Last month, San Francisco was transformed into Gotham City for a day, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a little boy named Miles Scott. Miles, five, has been fighting leukemia for most of his life, and when the Make-A-Wish Foundation announced their plans to transform the Northern California boy into the crime-fighting hero Batkid, the public support was enormous.
More than 20,000 San Franciscans came out to watch his adventures, and millions more (including President Obama) watched from home as Batkid (along with his grown-up companion Batman) rescued a woman tied to cable car tracks, captured the Riddler, hunted down the Penguin and saved Lou Seal, the mascot of the San Francisco Giants. At the end of the day, Miles was awarded a Ghiradelli-chocolate key to the city by Mayor Ed Lee. “[The Mayor] said, ‘Do you think he wants the real key to city?'” recounted San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, “And I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, when you were five, did you want a piece of metal in a felt box, or did you want a giant hunk of chocolate?’ And he said, ‘Point taken, Chief.'”
This much was covered by dozens of major news outlets around the world. What you may not know, however, is that the man who played the pivotal role of Batman was much more than an actor. Eric Johnston, the man behind the mask, has worked as a game designer, as an engineer for NASA, and as a flying trapeze instructor. He began working with Make-A-Wish more than 10 years ago, and he was instrumental in the success of Miles’ wish.
Johnston designed games for LucasArts, working on projects like Pipe Dream, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Secret of Monkey Island. Later, he worked on special effects for LucasFilm, using the software skills he’d learned as a designer. Johnston loved his time with LucasArts, writing in an email to gaming news website Polygon, “I guess I just treasure surprise and whimsy above all else, and that was part of the vibe [at LucasArts]. Clever people, doing what they love.”
In 2003, Johnston received a message about a boy named Ben Duskin. Ben, eight, was in remission from leukemia and wanted to design a video game all about fighting cancer. The Make-A-Wish Foundation was looking for volunteers to help. In 2003, video games were still very expensive to produce, but Johnston was so impressed with Ben’s wish that he immediately called up Patricia Wilson, executive director of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Finding an angel like Eric Johnston was a miracle,” Wilson wrote. For the next six months, Johnston helped Ben work on the game. Ben’s Game is available in nine languages and appeared in Forbes, BBC, CNN, USA Today, Yahoo, and other outlets.
It makes sense for a game designer to help a child design a game, but how was Johnston able to help Miles Scott become Batkid? The acrobatics helped with the public side of the event, but it was the details Johnston brought to the day that really made Miles’ experience magical. That same pursuit of whimsy and dedication to puzzle-solving he loved so much at LucasArts helped inspire Johnston to make the event as seamless as possible.
Johnston knew that Miles liked Batman’s many gadgets, so he and his wife Sue, who is also an engineer, decided to build some gadgets of their own. “If I pull out a smartphone to answer [a call from Police Chief Suhr], that’s when I stop being a superhero and become just a grownup on a phone,” Johnston explained. So he designed a wrist-mounted projector. And what about the bright-green bomb tied to the back of the damsel in distress? The Johnstons designed that too. In fact, the damsel was none other than Sue Johnston herself.
But it was Johnston’s 10 years of working with kids at Make-A-Wish that equipped him to help Miles through what would have been an overwhelming day for anyone. “We’d just look into each other’s eyes and I would try to make sure that energy-wise he’s OK and not getting freaked out by what would freak out pretty much anybody,” Johnston recounted to Polygon, “When he gave me the all-good, the last thing I would do before he got out of the car would be that I’d say ‘Who are you?’ And he would say ‘I’m Batman!’ That was my signal for, ‘OK, let’s go.'”
“[Johnston] was one of the first people we reached out to when we started planning the wish,” Jen Wilson, marketing and promotions manager at Make-A-Wish, explained to Polygon. “I would definitely encourage people with any kind of technical skill to contact Make-A-Wish,” Johnston said, “I think if it’s something you love doing, then you will love it way, way more when you’re doing it for something like that. It’s a ways to get in touch with deep down why you got the technical skill in the first place.”
If you’d like to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation, click here to find out how.