, Dr Wily) embodies the classic phenomenon of academic rivalry, although at a slightly more intense level than you might be accustomed to. You see, we’re not just talking about a minor disagreement over who owns the right to use a dataset, or a war of words waged in journals between opposing theories – no, this particular rivalry leads to an actual war. Fought by advanced robots. Robots designed by Dr Light for the benefit of humankind, but reprogrammed by his research rival to cause mayhem and destruction.
It started innocently enough – Light and Wily attended the same university together, earning their PhDs contemporaneously as outstanding engineers in the field of robotics. But things started to go downhill after a faculty committee cancelled funding on some of Wily’s experimental research.
Oh, the precariousness of academia. Wily continued to be overshadowed by the determined Dr Light, who went on to win numerous awards and, ultimately, the Nobel Prize in Physics.
How does Wily take his revenge? By pilfering his rival’s research, corrupting Light’s once-benign robots with academic malice, and seeking nothing less than world domination in the process.
Let that be a cautionary tale when you start racing ahead of your peers.
4. Dr Geppetto Bosconovitch (Tekken)
🔬 Research Fields: Cryogenics, Genetics, Robotics, Bio-weaponry
A uniquely talented mind hailing from the former Soviet Union, Dr. Bosconovitch reminds us of the great personal motivations that can drive us as researchers. In Dr B.’s case, it was the untimely loss of his daughter that sent him on a never-ending quest to revive her. The latest outcome of his work is a fully-functional fighting android programmed with her personality and bearing her likeness – an android armed (literally) to the teeth with explosive firepower.
Along the way Dr B. has successfully put several human patients into cryogenic sleep, designed an array of fighting robots, and utilised advanced genetic techniques to create a kangaroo capable of boxing. Tekken is strange. Don’t ask.
What is most interesting about Dr B.’s research, however, is the fact that morality takes second place to whatever he’s working on at any given moment. No consideration is given to the consequences to humanity of all of these novel (and deadly) projects. And here we see again how popular culture perceives the figure of the researcher – driven, highly intelligent, even well-meaning, but blind to the real-life effects of their advanced work. Is it a fair perception? We’ll leave that one up to you…
Well, researchers, we want to know what you think. In the limitless world of videogames, research science is elevated to new, and very strange, heights. But what relationship do these depictions bear with reality? Are they simply playing with powerful stereotypes? Or, is there a grain of academic truth within?
Give it some thought and, as always, keep asking questions!