This was originally a post by Sam Anderson on the Designing Games for Learning community on Google+. I thought it was thought-provoking, and I’m reposting it here with his permission.
I was linked to this from an Ian Bogost tweet. It is a “free” web-based video game (originally French) that “simulates” the practice of teaching in a highly fantastical, brutally cynical abstract game system. I started idly playing it, but it quickly revealed some horrifyingly on-target commentary on the practice of formal education as it exists today.
Warning, this is a long one.
Teacher Story most closely resembles mid-1990’s Japanese “tactics” video games. The player chooses actions like “Educational Strike” and “Hammer of Enlightenment” to blast pixelated students as they sit at their desks, raising their grade depending on how close the students are sitting to the front of the room.
In real procedural terms, the actions and objects in play are little more than puzzle shapes and a randomly determined set of choices on how those pieces are allowed to be manipulated. I’ll note that nearly all other grid-bound tactical combat video games reveal this abstract quality in one form or another, but the moves/verbs available to the player in Teacher Story are almost completely mechanistic, devoid of any semantic context. In the video games Teacher Story is aping, a “Spear Strike” attack might affect a group of enemies along a straight line, mirroring the piercing action of a spear’s thrust.
In Teacher story, however, the teacher avatar spouts random “whimsical” nonsense with subject matter ranging from the Knights Templar to Medieval methods of corporal punishment. Any time a student “speaks”, a “bla, bla, bla” animation appears. Students are not active partners in a learning process, or even cattle to be driven. They are enemies to be defeated. The only player goal is hammering away at their “Boredom Shields” until you can get through to deplete their “Stupidity Points” before their antics deplete your “Self-Control.”
Aesthetically, with the howling void surrounding the staff lounge and the blazing auras that comprise the teacher’s “attacks,” it feels precisely like a combination of surreal Revolutionary Girl Utena-style anime and a Slipstream fiction version of Chad Sansing’s dystopian teaching story, The Evaluation (http://nowviskie.org/2013/the-evaluation/)
The cherry on top is Teacher Story’s monetization strategy: The player is pushed to spend real money in at least 2 key ways. One is permanent across-the-board upgrade that provides the player with access to another random action choice and another skill choice when their “teacher level” increases. The other is the always pressing, but never quite required need for pills, and indigestion medication (or liquor? It’s hard to say). The in-game currency is not even coded as anything other than actual money. Is this reference to the amount of money real-world teachers have to personally outlay for proper teaching supplies, and their arguably deficient levels of compensation? Like many “Free-to-play” games, this one makes playing without laying down real cash a punishing, frustrating experience after a certain threshold of play (and personal investment) is reached.
Finally, I raised an eyebrow at the masculine, muscly, beardy teacher avatar as the sole option for the protagonist of a game about teachers, a profession often gender-coded as feminine. I wonder if the developer somehow believed that the violent/attack actions the teacher performs read as powerful/strong with a male character and harsh/harridan-esque with a female one.
Teacher Story: Proof that even the most crass, commercial game can be a fertile ground for revealing and commenting on our cultural/ideological underbellies. It might even be worth having students play it themselves (until the $-pressure really kicks in) and have them discuss it in class.