Scientists in Computer Gaming: I Was a Space Invaders Demon


I received my Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995. My thesis focused on statistical predictability in space and time of mathematical models that simulated key aspects of earthquake fault dynamics. This required quite a bit of computer programming (albeit in that caveman language, Fortran). During the last year of this work, I was already interested in moving away from a traditional academic physics career. My experiments with neural network models led me to a research postdoc in neurobiology, but it quickly became apparent that a permanent academic position simply wasn't the most important goal in my life.

My boyfriend, Bryan Galdrikian, had already made the leap to games programming and it seemed like fun, interesting work. Programming computer games had never come to mind when people asked me what I wanted to do "when I grew up," but after spending nearly 10 years pursuing the goal of a career in physics and figuring out that it was not what I wanted after all, I was willing to let the winds of opportunity carry me for a while. Games programming looked challenging, creative, well-paid, and heck, I was a Space Invaders demon in the 6th grade! I wasn't feeling so "grown up," anyway.

In preparation for my job search I had familiarized myself with C++, first by implementing scientific simulations with it and then by creating my own small graphics project under Linux on a laptop PC. I attempted to utilize the knowledge gained in my research (specifically neural network learning algorithms) combined with some simple, yet appealing animation in order to demonstrate both my enthusiasm and the usefulness of my mathematical and scientific background. I brought this demo to my first interview and I believe it played a significant role in garnering an intermediate level software engineering position, despite the fact that I had no experience writing commercial software.

In exploring the entertainment industry job market, I had some reservations even at the beginning. I had gone through a period of addiction to the early Doom-style first-person shooters. The software technology behind them was great, but the basic kill-and-plunder action was not the sort of thing I imagined myself being proud of creating. This feeling was reinforced when Bryan convinced me to try Duke Nuke 'Em, the most popular game of that genre at the time. Within the first 15 minutes of playing, my character had to enter a porno theater and blast the naked woman onscreen in order to get "goodies." Shooting scantily clad prostitute characters was also rewarded. Obviously, not all games are like this, but you must consider the fact that no matter what type of game you're working on, probably 90 percent of the programmers and artists on the team loved Duke Nuke 'Em.

I thought I would take the high road by working on edutainment titles. These are games specifically intended for educational use. The entertainment software industry can be brutal, however, regardless of the specific target audience. I burned out of my first job after only 9 months. During that time I worked on two titles, which were released to manufacturing. Actually, the first project began and ended within my initial 3 months on the job. The project was poorly planned, understaffed, the company's programming tools were inadequate for the task, and my manager (a nontechnical producer in way over her head) was incompetent. Near the end of production schedule, it was suggested to upper management that the product release would have to be slipped to the next fiscal quarter due to quality concerns. The response was that whatever was on the development CD on the scheduled date would be shipped to manufacturing over our objections, and with our names on it, of course. This was my welcome to the entertainment software development world.

I fared significantly better in my next position. I took a job programming real-time physics simulation for sports games for a small Canadian studio. I found implementing real-time physical simulation to be a fairly satisfying experience, when everything worked as planned. I felt proud of giving people the opportunity to set the release velocity and spin of a virtual baseball and see realistic effects in the resulting pitch. It was fun learning how curve balls really curve and then making it happen. The company as a whole was ambitious and had a free-wheeling start-up atmosphere which made life interesting. In addition, they had secured the exclusive license to the ESPN brand and were flush with cash and promise. Boom and bust are the mainstays of game software finance, however. Before the first branded title was out the door (about a year and a half later) the company failed to meet its payroll. I was job hunting for the third time in about 2 years.

There were some disturbing social aspects within the industry. After working on game software for over 2 years, I can still count the number of female programmers I knew on one hand. From a marketing perspective, there were boys' games and girls' games and never would the two overlap. Science edutainment titles were definitely boys' games. I say this based on a team meeting with a marketing representative at the Learning Company. Even though the game under discussion was basically gender neutral, she suggested it was fine to have a box design which appealed mostly to boys because they had historically been the most successful target market for science titles. As you might imagine, I was appalled.

I now work on geographic information system (GIS) software at Autodesk. The process of software engineering there is much more dull, but with dullness comes a certain amount of long-term thinking at times. The employee benefits are good, the hours are sane, and there is effort expended on things like worthy charities and outreach programs for girls in technology education. I don't regret my time in the software games industry, but rather confess a lust for its possibilities, both technologically and socially. Perhaps I still have some time before I'm all grown up!

SHIRLEY PEPKE has a Ph.D. in physics and did a postdoc in neurobiology before making the jump into computer games. She jumped back out shortly thereafter.

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