The PhD Game

Having fun and doing a PhD would appear to be contradictory concepts, at least on the surface. Doing a PhD is about Work and Real Research, all very serious things. It involves toil, pulling out of hair and negotiating the wilds of project management alongside intensive academic endeavour. Hardly the type of activity that you’d think of turning into a game. Still, the process of finding your way through the maze of adminstrivia, navigating supervisory expectations and trekking through the PhD journey does actually lend itself to an adventure-achievement game structure, as much as any of the other life experiences that have been turned into games.

Being a Baden-Powell graduate, I was trained into a love of the merit or achievement badge from a young age. I still have many of the badges that adorned my uniform and then camp blanket for many years. It’s hardly surprising that the achievement/level up approach has been such a useful engagement (or entrapment, depending on your perspective) for many online and multiplayer games. The structure usually leads you through a sequence of actions that build on each other to form the basis of future, more advanced and complex levels. Sound familiar? The concepts are remarkably similar to the processes of project design and management. It maps almost seamlessly onto games such as Fitocracy as well as the more entertainment oriented games. It’s a structure that’s become increasingly applied to ‘real life’ activities as a motivational strategy in recognition of its run-away success in the entertainment field, including healthy lifestyles (SparkPeople is but one example) and getting kids to do housework (Chore Wars). While I’ve come across many parents skeptical about the effectiveness of achievement/reward/incentive systems, you only have to look at the reinforcement strategies applied in these games (and the number of loyalty cards they have in their wallets) to recognise that it can and does work.

So, why not a PhD Game? I was a little surprised that some cursory searches didn’t find anything. Thinking about how the PhD is framed as Serious Work, then maybe it isn’t so surprising. However, the popularity of the comic Piled Higher and Deeper suggests that some fun can be had in the midst of the Serious Work of a PhD.

I started marking significant achievements, regardless of how large or small, in my first week. Given that I was starting at an unconventional time, in the middle of second semester, there were a lot of orientation things I thought I might need to attend to myself rather than relying on structured activities and guidance about what needs to be done to get set up. It probably didn’t help that the person who had been given the task of doing the basic orientation was away sick on the day I started, but at least I had in mind some important things that I wanted to achieve in my first week. This included having a desk, computer log in and email set up, and getting my student card. These were crucial to gaining access to almost everything else on campus and for the rest of the university systems, and so became my first ‘achievement badges’ in the administrivia stream.  It turned what is often frustrating drudgery into a bit of fun and cause for celebration when I completed the tasks in a timeframe that others didn’t think was possible. My best example was being told it would take weeks to get my student card, but I had it by the end of that week.

So, the achievement badges have become a bit of a ‘thing’ at home when I want to talk about small or large victories, current frustrations or simply things I’m working on. My artistic skills may not be up to drawing badges freehand, but there may be some ‘brain break’ design doodling as I go on. It’s a fun idea and I’m still a bit surprised that it seems not to have been done yet. Perhaps I can turn it into a ‘thing’ for others to enjoy too.

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