If you’ve been reading Priceless Play for a while, you know that I’m a PhD student. Here in the United States, a significant part of being a PhD student is being employed as a Teaching Assistant, or TA. TAs do a lot of important work to keep a university running smoothly: we grade assignments and papers, facilitate classes, give lectures, and act as a liaison between students and faculty. We hold office hours, plan lessons, attend lectures, and try to always stay a chapter ahead of our students’ readings. We do all of this on top of our own research, our dissertation work, and (nearly obligatory) travel for academic conferences. It is rewarding work, but gosh is it tiring.
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The TAs at University of California, Santa Cruz (or UCSC) have been on strike for the past week, demanding an adjustment to their wages to keep up with the high cost of living in the San Francisco area. In solidarity with striking student workers, I’ve put together a collection of games about community, labour, self-care, and surviving in the university system.
Behind Every Great One tells the story of a couple — Valentine and Gabriel — over several days. Gabriel is a successful artist, his wife is a necessary support system: she cleans the house, irons his shirts, and cooks their dinner. After he injures himself, the exploitative undertones of their relationship begin to surface. You play as Valentine, wandering your shared apartment, as the chores pile up and the tunnel vision begins to set in. The game is striking for its purposeful banality. How much longer can this go on?
It’s a tale as old as time: the partner of a successful artists finds that they have wasted away into the thankless role of exploited support system. “Emotional labour,” might be one of those nails-on-a-chalkboard buzzwords these days, but it’s rooted in a real workers’ movement. The maintenance that goes into ensuring someone is able to continue working is often overlooked, and Behind Every Great One prompts us to consider how to highlight that maintenance work. (I also think about Colestia’s game, A Bewitching Revolution, based on the writings of autonomist feminist Silvia Federici. It considers similar topics, with a bit more revolution splashed in!)
In Please Collect Your Things And Leave, you have just been made redundant. I’m so sorry, but you’d better just put all your stuff into a cardboard box and remove yourself from the premises. The only problem is that this universe where you’ve been made redundant has bananas physics, and picking anything up is a serious chore. Good luck trying to get everything into your box — I certainly didn’t manage it. I wandered the rows of cubicles in the dim fluorescent lighting, hoping to pick anything up with my stubbly little arms to no avail. And so, I settled for destruction. If I was being made redundant, I would leave chaos in my wake. I stormed through desks and computers and lamps and chairs, watching them bounce around the room, knocking over other desks and cubicles and chairs and tables. It was cathartic.
Take Care is a simple game: water your plants, feed your dog, answer your e-mails. If you fail to keep up the pace, it’s game over. So don’t let any of your obligations fall behind! I’m no stranger to writing about labour movements through the lens of games — I did it in one of my very first columns here! — but Take Care is the cleanest, clearest, and most succinct portrayals of burnout I’ve seen yet.
The point that Take Care makes is not terribly grand or novel: take breaks, take care of yourself, don’t let your obligations consume you. It’s the smaller touches that help the game hit its mark: the face (YOUR face) that grows haggard over the short span of the game, the whine of your dog, the relentless tick of e-mail notifications. I’ve played a lot of cheerfully pastel self-care games in my time, but this one did it for me.
The Ideal University Student Simulator is a good companion piece to Take Care. Here, you spin the minute-hand on a clock as a university student goes about their week’s activities. You study, you go to work, you go to sleep, and you repeat until you can’t do it anymore. It’s a sweet game (cute characters! a limited colour-palette! fun animations!) from a real-life student made for a real-life game design class. I love this game for many reasons, not least of which is a bias for work from game design students. I LOVE game design students, and their work is often so fun, fresh, and vital in a landscape oversaturated with tired franchises.
Overall, though, I want to stress that the burden of work/life balance is not just a university worker issue. It’s evidently an every worker issue, students included! So, let’s seize the means of education, shall we? Students of the world, unite!