Gamifying the PhD

Over the past weeks, I have taken an awesome MOOC called “How to survive your PhD” on EdX (thank you Simone for pointing me to this!) Of course, I did survive my own PhD a while ago, but as I am crossing over to the dark supervisor side of things, I want to learn as much as I can about the general PhD experience and about what we can do to support our students.

Myself, I had a happy PhD, probably a combination of a cool lab, an interesting and captivating project and an awesome circle of friends who were usually up for a cup of coffee, a chat, or a table football game whenever I needed one.

But the MOOC talks about all sorts of emotions that PhD students may experience, and these include loneliness, fear, frustration, and boredom, among other things. And of course, I recognise many of those, even though my PhD was happy overall.

So, if even the happiest of PhDs involve going through difficult times, can we do something to make the experience more enjoyable? Can we turn it into a game?

Over the years, I have realised that turning things into games is something that really works to motivate me. Even as I am writing this, instead of using the text editor on my blogging site, I am using “Written? Kitten!”, an online writing tool that shows you a new picture of a kitten for every 100 words you write. Genius!

In other areas of my life as well, I have found I am really motivated by even the simplest game-like setups. I log my workouts through the President’s Challenge (you go for a run, you win Points on the Internet!), I enter tadoku challenges to encourage me to read in foreign languages (you read a page, you win Points on the Internet!) I do know, of course, that Points on the Internet is not an actual currency of any real value, yet somehow it works.

That’s all very well, but can the power of Points on the Internet actually help us to cope with complex real-life undertakings? I used to think it couldn’t, but then my friend Siegrid pointed me to the amazing Jane McGonigal. In 2009, McGonigal suffered from a severe concussion, and she decided to turn her long process of recovery into a game that involved enlisting support, collecting positive experiences and avoiding things that might trigger a worsening of her symptoms. Here is her very inspiring TED talk about it. Based on this experience, she created SuperBetter, a website that helps people create and follow quests to build resilience and to recover from disease or injury, or reach other important life goals. The game lets you define power-ups (small everyday actions that will get you closer to your goal), bad guys (unhelpful habits or other things that might get in the way of you reaching your goal) and allies (people who will help you on your quest).

So, how about a SuperBetter quest designed for PhD students? Possible power-ups might include writing until you see a kitten, checking in with a fellow student or crossing one thing off your to-do list. Possible bad guys might include talking yourself down, not eating/sleeping/exercising enough or procrastinating. Your allies could be fellow students (both at your own institution and elsewhere – it’s an online game after all), friends and family, coworkers and mentors.

Turning their PhD into a quest would help a person cope with the negative emotions that are sometimes part of it, foster positive emotions and consciously draw on their support network.

I am wondering whether we can find a group of PhD students willing to give this a try. Maybe we can come up with the perfect PhD quest and field-test it, so it can then be used by future generations of PhD students. I would be willing to help coordinate this and serve as a non-judgmental ally (who can attest to there being life on the other side of the PhD). Please do get in touch if you’re interested.

For now though, I have to go. There are more kittens to look at.


5 thoughts on “Gamifying the PhD

  1. As PhD student who in the last few months has been experimenting with SuperBetter to help boost my general sense of well being and to help improve my study habits, I would LOVE to be a part of this in some way! Please let me know where you’re at with this and how you would like people to contribute. More than happy to become your SuperBetter ally!!

  2. Thanks for the great information in your post, I have started on SuperBetter today! I would also love to be involved in turning my PhD into a quest – let me know if I can help or participate in any way!

  3. Pingback: Week in review: Learning to work edition | the complex self

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