Tenure Track: A Critical Simulation Game

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Tenure Track is a postmodernist critique of 21st-century academia in the form of a simulation game. In the vein of satirical games like Cow Clicker—a product of “carpentry,” or a strategy for creating philosophical, creative work, according to its designer Ian Bogost—Tenure Track also borrows game mechanics from popular puzzle simulators like Papers, Please, merging the finite potentiality of a critical text with the lightheartedness and non-prescriptiveness of play. Additionally, the simulation game as a genre harkens back to philosophical toys of the 19th century, such as the thaumatrope, the purpose of which was demystification through wonderment. The proposed poster would include imagery from the game, as well as links to interactive components (gameplay footage, demos) and brief descriptions of the mechanics and concept of the game.
 

Developed in Unity for desktop and VR over the past year, Tenure Track visually consists of a 3D re-creation of a nondescript office, viewed from a first-person perspective, with every object in the space being manipulable. The goal of the game is to achieve tenure by completing research, grading papers, and communicating with students and administrators. Much of this “work” is mediated through a variety of simulated digital platforms, which are accessed via a desktop monitor and a mobile phone. The centering of platforms underscores the degree to which they are essential to what constitutes labor. Post-pandemic, this can be read as referencing a potentially obsolete “platform”: the physical office.
 

As the player performs a litany of menial tasks over the course of a series of seconds-long days, they are interrupted constantly by notifications and knocks at the door. Over time, this produces a simulacrum of the frantic yet mundane administrative role many modern-day academics find themselves “playing” as they strive for the promised land of tenure. The sequence of predefined yet somewhat open-ended steps in the tenure process lends itself to this kind of gamification, which resists the interpretation of a prescribed process as fair or logical. The many small but cumulatively important decisions players make imparts a feeling of decision fatigue common to most knowledge work, playing with the assumption many outside of academe have of the professoriate as belonging to an exceptional, noble profession. What is not known until the game’s conclusion is that, once a player reaches one of several possible “endings,” the days continue to loop continuously.
 

While the game rewards literacy of both games and academe by subverting the former and reifying the latter, arguably the most satisfying interactions are the ones that are, in reality, the most disruptive (dropping the mobile phone and cracking the screen) or least salient (disposing of empty beverage containers in a recycling bin). Those who misunderstand the tenure track job as a stairway to heaven, or even as fundamentally different from other types of white-collar jobs, stand to see it in an uncanny light. 

 

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Milosz Waskiewicz