Grad school is tough… but then again so was Fallout 3 and I managed to plow through that sucker in a couple weeks during my free time. I love what I’m studying right now: digital archaeology, Rome, human remains… no sarcasm intended, this is pretty awesome. So why is it that I’m great at spending the entire weekend solving the puzzles in Batman: Arkham Asylum, but have trouble doing the same when it comes to my own research? 

To be blunt, its because playing video games is perpetually fun and reading about structuralism applied to mortuary structures is not. It’s not about the content. I really don’t like fantasy video games, and yet I was sucked into Fable 3 for an extended period of time. I love reading about skeletal remains, and have some mornings where I can’t bear the thought of opening yet another book on the topic. It’s about the mechanisms and structure of the activity. When games fail it isn’t because they had a bad story line or flat characters, its because the actual game play was bad. I don’t know the story behind Gears of War 2, and I don’t really care- the game mechanics and the actual play were awesome.

Perhaps the problem with graduate school, like the problem in many bad video games, are the mechanics behind the way we do graduate school. Here is my proposal, game graduate school. If we look at the game mechanics that make games successful, we can approach grad school in a way that might make it easier on us, and also more fun.

First, we need to define game. Games are activities that are competitive, goal-oriented, constrained by rules, and participants are rewarded for excellence. Yup, sounds like grad school. If we accept that grad school is like a game, we can apply game mechanics.

1. Set both long term and short term goals: this is one of the most important aspects of a successful game- having clear short term and long term goals. In Assassin’s Creed you are given the long term goal of proving yourself worthy to Al Mualim, the leader of the Assassins, as well as mid-range goals of primary assassinations, and short term goals of collecting intelligence and pick-pocketing. We can lay out grad school in a similar way. The ultimate goal of our game is to get our degree. There are a number of mid-range goals such as completing annotated bibliographies, comprehensive exams, submitting grants and proposals. There are also short term goals of finishing classwork, grading papers, and attending department events. By viewing it like a game where the goals are clearly laid out, it not only helps to prioritize, but it makes the process more explicit and easier to play.

2. Set up a reward system: we need to learn to reward ourselves and not just rely on external validation. In Legend of Zelda, after completing certain quests and tasks, Link usually finds himself face to face with a treasure chest with new weapons, maps, keys, jewels or heart pieces. In grad school, we need to find ways to reward ourselves for completing the aforementioned goals. If I complete a short term goal, like an essay for coursework, I give myself the rest of the night off to play video games. If I complete a mid-range goal, like getting a 4.0 for the semester or completing my proposal to study a collection, I’ll buy myself a new video game. I already know what my long term goal reward will be, even though its probably three years away. I’m going to take a vacation and drink a super expensive bottle of champagne that is waiting for me in my wine rack.

3. Define levels: grad school often gets blurred together, and it gets hard to remember all you’ve completed in the face of so much yet to be done. By defining levels of grad school, we can actually measure our progress. In video games levels are clear and apparent- you know exactly how your character has grown. For grad school, levels can be the year you are in, or designated by what you have completed. However you choose your levels, its important to recognize your growth and progress regardless of how scary the rest of your time in grad school may be.

4. Create side challenges: mini challenges and side quests are a great way in games to gain extra skills, however they can also be a major waste of time. Setting off on side quests in Fallout 3 means better weapons and new technology to aid in the primary quest. Fishing in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a waste of time (and the only benefit is proving to your little brother your superiority in virtual fishing). In grad school some side projects can be really helpful. My professional blog is not a necessary part of grad school, but its given me a lot of opportunities. However, there are many projects which don’t directly effect my education and are just a distraction from it. I’d love to take classes about creating educational games, but it probably isn’t a good idea since it would take away a lot of precious time.

In what ways do you game grad school? Are you using any of these mechanics to motivate yourself?

[Image by Flickr user Rad Jose and used under Creative Commons License]

9 Responses to Gaming Grad School

    1. Laura says:

      Great piece! I should work on bringing more of a game mentality to my work. I think explicitly thinking about how the short term goals connect to the long term goals will really help me with motivation and setting priorities.

      One thing though: I would suggest having the game end goal be getting a job or, if academia is what you want, tenure. Otherwise there will be a constantly moving end goal and you won’t be thinking about those later steps during grad school which is pretty essential to getting a job. These things can’t be saved for the sequel.

      For example: I should find time to work on my research project this week in amongst my classwork, department speaker, TA work, department presentation and social life. This will support the mid-range goal of producing a first year project – a requirement for my degree. It will also support the mid-range goal of getting a publication within the first two years which will support my job search, and also, the earlier I have a quality paper out, the earlier I can start gaining an H-index which will support my tenure case. If I am only working toward the degree, I have all year to put together an adequate first year project – it can also look like ‘student work’ rather than being awesome enough for publication in a respected journal. I’m not suggesting you think that would be good, just that the wrong end goal could leave us with the wrong priorities. Anything that can help with any of the major milestones: degree, job, tenure should be at the top of the priority list. Yes, getting the degree is a requirement for the job, but it isn’t the only requirement!

    1. GradHacker says:

      Thats a great way of looking at it. Thanks for the comment Laura!

    1. Katy,
      You must read Jane McGonigal’s _Reality is Broken_. It discusses just what you’ve posted about here: how to make real life more like a game. (Also see:

      There is this hilarious “game” called chore wars where a group of people can make a game, complete with avatars and rewards, out of doing chores. I wonder if we should make a “grad wars” game. Level up every time we read 10 journal articles? Bonus points for submitting articles for publication? Badges for having conversations other than about what you are doing for school? This could be fun.

    1. I’ve seen some of Jane’s TEDtalks, always interesting. I’ll have to check out her book now!

      I like the idea of grad school points, like foursquare (check into a brown bag)! The only problem would be competition is already heightened between grad students.

      I tried really hard to not make competition between students a part of this gaming post… but that is definitely part of the game (sadly).

    1. I personally ignore all the side-quests on my course. While I’m supposed to be doing extra work for certain lectures, I find it healthier and more sanity-preserving to concentrate on what I find interesting and to shrug at everything else. I suppose I’m not getting the full value of what I paid for, but on the other hand I didn’t pay to do things I don’t care about. If anyone challenges me about it I’ll shrug and say that A) I’m paying, and B) the system of the degree has not actually made it easy or particularly desirable for me to do otherwise.

    1. […] Gaming Grad School: Katy Meyers argues that setting up grad school goals and challenges like a game can make it easier and fun. She proposes setting both short and long term goals, creating a rewards system, defining levels (and celebrating once you pass one), and making side challenges to help you gain new skills. By making grad school into a game, we can motivate ourselves better and also enjoy life a lot more by making time for rewards. […]

    1. Joel Chua says:

      If it were the student’s responsibility to design such a school then that’d be great fun, but how would the school professors/administrators design such a school and still satisfy grade requirements? Sure, a student can perform all these quests and achieve all these levels, but how about the quality of the work they turn in?

      I’ve been trying to bring these sort of gaming elements into concept art design.
      The students do the requirements alright, but accomplishing them isn’t the same as true learning.

    1. […] of turning anything in life into a game; to make it more fun and more productive. A great idea is turning grad school into a game. Perhaps the problem with graduate school, like the problem in many bad video games, are the […]

    1. […] recently read a great article over at Gradhacker titled: Gaming Grad School. This article analyzes the question that plagues us all: why do we find it so easy to spend 14 […]

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