Gamifying the PhD

Doing a PhD is lonely, it’s hard on so many levels from financial to personal, it requires years of determination, a certain amount of stubbornness and the ability to keep going even when it seems you are surrounded by brick walls everywhere you turn.

As a PhD student I spend most of my time stuck at my computer reading, and procrastinating, chasing people for interviews or funding. Chasing supervisors for meetings or feedback.

I put a lot out there, but get very little back in return. I guess at the end of it all my reward will be piece of paper that says I can call myself Dr. But when I’m having a rubbish week or a rubbish month, I often wonder is that piece of paper worth all this hard work and poverty?

One of my supervisors Alan Hook research’s games and play, and I’m always really fascinated by the way he motivates students (including myself) he’s great at providing constant feedback. We are both on Twitter, and every now and then when I’m having a rant he’ll tweet me some words of encouragement (or more likely a random animated gif). To many this might not seem like ‘supervision’ but it is, and its crucial. Having monthly or more commonly for lots of PhD students quarterly supervisory meetings just isn’t enough. Yes we need those meetings, they are really important times to discuss the research we are currently doing and get feedback on writing – but the motivation that you get off the back of them only lasts a couple of days, and then there again you are staring into the face of a 100,000 words thesis, and a couple more years working alone on a random topic, that lets be honest most people don’t care about.

So how could game mechanics help?

The new REF system places an emphasis on ‘impact’ perhaps if this was embedded into  the PhD supervision process students and supervisors would feel more motivated and engaged in the research process and their academic relationship.

Each student and member of staff could have a profile page, this page would be visable to other research supervisors and PhD students in individual faculties.

Students could award badges and points to supervisors for timely feedback, for reading work prior to meetings, for sending useful research links, for sharing contacts, for recommending useful conferences.

Essentially the better a supervisor you are the more points you get. As the profile page would be seen by other faculty members supervisors would be driven to gain points and improve their supervision.

Supervisors could award points to students for submitting work, for seeing that they have written an interesting blog, for seeing that they are running a research event, or for helping out other students. Supervisors could offer badges for milestones such as your first conference paper, or publication.

Bonus points: Heads of schools, or even Deans/ V. Chancellors could award bonus points for notable achievements and thus the game would help to improve communication between students, staff and management.

Supervisors are busy, in fact most are super busy, its not that they don’t want to see their PhD students its just that they have 100’s of undergrads beating down their office door constantly.  An acknowledgement based game would be a really efficient way to improve the quality of PhD student / supervisor relationships, without adding to the workload of supervisors. Each mini interaction could be completed on a smartphone, before a class starts, or in between meetings.

Awards could be offered for Supervisor of the month, and student of the month. An award could be offered for best supervisor student duo – the combo that have the most points.

How would this help?

Micro recognition would help to motivate me to finish that dull book ‘I have to read’  and would encourage me to be more proactive in running events.

In essence if my PhD became a game I would feel much more fulfilled throughout the process rather than just staring into the face of a 3 to 4 year course.

If my PhD became a game I would see the value of my research and the Impact that it is having acknowledged, I would see the value in all the digital events I run, or meetings I have, I would see that the University had acknowledged a fellowship I had received, or that my head of school had acknowledged  that my work had been featured in a News Paper.

Possible problems?

If you are a good supervisor then this game would see that you get the acknowledgement you deserve.

However if your a rubbish supervisor your probably not going to like this concept very much!

The game is based on positive recognition and acknowledgement. you can’t lose points. you can’t fail. you can only do better.

Thinking aloud

I have literally just walked in the door, picked up my computer and wrote this post. I’m currently reading ‘Reality is Broken’ and have been totally captivated by it, this post is very much a response to what I’ve read so far and is heavily influenced by the work of Alan Hook, in particular the game that he ran as part of the Interactive Media Arts course at University of Ulster, IMA Killer.

Has anybody tried gamifying the PhD ?

I’m sure there are articles on this, if you know of any please send the links my way I’d love to read them.

I’d also love to know what you think about the concept of a micro acknowledgement PhD game,

Thanks for reading my hastily scribble thinking!


Since writing this quick of the cuff post I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people that have read and shared it, the conversations it has sparked on twitter and among a wide range of PhD students from different disciplines.

Here are 2 great articles which have been written in response to my original post:

‘Sometimes writing up a PhD feels a lot like tetris’

‘Points mean PhD’

I was also excited to learn that the Wellcome Trust have just announced a new funding stream that will provide PhD Students with funding to partner with game developers.

It seems the conversation about game mechanics and the PhD process is beginning to gather some real momentum…

4 thoughts on “Gamifying the PhD

  1. Suse Cairns says:

    Oonagh – I was talking to a friend of mine who has been struggling with his PhD write-up. He mentioned that his department head has started a game for all the research students in the school to encourage them to write something towards their PhD every day. He has stuck little pictures of birds on his wall, and every day they have to “feed their bird” by doing some work. Each time they fail to do so, their bird gets sicker and sicker (it’s replaced with a new pic that looks less and less healthy), so they are working to keep their bird alive. It sounds like a simple but cute initiative, so I thought I’d share it.

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