The PhD and The Last Of Us

In summer 2013, parenthood was rapidly approaching. My wife was only a few months away from giving birth to our daughter, we had moved house and were trying to get what decorating and DIY we could done. I was delivering as many workshops as possible in order to take several months off when we had the baby, and wondering what was going to happen…

…and I bought a PS3.

When it came out the latest game was The Last Of Us. I’ve played some great games since I got a PS3 – and back when I had a PS2 – but The Last Of Us is just something else. I don’t know if I will ever play a game so rewarding, so challenging, so emotionally satisfying as The Last Of Us. The emotional themes, the scary creatures, the inter-character dynamics and the wonderfully overgrown landscapes just put it way ahead of the pack for me.

Hang on a minute, thinks the reader, isn’t this a blog that is normally to do with PhDs and vivas and things like that? It is, and here’s where I’m going with this train of thought: there is no video game that sums up the PhD experience better than The Last Of Us.

Here’s the trailer; if you’ve played the game you know what to expect, and if you haven’t, click only if you’re OK with strong language, strong violence and strange fungus-zombies. (alternatively, this concept art gallery gives a flavour of the game)

See, exactly like the PhD! No? Not convinced. OK, here’s why I think The Last Of Us is just like the PhD.

It isn’t what you think it is at the start

No matter how well-informed, the PhD is going to be different from what you expect. You might have a fantastic plan for dealing with situations as they come up, and have the clearest of SMART goals for your research. And the reality will be different. In The Last Of Us you may think you know what the game is about at the start, but the story will lead you somewhere else entirely. In any given situation you might think you have a handle on things, and know how to respond, but then the rug will be pulled out from underneath you.

At times it is scary

Hold-your-breath, what-do-I-do, how-am-I-going-to-get-out-of-this-one scary. No matter what you do for your research, there will be challenges that you find yourself in that you are not prepared for. You will find opportunities that present great rewards, but your performance is not certain from the start. What do you do? In The Last Of Us you just have to try anyway – that’s the only way to get to the conclusion of the game. It’s pretty much true for the PhD as well, right? Something scary? Do it anyway.

You learn from your mistakes

A great thing about The Last Of Us’ gameplay is actually how forgiving it is. If you die, it’s not permanent and you don’t restart from the “start of the level”. You pick things up close to where you were before: the situation will still be challenging, but you have a bit more knowledge with which to tackle it. I don’t want to hammer it too much, but isn’t that how research works? Sometimes you don’t have the right approach or you don’t have enough information to get the “right answer”. You try things, see what happens and move forward from there.

It’s all about people really

Just like The Last Of Us, the PhD is filled with homicidal survivors, infected people and fungal-monster-people who want to kill you. Oh wait, that’s one of the few differences! Both the game and the PhD do have people in common. Whatever else is going on, whatever themes emerge, it’s fundamentally about life-changing events for people. Don’t forget that: it will have an enormous impact on your friends, your family, your supervisor. And, of course, you. You can’t do a PhD and remain unchanged by the experience. You can’t play The Last Of Us and be unchanged by the experience.

Question time: if you’re a gamer and a PhD student/graduate, what game is most like the PhD for you? If you’re not a gamer – become a gamer! But seriously, what outside of your PhD is most like the PhD? A book? A film? Metaphors are important. What one do you hold in your mind for the PhD?

(important point where The Last Of Us is superior to the PhD: the soundtrack!)

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

PS – please take a look at my Patreon campaign for the Viva Survivors Podcast!