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This is NOT a Game
May 22, 2013 - 9:31pm

I invite my students to build something in my peer-driven course, and many of them create/adapt/build/make/curate a game as part or all of their presentation. I’m going to write more about the games they created this semester in a later post, but I want to focus on one in particular for today.

(An aside: I live-tweeted the presentations. If you go to my live Twitter archive and search #peerdriven you’ll find the tweets, including pictures from the game I’m describing below towards the very bottom. Be patient as it’s slow to load.)

They chose to work in the War and Peace section of the textbook, and were interested in learning what current students’ attitudes were towards war. They created a rudimentary poll that they distributed to friends, classmates, roommates, etc, and one conclusion that stood out to them was that a majority of the students they polled thought it was very likely that the United States would once again experience a violent civil war.

They decided to create a game, much like Risk, but based in the US. They divided a map up according to geographic regions, divided the class into teams, and then distributed little army men, along with certain qualities unique to each region. We heard the rules, discussed strategy and started to play. We had a lot of fun discussing strategy, defenses, and strategic alliances.

But.

The group who created the game kept intervening with questions regarding the implications of the strategic decisions: Does it matter that attacking will lead to thousands of deaths? Why are you still attacking when you’re army has been decimated? Who is protecting the important civilian populations? To all this the students simply shrugged their shoulders and carried on, symbolically slaughtering tiny little army men, often out of petty, personal vengeance for a previous attack (there was a lot of good-natured trash talking between the teams, but I did notice that it colored the decisions they made).

Part of the goal of the game was to get students to think about the implications of war, how hard it is to win, how luck plays into it, but also the real human cost. For the students playing the game, it was all just that: a game with no real-world implications. The little men being slaughtered were plastic, inconsequential, and didn’t represent anyone or anything real. The group who made the game where hoping to get students to think more critically about the horrors of war, but instead we saw just how horrible people can be to each other when the stakes are so very, very low.

I was reminded of this failed attempt to use a game to induce empathy and critical thinking when I saw the “game” the other guys (cough, rhymes with “barnacle”) set up to “simulate” a hiring committee in academia. We can “play” around with the criteria in order to come up with the best possible candidates. The “people” in the applicant pool are all based on real applicants who applied and (all except for one) didn’t get the job.

I think this is reprehensible.

The only people I can think of who might gain some sympathy or even empathy are the search committee members. We can see how hard it is for them to choose from such worthy candidates (and see how “hard” it is to decide what “worthy” even means). But are these the people for whom we really need to have sympathy? I understand the monumental task of making your way through, say, 500 applicants, but is this a game for adjuncts/PhD students to, what? Apply for less jobs? Be less stellar? Make the search committees’ job easier?

What troubles me more is that the applicant pool becomes much like the tiny little plastic army men my students could find no empathy for: canon fodder. Already so many of us have been reduced to raw data: impact metrics, geographical location, date of degree, publication numbers, etc…We are real people and our job search isn’t a game, it’s our lives. I’m more than how many articles I’ve published or that I got my PhD in 2007. But, that is what I have been reduced to. It is what all of us on the job market have been reduced to.

That the other guys have turned our real-life struggles into a game for others’ enjoyment – further dehumanizing us and trivializing the very real issues we face, in deed that all of higher education faces right now – is insulting. That the accompanying articles that would provide context and possible humanize the proceedings are behind a paywall is even more galling.

Maybe I’m not good enough to get a tenure-track job anywhere in higher education, maybe none of us are, but we all deserve to be treated decently, like human beings, not performance metrics and data points.

Or like game pieces to be toyed with. 

 

 

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