Learning to enjoy playing the game – A long read


In my first post, I spoke of my circuitous and unexpected journey into higher education – this time round. From deciding to explore applying to HE for my BA, and starting on the course was a period of only 4 months: a whirlwind. It was hardly enough time to get my head round the process, to contemplate moving house and even to fill in the funding forms (which subsequently took another four months to get sorted). However, coming out of work, and a field which privileged higher degrees, I knew that there was a value to considering postgraduate study if, and only if, I took to the undergraduate programme. By January 2012, I knew I had found something I wanted to keep doing. When I met with my personal tutor at the beginning of the second semester, he introduced me to some of the things to keep in mind if seeking postgraduate study, and especially funding for that study. He said I’d need to improve my average marks, and gave me a target, and outlined how the funding process worked at both MA and PhD levels. He also advised me to keep an eye out for opportunities to do undergraduate research or to gain more experience of different parts of the university experience.  His advice was invaluable, and I am incredibly fortunate a) for knowing that I might want to explore further study and research that early in my university experience, b) for having such a supportive personal tutor, and c) for inadvertently drawing my attention to the fact that there is a game to play.

Everywhere I have worked there are multiple games in play, some of which are more identifiable than others. I like trying to identify how they are constructed and how they play above and beneath the surface, how they are evident in the use of power dynamics and gatekeepers, what you need to have in place to get through to each stage. Just as I learned through trial and error which employers would consider the lack of a degree so significant as to require a forfeit from that round, I am enjoying learning the academic games and watching them unfurl around me. I remember talking to one of the lecturers in my BA programme about viewing my university experience as a game, and he remarked that I am very good at spotting that the game is in play, and working out how to negotiate it. So l am interested to know what you think on my take of the HEI game as a current player.

For me (multiple) games are a very good way of thinking about the experiences of university. In a game, there is frequently a desire to win, accompanied by a (hopefully) healthy sense of competition. There is an understanding of the rules, what constitutes the end of the game, and who the winner is. Hopefully there is also an inclination of what is valued and rewarded when it comes to sorting out who wins. There is also, at least implicitly, a willingness to play the game – regardless of whether or not you win. I hope that, by viewing these experiences as games, it becomes possible to consider the enjoyment of playing without detracting from the impetus to win, to succeed, to come out on top.

Let’s consider first the games we play just because. Because they are fun, or because they seemed like a good idea at the time, or because we want to see if *we* can do better irrespective of whether we are the overall winner. When I sold cars, I was also on the staff netball team. We were terrible. There are no two ways of saying it – our worst score was 0-99. Our best, if I recall correctly was about 0-56. Each week we’d go and play again, knowing we were confidently the worst in the league, and our aim was to lose by less each week. Eventually we got to the stage where we would aim to lose by fewer goals than minutes in the match (60) – I think we did it twice. There was no chance that the team would ever amount to anything by any objective or external measure. Its primary focus was, however, giving the women on the staff team the opportunity to get to know each other better. The sixty minutes of the match was more time than most of us spent with any other woman at work in the space of the entire week. What we gained was not about the sport, but we knew that, and it was fine. It was not about progressing at all, but we acknowledged that and found camaraderie in knowing we were *not* playing that game (i.e. competitive netball).  In uni, however, the opportunities to play these sorts of games have been those allied to studying. I was very much part of Stitch’n’Bitch in Leeds, and have run Orange is the New Bible with Lu Skerratt, primarily for the community and the fun of it rather than any professional goals. It is important to have the fun things where the outcome doesn’t matter, but it’s also important to acknowledge the they are not intended to help with professional growth. They have a personal value, and that is enough.

Within the context of The Game – the one oriented towards specific career goals – the emphasis changes dramatically. On a good day it can be fun experience, and one which reminds us why we started on this journey; on a bad day it’s like the Hunger Games where everything looks bleak, and any possibility of victory seems Pyrrhic. Like all games, you can have a good strategy, know what matters for the game you’re playing, do all the tactics well, and still lose. There is an incalculable amount of luck, and with that an inherent unfairness. Nevertheless, let’s consider some of the constituent parts, and how best to mitigate for those parts of the game which are beyond our control.

In the UK the career route from Bachelors to Lecturer goes in cycles at each level; the equivalent of a new game at each stage. Yet progressively fewer people reach the next stage the further through the overarching game you go: it is effectively a knock-out competition, and one each player needs to decide how many times they’re prepared to be knocked out before they admit defeat or withdraw from the process. This is not unique to the academic progression path – it is common to many career routes – but for those of us in the process, the constant pressure to succeed, or to seek alternative paths, can feel imposing.

Academic snakes and ladders (with a twist)

The overall journey through academia feels rather like a complex game of snakes and ladders. We’re all focused on the end goal, but occasionally get thrown back down the path from which we’ve come. Sometimes those falls are predictable, we see them coming, while others catch us unawares. However, in contrast with the familiar board game some players seem to be given a talisman or two to protect from the full effects of a fall which, in turn, aid a smoother progression. Gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, sex, accents, types of education, (dis)ability, health, economic resources, familial arrangement, geography and infrastructure all affect whether or not we will receive any privilege in this game and while absence of a talisman does not rule the player out it makes it all the more difficult to win in any given round of the game. There are also those quantifiable factors which make the game easier or harder, even if we didn’t know they were part of the game initially. One friend and mentor a few years ahead of me advised me that they still are prevented from securing some posts based on their unexceptional undergraduate degree mark/award. No matter how long ago the degree was awarded, nor the subject it is in, it continues to impinge their chances of securing an appointment. It is far from a fair game, and the unfairness inherent within disproportionately affects some players more than others.

At the systemic level, there is little chance of comprehensive transformation, however it is not entirely as bleak as it initially looks. When we collaborate with other players we can pool resources, and make the most of each other’s successes. In other words, when we reach places of security in the game (i.e. secure places, studentships, postdocs, funding etc) we share our resources with those below us on the journey. I have benefited enormously from those who were doing their PhDs while I was working on my bachelors and masters: people who have shared their frustrations and successes, who’ve indicated their routes and the setbacks they’ve faced, and who’ve kindly read my work or applications. In turn, I’ve tried to pay it forwards, to support incoming PhD students since starting on mine and to mentor mature undergraduate and Masters students and offering support to those from traditional backgrounds. In each case, the advice or guidance comes with the caveat that the experiences will be different from one individual to the next, but make use of what is relevant and applicable – and see what you can adapt to fit your situation.

It has also been of great value to me to see where those ahead of me have ended up: who has decided they no longer wish to play, who is taking a pause before (perhaps) pursuing further, who is charging on ahead, and who I am catching up with. It is also helpful to see what career options are available at each stage which may not initially look quite like we thought the Dream Job might be, but which are nevertheless worth taking a punt on.

Academic Agricola

Having looked briefly at the overarching game, each individual level of the process also reminds me a bit of playing Agricola with my wife. We’ve played once, and have not yet gone back to it. We will, but haven’t got there yet. So, firstly, there is the reassurance that the game need not be played until you’re ready to give it another go. But secondly, I should explain the reason why.

Acricola is a highly recommended and critically acclaimed game – it was just what we were looking for. It has things in common with other games we played while also being a little bit different. It turns out, from our one play, it’s a little too different. We did what I was encouraging at the start of this post: we read the rules to work out how the game was played, what the aim was, how we knew when we had reached the end of the game, and how you worked out who had won. Only once we had concluded the game did we realise that some of the things we thought gave you all important points needed to win didn’t. We knew you needed the most points, thought everything you acquired gave you points, *then* discovered that only some things you produced or acquired in the game rewarded you in this way. Fortunately, the game was a draw, but it seems apt that when we’d misunderstood an important part of the rules neither of us won.

The biggest issue we had with the game was that we thought we knew enough about the game having played similar ones, and having had a quick look at the rules. We didn’t release how much the specificities of the game would impact the outcome. This is an essential part of any game: learn the language, of UGs and PGTs, PGRS and ECRS, the parameters surrounding who is a junior researcher or a junior academic. Learn about the stakeholders and who is invested in the outcome of each project; you, your institution, your funders, your participants, those researching similar areas to you, those threatened by your work and those reassured. Think about whether this is something you know well enough to play – in other words are you on the right programme, at the right place, with the right supervisors? It’s not a game you’re going to win because you have an idea of how you think it goes and desire to both play and win – as our game of Agricola proved.

This example highlights that you can set off on a new game but just as when my wife and I played Agricola you can find that you don’t or can’t win the game on your first try. Only then can you decide if and when you’re going to have another go, but I hope that having played the game once before – and failed to win – someone will win next time and it might just be me.

Playing for fun

I’m not going to dwell too long on the Academic Path as the Hunger Games: believe it or not, I’m not trying to focus on too many horror stories. Instead, I would like to focus on emphasising that the games we play will be inordinately frustrating at times. We many only know we’ve won after we’ve lost patience with the game, and with others playing alongside us. We may enjoy the ride and decide that enough is enough; we can either withdraw or complete the stage just for the fun of it. Equally, we may also only realising the game isn’t for us because we get incessant knockbacks or through trying it and finding it doesn’t give us what we want, need, or hoped for. We may, however, find it’s everything we wanted and more. Or more likely, it will be a mix of many of the above feelings and emotions. The emotional rollercoaster that forms as much a part of the journey as reading, writing and seeking publications and conferences, cannot be underplayed and will be as direct as the route across a snakes and ladders board and, at times, as frustrating as the game of Agricola. You know what though, I still want to play. I want to play the game regardless of whether I win, and there is a level of enjoyment in the game itself. But don’t dismiss my desire to play and my acknowledgement of the risk of not winning for a lack of competitive spirit. I am competitive, at times very competitive, but I am reminded of two things. Firstly it is just a game – no matter how big the stakes may feel. And secondly, there are more important things in life to me than winning this, or any, game. If it gets to the point, like in the Hunger Games, of entirely subsuming me or offering only a Pyrrhic victory, show me the way out. I’ll forfeit, but for now bring on the next round.