Impressions: Satirical School Sim No Pineapple Left Behind

No Pineapple Left Behind [official site] is nominally about magical teachers managing a farcical school, but in reality it’s a grim indictment of an education system which prioritises funding and grades over personal development. This means that gags about casting spells to transform unruly pupils into obedient but homogeneous pineapples are about as far as the humour goes, at least in the very early alpha version I’ve been playing. In other words, if you’re here solely because of fruit-based gags, you either need to adjust your expectations or walk away now.

It’s not a funny game once you’re past the initial sight of pineapples bobbing dutifully around a classroom, and nor, I think, is it meant to be. Its concerns are schools’s stretched resources and the theoretical consequences of this upon their kids. Sure, a cheap teacher helps keep the doors open for longer, but they’re unlike to give their pupils a high quality education, so grades will remain middling. On the other side of the coin, a kid who’s preoccupied by a crush and tons of friends isn’t going to have his or her mind on their work. Unless the quality of teaching is exceptional, they’ll bring average grades down, and the school gets less money.

A solution of sorts is to cast ‘spells’ which change the students’ goals, whether it’s to give up on a getting an A in a class they’re hopeless at or to remove their positive or negative feelings towards others. Then they’re more compliant, then they score better. They might even turn into pineapples, and then you’ll never have to worry about them acting up again. Presuming you’re a stone-hearted bureaucrat, anyway.

Like the late Littleloud’s ingenious (and disbarred from the App Store) Sweatshop, No Pineapple Left Behind plays on our natural inclination to follow directives and make numbers go up, leaving human concern about the consequences a distant second to meeting goals. You don’t, at least in this two-level build, need to care, but depending on how much you commune with your misanthropic side, you’ll probably begin to. When you cast a spell to stop someone crushing on another student who isn’t interested, what are you doing, really? Are you magicking away those profound human feelings, and is that right? And maybe you’re not magicking them away, not really. Maybe you’re just ordering that kid to ignore her feelings and get on with her exercises. Is teaching about improving pupils’ lives, or teachers’? How do you feel about yourself?

The structure for this is a simple, and in its current, two-level alpha build, slightly rickety, management game. There’s no construction or anything like that, but instead resources are focused around teachers. The day is divided into (at least in this build) two or three classes, in each of which you’re choosing a lesson type: sitting the kids in front of an educational video will spare your teachers’ limited energy, but places a ceiling on grades. More interactive lessons may cause teacher burn-out, and have a higher chance of failure. Is this risk worth it? Meanwhile, students demonstrating behaviour that is antithetical to attentive study can be individually targeted with ‘lasers’ that can remove these attributes, but again at the cost of teacher energy.

It’s also at the cost of a pupil’s humanity: wipe too much of this away and you’ve got another mute, unprotesting pineapple on your hands. Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to magic away all his friendships after all. And maybe if you hadn’t knackered out your teachers by having them relentlessly laser away students’ feelings, all your lessons wouldn’t be failing and the cashpot wouldn’t be empty.

The right answer isn’t obvious, and nor, I suspect, is it meant to be: this is about the invidious dilemma the staff of under-resourced schools can find themselves in. We’ll see how the later levels play it out. I’m not sure whether there’ll ultimately be real decision-making about how to run a great school, or if it’ll boil down to a Hobson’s choice in order to demonstrate that any bureaucratic ideal of smoothing the edges off everyone is doomed. (Fingers crossed for a Ballardian finale, in which the pineapples violently revolt against their calm, perfect lives).

Though clearly extremely thoughtful about its chosen subject matter, in practice, No Pineapple Left Behind’s alpha sadly becomes repetitious all-too-soon, requiring ongoing micro-management of per-pupil statistics and a fiddly juggling act of practicality vs humanity. You watch teachers’ energy bars, you repeatedly zap away students’ unhelpful attributes (or do you?) with a whole lot of clicking, then you wait to see what grades and what cash you get at the end of the day. Cycling through every student to check what their woes and grades were is time-consuming, and I lost my will to nurture everyone just halfway through level 2. I shudder a little looking at screenshots of planned later levels, with five classes rather than two or three per day.

Again, this is no doubt part and parcel of the themes it’s dealing with, and a lesson it wants us to heed, but I hope nonetheless that later builds manage to keep conveying the message by playfulness rather than falling into grind. The same can be said of every pupil looking the same other than an obvious gender distinction. It’s almost certainly commentary on the anonymity the educational system can imposes on classes, but from a sheer practicality point of view it’s difficult to keep tabs on a ‘problem’ student when you’ve got to manually browse names rather than hop to a familiar face.

It’s a teeny tiny project and all that entails, not to mention that this alpha can be had for free if you so choose, but I suspect it might be biting off a little more than it can chew by ostensibly involving management of an entire school. Papers, Please, whose societal commentary via job simulation structure could be fairly compared to No Pineapple Left Behind, kept its focus extremely narrow, person-by-person rather than everything at once, and then span stories, plus pitch-black humour, out of that. I wonder if this is caught in a tricky halfway house between the human touch and the viewpoint of an institution. Again, that’s the message, but I’m worried that, paradoxically, the meaning gets lost if we’re just to grind through the same actions time and again.

We’ll see though: early days, a very basic alpha, with plenty of time and room yet for the nature of the challenges to evolve, or the currently clunky UI to offer easier ways of keeping tabs on and controlling the various elements. I like what No Pineapple Left Behind Is aiming for and I like that, despite the magical and fruity trappings, it’s very much a serious game about educating young people, not to mention that rarest of management games: one which seeks to meaningfully emulate the dilemmas of its chosen theme. At the same time, I feel as though it needs a lot more humour if it’s to pull off its high concept, if it can find a way to do so without undermining its own message.

You can pay what you want – including $0 – for No Pineapple Left Behind’s alpha right now if you’re curious or want to support it; the full version will be sold separately at a later date.

18 Comments

  1. LennyLeonardo says:

    This will definitely get me in the mood for teacher training in September

    • Beefenstein says:

      Good luck, it’s hard.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        That’s what she… No I need to stop that now don’t I?

        • Sarfrin says:

          Only when you’re in school. My advice is to play lots of games now, because you won’t have time later.

    • InternetBatman says:

      The first year isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. I destroyed a car and (unrelated) my father died, and I still consider it an overall positive year. It takes a hellacious amount of time, and you can basically expect to sacrifice an entire year to school. But more people have sacrificed more for less. It’s genuinely enjoyable to see children learn, grow, and just be weird.

      One bit of advice. Have and stick to an aggressive schedule for the year. That way you have extra time to support important learning not measured in the standards.

      About the game: I haven’t played it, but judging from the kickstarter campaign, I probably disagree with its message that testing is ruining teaching.

      As a practicing teacher in an extremely poor area (60% free lunch) in the US, I actually support standards. Teachers often fail to see the damage generations of malign educational neglect has done to students. Regional differences are especially striking. While the philosophy behind it is inaccurate (education cannot and should not be the only strong social safety net), standards and accountability has flushed a lot of human garbage either out of the system or into positions of minimal harm. It has especially forced a lot of coaches to be teachers first and coaches second, as it should be.

  2. median says:

    Are people in the UK dealing with the performance-based school funding too? I thought that was our thing here in the US.

    • Sin Vega says:

      It’s been actively ruining our schools in the UK since I was in them, 15+ years ago. League tables and everything. The moronic, soul-eating culture they’ve brought about is the main reason I never went into teaching, as otherwise it’d have been one of my first choices.

      • median says:

        Interesting. I get the feeling that in the English-speaking world, ranking from conservative to liberal, goes United States, Australia, United States, then the UK. Europe, on the whole, seems to have a better idea of what common cause in civilization means (with the exception of Muslims these days)… but I wonder if it’s just protestant vs. catholic. Germans seem a happy balance between industrious and civic-minded.

        School performance is a bit of a muddled issue for me; on the one hand, I think there should be standards for education that are measured by testing — which is a key component of the British system, right? All kinds of letter-level tests for everything. on the other hand, punishing schools by taking *away* funds just seems like a toilet spiral. Which is, in fact, exactly what it was designed to do: kill public education and send kids to private schools, where they can learn the wonders of creationism and the free market.

        Here people are outraged that kids are tested at all; all the children are special snow flakes that can’t handle the stress of demonstrating what they learned. Those arguments have more validity outside of STEM, but the push against testing is to me a sign of intellectual laziness that extends to secondary education, and perhaps demonstrates we’re something other than a meritocracy.

  3. subalterngames says:

    Hello, we’re the devs behind this game!
    We included some useful tools for tracking students (though evidently the first level requires a tutorial to describe their usage):

    First, you can click a button on the top-left to see a table of all students. Click an entry to select a student

    When you select a child, you can click the “pin” button to add them to a quick-access panel.

    • caff says:

      Hi devs!

      I just want to say how great it is when a developer responds on RPS. Don’t be afraid, we are a critical bunch but it is only for good reason. So thank you, and stay in touch no matter what happens.

    • bunionbell says:

      Why just a single skin tone? I’ve worked for a number of organizations addressing systemic racism and its relationship to achievement disparities in education, and I don’t think a single colleague would find this anything less than insensitive, and likely just outright racist. I think you might have positive intentions here, and I see that you have experience in education, but damn does this project seem severely misguided.

  4. thetruegentleman says:

    If the effects of broken homes, racist/idiotic parents and bullying could be magicked away, identifying the systemic problems in each school would be a hell of a lot easier: for example, a part of my home city re-elected someone a few years back who had pocketed so much money meant for the schools that he was being investigated (and later, indited) by the fucking FBI.

    You know why? Because the other people running didn’t match the ethnicity of the district: the rare times a principal gets chosen because of his/her competency, there are still no improvements, because the people running all the school districts at the top level block anything that could result in positive change (whether the cause is corruption or dick-waving, I don’t know).

    In this case, funding is a none-issue: the city’s public schools are given a multiple of what similarly sized private/suburban schools of similar size are, but get a fraction of the results. In fact, more money just attracts more parasites who see it as easy money for themselves and their acquaintances, only a single election away. Fixing this would require that the parents have no say in the educational system at all though, and that isn’t going to happen in a democracy.

    • caff says:

      Whilst your comment doesn’t really relate the game, ouch cor blimey can I appreciate how embittered you must feel about the system in your home city. I only hope that those who take advantage of this for their personal gain get what is coming from them, i.e. karma. You have to hold onto that belief in such situations. And I suppose the only way to fight back is to spread the message through friends, family and the press (if they are on side).

    • Yglorba says:

      The other reason private schools do better is that they can just kick people out, which, well, isn’t an option if you want to provide an education for everyone.

      Likewise, it’s a lot easier to get good results if all your students come from affluent backgrounds and therefore have strong support networks, stable home environments, stuff they learned in private afterschool / summer-school / preschool environments, and so on to make it easier for them to focus on their studies. When a student starts to do badly in a situation like that, their parent can just hire a private tutor; students in inner-city public schools don’t generally have parents who can do that.

      And all of these advantages come down to cash; when the student’s parents are poor, it’s up to the school to try and pick up the slack, which takes resources.

      I’m pretty sure the problem isn’t that people in your area keep electing someone of the wrong race; corruption isn’t a unique thing that only shows up in inner-city schools. Plenty of private schools are corrupt and careless about the students; plenty of suburban schools have terrible administrators appointed by awful politicians who just keep getting elected because they match the race or ethnicity or culture of the region.

      The reasons inner-city public schools have problems are ultimately about poverty, not politics (aside from the obvious fact that politics makes it impossible to do anything about the poverty.)

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        +1

      • thetruegentleman says:

        Private schools being for the rich is a backwards notion that has long since faded from reality: I myself went to a private primary school with the kids of single mothers (the case for my best friend at the time, in fact), plumbers and tiny convince store owners. They certainly couldn’t afford private tutors, and many didn’t have what I would call a wholesome family life.

        I eventually moved when my parents learned that a friend of mine had a knife pulled on him, and I myself had such bad hand writing that I needed to go to a school that allowed computers for the bulk of our work. Even there, at a school that WAS expensive, many kids were adopted, disabled, and/or a bit crazy (as in, broke a CD and ate it crazy), so I’m not sure I would call the students there of higher quality than the primary school, exactly.

        The main advantages were that the school was smaller, and the teachers were better motivated, talking with us a lot more than the primary school teachers did. Some students had private tutors, but most didn’t, and many had problems that money couldn’t (or rather, didn’t) solve. The main difference was in the faculty, and it made a massive difference.

        So why did so many public schools do so much worse than the students in either school? The main differences really seem to come down to race, gang activity, strong sports programs and faculty quality. Most school around here have racial homogeneity, with the exception of some part white-part Hispanic schools, so racist bullying shouldn’t be a factor. I never had dealing with gangs myself, although the local paper claims that the public schools are rife with them, so that may be a big part of the problem. The primary school had a strong football program and still managed to do better than most public schools, so that probably isn’t the main problem, at least, although it’s still terrible how so many faculty members at all the major schools let the sports teams ruin themselves academically by cheating on their behalf, which seems totally fucked up.

        That leaves the faculty: sure, corruption exists in almost every school, but covering up the incompetence of the football team is in a completely different league than erasing wrong test answers and “fixing” them so that the teachers get a larger paycheck; those teachers who expose this behavior get sacked almost universally. And again, the head of the school district, who, again, was re-elected even after being exposed by the FBI.

        Why would anyone vote for such a person when there are people who were both qualified AND not publicly exposed criminals, except out of paranoia, corruption and/or racism? How many people still in the school system knew of his crimes, but did nothing to get through truth out; how many were (and still are) pocketing money without shame? The parents have done nothing to address these issues, and so trusting these districts with even MORE money should be seen as the high-risk option that it is: bigger budgets have never reduced the issue I’ve listed OR improved grades (even with ever shrinking standards), so I simply can’t see how a lack of money is the main issue.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Actually elected school officials are a pretty uniquely American thing IIRC. I don’t share your confidence that they’re responsible for our educational ills, though, there are plenty of cities where they don’t have any power or aren’t directly accountable to voters and I assure you that the grifters still get their grift on.

  5. RegisteredUser says:

    Been pining for this one.
    I wonder if they will put in an easter egg Miss Krabappel.
    Lets see if they can get out of alpha to become a fruitful endeavour.