In the battle for funding and the need for standardized tests, the drive to educate gets pushed by the wayside.
Image: Subaltern Games
I graduated from high school in 1997, which means I never directly felt the effects of 2002's No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly boosted the federal government's involvement in public schools, placed a heavy emphasis on standardized tests, and slapped poorly performing schools with heavy penalties. My sole experience with teaching consists of nightmarish days as a high school substitute and year-long stint as a University of Chicago T.A. But I know the stories; the way right wingers blasted it for government overreach and the way the left smeared it for pushing out electives in favor of focusing on math and English. I remember how teachers and legislators spoke of it with the same disgust Gordon Ramsay reserves for poorly cooked meat; I know how critics lambasted it for "teaching to the exam."
But since it's all distant from me, I realize now I'm the perfect audience for Subaltern Games' No Pineapple Left Behind. For years I only saw the debate bandied about on C-SPAN and in passionate editorials, but No Pineapple Left Behind translates the issue in simple, gamified terms by making me the unseen principal at a succession of ever-larger schools. It's the product of Seth Alter, himself a former teacher (if only for six months). The NCLB Act may have been repealed last December in a near-mythical show of bipartisan support—Subaltern must cringe at the timing for No Pineapples' full release—but enough vestiges of it remain in the new Every Student Succeeds Act to keep Alter's game relevant. As for me, I shuddered to discover how quickly it made me a monster.
To get more money for my schools, all my students need to make passing grades on their exams. To make at least some kind of profit, I need to make sure my teachers aren't sucking my coffers dry with idealistic salaries. Passing the tests means everything; the little details of adolescent life like crushes and fights and forming rock bands only get in the way. How wonderful it would be, I thought as a principal, if every student just did like they were supposed to do. What if I could drain them of those troublesome human traits? It'd save so much time and money. What if they were no more troublesome than, say, pineapples?
And that, inevitably, is what happens here. Once my teachers get enough experience points, they can zap kids with lowered humanity points with a spell and morph them into spiky South American fruits, which have no personality save the drive and ability to take tests consistently. And just to save a few extra bucks, I can fire the teacher shortly afterwards (and I've likely already slashed her salary to minimum wage). Better yet, I can save $2,000 more dollars by firing the vice principal daily and hiring a new one.
No Pineapple Left Behind brims with little absurdities like this. Teachers don't teach: they cast spells with names like Televiser (which entails just showing kids a movie) and Trigomancy (if you really want to teach students something, but at the risk of wearing out your teachers). Noble-minded teachers can also zap kids with "Anti-Teasing Waves" that protects them from bullying; the callous can unleash an "Unfriender Nova" that ends friendships and improves grades. The goal's always the same, even when diversified with quests in the form of calls from parents: grind down students' humanity to nothing and turn them all into test-taking pineapples.
So why pineapples? Alter himself says in a 2014 video that the name springs from the 2012 hullabaloo surrounding "The Hare and the Pineapple," a story in a New York reading comprehension exam for eighth graders that drew mockery for featuring a talking pineapple in a race with animals. Spoilers! The animals, naturally, devour the poor bromeliad. But if you were you an eighth grader in Utica back then, you'd have to answer why the animals ate the pineapple. Worse, you'd have to answer how they felt toward it. Few episodes drew more attention to NCLB's problems and inspired debate quite like it. Jeopardy! celeb Ken Jennings even said it must have been "written during a peyote trip."
Funny shit, right? You'd think, but I don't believe I ever cracked much more than a smile in No Pineapple Left Behind. It's just too depressing. Pause the action to enter commands, and there's a subtle audio track evoking the sounds of the anguished moaning in hell. Look beyond the schoolhouse walls, and you'll always see a snowy wasteland devoid of features or organic growth. No Pineapple Left Behind thus paints the modern American educational system as a tidy gulag archipelago, where we direct the action as a distant bureaucrat for whom the lives and ambitions of children and teachers alike are no more than stats we juggle on a screen.
It succeeds brilliantly in delivering its message, even in ways Subaltern likely never intended. The cluttered interface is a paragon of superfluity and a foe of intuition, the very thing a government official might dream up. Even with pineapples bobbing about, it's barely fun to look at, and I've seen more personality in a strip mall DMV. There's none of the beauty and rapture that a quality and widely inclusive education can bring; only the drab trappings of reluctant duty. The strategies never change and matches end on the simple relief that I've made a profit or broke even rather than on the flush of victory. It's not exactly boring, but I'd never call it fun.
Games that clobber you with heavy social commentary needn't be so stodgy: witness Papers, Please, which embraces an '80s-era graphical aesthetic to relate the challenges of handling an immigration office at the tail end of the Cold War. Or take the Tropico series, which satirizes banana republics while still being an independently entertaining construction management sim.
But I couldn't bear playing another minute of No Pineapple Left Behind, and oddly, that's why it works. No Child Left Behind may have been repealed (or at least replaced), but its specter haunts us still and its precedent runs the danger of spawning similar legislation.
Alter's game makes me aware of my ignorance. More importantly, it makes me want to stop playing games and go out and try to do something about it.