Unsplash/Randy Fath

Life has become gamified. In order to receive a loan, one needs a high enough credit score, a point system that reduces a complex idea like financial credibility down to a single number. Posts on Twitter are measured by likes and retweets, a point system to which we have arbitrarily assigned value. Our institutions and social systems are increasingly being turned into games, sets of rules which break down the complex and nuanced reality and turn it into a game with point systems and clear winners and losers. While such systems promote simplicity, they mask the true reality of our lives — a reality that is far more human and complex than games can encapsulate. 

College is one of these games. The academic worth of students is judged by their grade point average (GPA). Strength as a graduate school applicant is measured by test scores. Success in class is represented by a clearly defined grading structure. “Winning” at college — to succeed within these structures, regardless of intellectual growth — is disconnected from the value of the education itself. Students are conditioned to think in a way that reduces the project of intellectual exploration to quantifiable units that have been stripped of complexity. 

An expert on ludology, the study of games and gaming, philosopher C. Thi. Nguyen examines how games have permeated many aspects of our lives, often without our wariness. He describes how games manufacture and distort our reality — and what we choose to value. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Nguyen describes how one of the reasons why we are seeing a rise in games is because they allow bureaucracies and institutions to run more effectively — a trend that places nuance and understanding secondary to easily transmissible information.

As a professor, Nguyen uses grades to synthesize a student’s academic achievement and make it understood by others (the university, graduate programs, etc.). Doing so inevitably removes valuable pieces of information, creating this “neat little informational packet where I strip off all of the weird context-sensitive stuff and just create something simple.” 

This reduction and simplification of information streamline the process of data analysis. The college admissions system, for example, relies upon easily comparable units of information, and regardless of how “holistic” the process is claimed to be, it is very much a game. Reviewers rank students according to predetermined metrics: AP test scores add value to how an applicant is perceived, participation in extracurriculars is judged and broken down by universalized factors and attributes like leadership and community involvement are reduced to checkboxes. Such gamification is convenient: it removes the individuality of applicants and turns them into a set of data, making the comparison and judgment of each student far easier.

Colleges and universities are aware of this game and thus complicit in how students view and treat their education: as a stepping stone toward a high-paying career. A Georgetown University (Wash.) pamphlet titled “Five Rules of the College and Career Game” reduces the project of higher education to one focused entirely on financial and career prospects. This hyper-professional focus affects Emory University students as well. Many people focus solely on the aspects of college — such as major-oriented classes and impressive-looking internships — that will benefit their careers. This approach is not inherently harmful; advanced degrees have increasingly become expected for middle- and upper-middle-class careers, making the prospect of economic advancement, or “climbing the ladder,” the primary goal of college for many students.

Yet narrowing the purpose of college into one focused solely on economic outcomes excludes and leaves behind students who aren’t aware that they are a part of the game, deemphasizing in-depth intellectual exploration. College ostracizes students who do not want to play the game — individuals who want to be immersed in ideas, art and exploration rather than internships, test scores and LinkedIn connections.

“Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task,” said education scholar Alfie Kohn.

Whether students are aware of it or not, we are all impacted by gamification. Knowing that I only have to get a 75% on my labs in QTM to get an A leads me to not try as hard or to not work for full understanding. Being familiar with the rubric for an English essay makes students look for the easiest way they can get the points they need for a good grade.

When conditioned to believe that success matters more than their intellectual development, students choose the easy way “not because they’re ‘unmotivated,’ but because they’re rational,” Kohn said.

Grades make students focus on what they “need to know” rather than encouraging them to wonder, ask questions and dive into the complex subjects they are learning, and they emphasize success over nuanced understanding. The game of college works against one of the key values of education: learning for learning’s sake. 

“[Games invert] the usual relationship of means and ends,” Nguyen said. “In practical life, we select means for the sake of an independently valuable end. In game life, on the other hand, we select an arbitrary end for the sake of undergoing some particular means.”

In the game of college, many students choose an end, like a career that their parents want them to pursue or a job with a good salary, and then follow a largely predetermined set of means. They then rationalize this choice by backing the apparent logic that playing by the rules will give you a higher potential to “win” the game, which restricts the value and experience of college by examining it through a purely economic lens. 

It would be hard to argue that a good career and comfortable life is an “arbitrary end,” but undergoing college simply to achieve our desired end has narrowed the intrinsically valuable nature of education.

The modern university suppresses inquiry for the prospect of success. It imposes a linear structure on education and turns college into a game with discrete steps and rules. The responsibility of escaping this game does not rest upon individual students; such a change will only come about with a wholesale reimagining of our current systems — a daunting prospect for many people. In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves: do I know how to play?

Carson Kindred (23Ox, 25C) is from Minneapolis, Minnesota.