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The Video Game Designer
Spotlight on Hidden Physicists
The Video Game Designer
Amy Nelson, Staff Software Engineer Architect, Disney
As an undergraduate at Michigan State University in East Lansing, I did an observational senior thesis focused on extragalactic background light. Graduating in 1994 with a degree in astrophysics, I attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I studied galaxy formation and evolution; in 2000 I earned a PhD for my work studying high-redshift galaxy clusters drawn from the Las Campanas Distant Cluster Survey.
Partway through my graduate studies I decided that I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career in astronomy. The primary reason was simply that I didn’t enjoy research enough to want to make a career of it. Other important factors in my decision related to quality-of-life issues. I felt that astronomers, especially postdocs and young faculty, were expected to work long hours to produce an unreasonably large amount of research for relatively low pay, usually with little to no say in where they lived.
Leaving academia, I embarked on a new career as a software engineer, creating video games. As a child, I always loved programming computers and playing video games. That lifelong affinity, coupled with my extensive knowledge of physics and mathematics, gave me the foundation to become a successful programmer. Although I didn’t have many directly transferable skills (I programmed in Fortran in graduate school and had to learn C++ afterward), my graduate studies in astrophysics helped me develop my most valuable asset—being an independent learner and problem solver. Even though I had almost no direct knowledge of how to make games and faced a steep learning curve, I picked things up quite quickly and wasn’t afraid to just dive right in.
After several years working on console games, I am currently a lead software engineer for Disney Interactive Worlds. My team is bringing Club Penguin, a popular kids’ online virtual world, from the web to mobile devices running iOS and Android. I love working in a creative, collaborative field with smart, talented people who are passionate about games. My job is a wonderful combination of coming up with ideas to solve technical problems and executing those ideas. My company places an emphasis on work–life balance, which is really important to me. We do work extra hours sometimes during “crunch time,” but that happens infrequently.
I still keep tabs on what’s going on in astronomy, but predominantly through the mainstream news outlets, not through any academic or professional channels. My best friend is an astronomical lecturer at Griffith Observatory, and he keeps me in the loop as well. I’ll always love learning about physics and astronomy, and am so thankful for the knowledge I have and the invaluable problem-solving skills I gained because of it. But learning about a field and conducting research in that field are two very different things. I couldn’t be happier with the career choice I made to be a video game programmer.