The Watson Diaries

Alex Winter

Graduating senior Alex Winter was awarded a $25,000 fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to fund a year of independent study and travel outside the United States to research a topic of his choosing. Winter, whose life-long passion for video games was kindled at the tender age of five, will be studying interactive entertainment in parts of the world where video gaming holds a prominent position in popular culture. His proposal, “Video Game Culture Studies in East Asia, Korea, China and Japan,” will explore how social gaming in the digital age has brought global communities together.
Pretend you’re a character from “Lost.” You’re about to be stranded on a strange island with strange rules for one year – up to six if the writers like you. You can take one thing from your “magic box of anything.” This will be the only thing you have for a year to keep you busy, happy, alive and sane.
What was the first thing that came to mind? Survival gear? A book or journal? A friend and trusty guide? The “magic box of anything” itself? That’s probably the sensible answer, but I would take a coconut-powered computer.
The Watson Fellowship essentially asks you to answer that question, explain why, and prove that you could make it work.
That wasn’t what I said at first, though. I pretty much wanted to say “encyclopedia.” It sounded big and smart, whereas coconut computer sounded too “Gilligan’s Island.” It’s also what we expect at Lawrence: rigorous academics.
I spent five, almost six months on and off researching a topic, budgeting expenses and making calls or consulting subject and Watson experts – thank you, Martyn, Madhuri, Megan and Tim!
I liked my project academically, but that was it. I thought it was what the Fellowship wanted to hear, which seemed like the right approach.
Two weeks before the deadline I told someone my plan, and he looked at me, eyebrow cocked, as if I’d answered the island question with, “I choose you, Encyclopedia Brittanica!” Then he asked me, “If you were on a desert island, could you really read that for a year until you were rescued?”
“If I had my conch-puter with enough bananaRAM to play games, yeah,” I said.
“So,” my friend said, “if that’s what you’d be doing anyway, why don’t you propose that? I mean, nobody talks about video games like you do.”
When those words landed, I couldn’t stop grinning. For the first time, I thought, “Here is something I can do for an entire year and know I will love doing it.”
So I ditched everything I’d done and rewrote from the bottom up. I spent the next two weeks furiously researching my topic, budgeting expenses, making phone calls and consulting experts.
I took over most of my common room with sheets of paper, books and cables – thanks for being patient, David, Brent, Paul, Dave! I was following my passion and throwing my all into a huge gamble at the 10th – okay, 11th… maybe 12th – hour.
That may sound a bit strange, and in some ways it is, but a Watson Fellowship is supposed to be about doing something you love for a year, without assurance or assistance.
Cleveland Johnson, the Director of the Watson Foundation, told me, “What you do for your project isn’t as important to me as it is to you. It’s mainly there to keep you from going insane. What’s important to me is that you use this experience to develop yourself as an individual and leader.”
You aren’t allowed to associate with a university – this is your project, not some institution’s which you carry out – you can’t go to a country you’ve been to for an extended period of time and you aren’t allowed back in America unless you are in serious medical danger or someone in your immediate family has died.
The Watson, as far as I can tell, is really about leaving behind just about everything and starting with nothing. I’ll share a line that struck me from the last package I received: “Because the Watson Fellowship is awarded on your ability to be independent, resourceful, and self-sustaining, it is our philosophy to offer minimal advice as you plan and embark on your fellowship.”
That is absolutely true. The minimal advice could be boiled down to “passports are important and hard to replace,” a lesson I learned once before at the London Centre. By the way, I can’t recommend Lawrence’s London Program strongly enough.
That said, for everything great that the London Centre is, it is still a part of Lawrence and our fantastic bubble. You have classes, are provided housing and do many things together as a group. It’s difficult to push outside the Centre’s comfortable barrier. The Watson is the opposite: They don’t tell you where to stay, you won’t know anyone when you arrive and the only direction is self-direction.
Back to the island – I’m sure I’d hunt and gather food for myself, make a shelter and find someone to talk with – maybe a football I could name Spalding. Even on the “Lost” island, I doubt that I’d find a coconut-powered computer.
And I can’t imagine finding another fellowship quite like the Watson that demands you do something you love in order to test yourself. It’s a challenge I can’t wait to meet.