How I Learned to Love DESPAIR: Using Simulation Video Games for Advocacy and Change

By Way Jeng


I call this project DESPAIR (Department of English Simulated Problematic Adjunct Instructor Relations). It's a text-based economic simulator inspired by games such as the various Tycoon titles. Following Ian Bogost's (2007) call for the creation of persuasive games that utilize procedural rhetoric, I've created DESPAIR as a simulation game that puts players in the role of a Writing Program Administrator (WPA) running a writing program. As the name indicates, my intent is to demonstrate how and why the current pattern of contingent labor, best seen through the heavy use of low-pay adjunct faculty, has come about. I also want to comment on the system's cost in human quality of life, as well as provoke questions about how we might be able to alter the system to reduce our use of adjunct labor.

Play the Game of DESPAIR

NOTE: Once the game opens, players may need to click on the Kairos Toolbar at the bottom of the window and then click "Remove Toolbar" so that text at the bottom of the game is readable. To leave the game and return to this text, refresh your browser.

The player is tasked by the university with a number of goals which must be met in some capacity. For example, the university requires that a certain number of FYC sections be taught. Those sections must meet certain quality standards or the university will lose accreditation. The university has further goals, such as meeting the current strategic vision.

To fulfill these requirements, the player must hire and manage faculty members (tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct). The player assigns them various jobs, such as teaching, administrative roles, committee work, release time, and so forth. These choices then fulfill the productive requirements of the university as well as have an effect on each faculty member (in terms of happiness, professional growth, chances of publication, or even payment for adjuncts).

To win DESPAIR, the player must achieve the following conditions:

  1. Employ no adjuncts for 10 turns.
  2. Have a balanced budget (net income $0 or higher) on average for those 10 years.

The player will lose (i.e., the university re-organizes the department) under the following conditions:

  1. The department is bankrupt (cash is less than $0).
  2. Teaching quality drops too low to maintain accreditation (teaching quality for any course drops below 30).
  3. The university's strategic vision goals are not met.

Using DESPAIR to Advocate for Change

My goal is to use this game as part of a public outreach project in order to start more robust conversations about working conditions inside of the university. One of my deep frustrations with trying to advocate for working conditions has long been the fact that my friends and family outside of academia simply don't understand how the academy works. They don't know that faculty members have administrative duties and often don't understand how the tenure system works. As a result, it's my sense that many outside of the university (and indeed, sometimes even those new to the university, such as graduate students) don't have an appreciation for the structural, material issues surrounding contingent labor and therefore assume that solutions are simply impossible without engaging in a meaningful discussion of what change would require.

DESPAIR aims to change that situation by giving players both an interactive way to experience the conditions of contingent faculty and insight into how and why contingent labor is used. I hope that players get a feeling for why contingent faculty may be overlooked for promotion or opportunities for professionalization.

Of course, many of these factors are already well-understood. It is no surprise to anybody inside the academy that adjunct faculty are often preferred over tenure-track hires due to their much lower cost and obligation for the institution. But other factors, such as a department's need to meet a certain strategic vision, or to concentrate administrative duties to a small cadre of individuals (thereby potentially denying adjunct faculty the opportunity to partake in professionalization and by proxy gain experience through which to argue for promotion), are often not important parts of the conversation that DESPAIR includes. Rather than simply see DESPAIR as an explanation of how hiring choices are made, I hope that DESPAIR also demonstrates to players some of the structural reasons why adjuncts so often find it difficult to participate in professional development, become involved in their departments, and move on to tenure-track employment within the higher education system.

For example, it is currently possible to assign nearly any job to any faculty member within DESPAIR. Adjunct faculty may be assigned course release for research, or they may be assigned to do committee work. They may even be assigned to do some of the administrative work. But my guess is that most adjuncts will not be assigned those duties. Most will be assigned to teach, and they will not be assigned to the kinds of departmental work that might lead to increased experience, professionalization, and responsibilities associated with promotion. While many video games might codify such conventions as iron-clad rules build into the very mechanics (thereby creating true impossibilities for the player), I have instead left the option open. It's my hope that players recognize that many of the rules and policies that seem universal in the university, such as the limited administrative opportunities for adjunct faculty, are a matter of social and professional convention motivated by material need. As such, they are open to change because ultimately the creation of those de facto policies is a choice, and not simply following some form of natural law.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that despite possessing the requisite talent and work ethic, adjunct faculty are often not offered the opportunities necessary to build the CV necessary to advance in academia, and DESPAIR demonstrates why through encouraging the kind of player choices that lead to these factors in the real world. Similarly, each tenure-track faculty member must publish a certain number of times to be granted tenure. If a faculty member does not accrue at least 3 publications before hitting his/her fifth year, the player is able to terminate that faculty member's employment. Alternately, upper administration may choose to terminate the faculty member's employment, regardless of the player's desires. In this way, players experience the very real struggle to carve out time and money required to allow release time for junior faculty, while simultaneously needing to fit the institution's other demands (e.g., courses that must be taught, meeting the needs of the university's current strategic vision).

Perhaps most important, I've designed DESPAIR to highlight elements of labor conditions that are often overlooked. In particular, workers (even workers in video games) are seen purely in terms of the labor that they produce. That is, conventional game design would only list the jobs assigned to each faculty member. That faculty member might show a list of the classes that they are teaching, and the administrative roles they hold. Such a view focuses the player's attention on the faculty member as an empty container of potential work, waiting to be filled with various jobs. Faced with such a container, it becomes natural to assign the worker with jobs as much as we might fill a cup with tea; a cup fulfills its role by being full much as a worker fulfills his or her role by being assigned tasks.

But of course, we know that work always comes at a cost. Every job action takes time away from personal pursuits, which I have chosen to make visible through the job system. The cost of high teaching loads is measured partially through each faculty member's happiness statistic, which mechanically results in penalties such as lowered teaching effectiveness and a greater chance that the employee will quit. But that modeling alone tends to simply create consequences for assigning faculty overloaded schedules. Players are encouraged to avoid overburdening faculty as the result of consequences that will lower overall efficiency, which is not the same as empathy.

I've instead chosen to emphasize the human cost of high workloads by displaying the tasks that the faculty must give up. The first few tasks prevent faculty from some fairly minor errands and hobbies, but heavy workloads quickly begin preventing faculty from having the time to engage in important personal activities, and can even prevent faculty from performing basic tasks of daily life. I've particularly included tasks such as having enough patience to avoid arguments to show how the stress of constant work can affect lives in ways that go beyond even home productivity.

Humanizing the faculty has also been modeled through other means to give the player a more holistic view. I included a "happiness" statistic because this is a very common way for games to reward or penalize players for assigning employees certain kinds of work that they match in terms of personality or ability. In many games, a happiness statistic is related to work efficiency in some way. DESPAIR continues this tradition, for example by providing a small bonus to teaching quality for faculty with a positive happiness score. But such statistics rarely give the player any sense of real happiness on the part of the employee, nor is the player precisely encouraged to empathize with the employee. A happy employee is simply a more productive one. A player's incentive to make his employees happy is simply to ensure that they work at optimal levels, and not to identify with that person's personal goals or inner suffering.

DESPAIR encourages a greater sense of empathy by tracking certain life events such as a faculty member's marital status. An unhappy faculty member is more likely to slip from a happy marriage to an unhappy one, and then finally to divorce. These effects do not have any direct effect on a faculty member's productivity (though deteriorating relationships and lowered productivity are both caused by lower happiness, so they are correlated). I made this choice very deliberately in order to avoid seeing happiness as a proxy for productivity. If players care about the marital status of their faculty, it's because they choose to value social relationships for themselves and not as part of a greater capitalist engine of labor. However, players are equally able to avoid looking at notifications and to remain ignorant of the personal devastation of heavy workloads, and it's entirely possible that some players may even want to remain ignorant of the consequences of their decisions.

Creating these moments of possibility and empathy is an important element of game design because doing so allows us to reflect on what our play style says about our underlying ideology. Bogost (2007) has argued that games are able to make arguments in particular ways because they embody a kind of procedural rhetoric. That is to say, the very procedures and rules are themselves an argument. By creating the rules of a video game in a particular way, a game developer creates an experience for the player. Certain parts of the game are frustrating. Others are easy. Players have certain elements of the narrative or mechanics emphasized to them, and they are encouraged or discouraged from certain activities through the structure of gameplay. My earlier examples of game rules and modeling fit this description of procedural rhetoric quite well.

I would like to extend this argument to say that the creation of multiple procedural rhetorics may show a way to begin new conversations, particularly conversations of structural conditions. By creating a system of rules by which the DESPAIR university operates, I am choosing to operationalize certain elements of the university's conditions. I am also making an affirmative statement about how those systems work. That is to say, statements of fact such as adjunct pay rates are clearly visible, but at the same time, there are ways to describe and model factors that aren't as easy to compare.

For example, DESPAIR includes a system to improve faculty members' ability to teach. This system is relatively simple: a faculty member who spends a semester teaching gains a point in teaching, up to a maximum level (to account for a plateau of experience). Certain experiences are able to further increase the teaching statistic above the limit allowed by experience alone, which is meant to model the ways that professionalization and deliberate practice are important elements in achieving a teacher's utmost potential.

In making the procedures of the game function this way, I have argued that practice at teaching has limits, but I have also argued that these limits can be overcome through specific professional development, or through activities that I see as linked to a deliberate practice of teaching. Not only that, but the quantitative nature of the code means that I have been fairly specific about where that limit is. As a result, a critic who plays my game and disagrees with my model can do so in similar mechanical ways by describing what he or she feels is a more valid representation of teaching.

I do not mean to say that quantitative systems are the only ones that can be used to make such arguments—or even that they are the best way—but procedural models of systems with explicit rules are useful because they allow a clear way to create counter-arguments by adding to, deleting, or modifying those rules.

If a player were to argue that my depiction of working conditions were unfair, that player could create an alternate version of DESPAIR that used different rules and procedures for other players to compare to. We could then run each version side-by-side to discuss where the game does or does not meet our lived experiences. These comparisons themselves might open up new avenues for rich discussion as players experience each model of an English department. Each hypothetical game represents a world view—an ideology and the mechanisms that surround it. Playing simulation games allows us to experience the views of the programmer (to the extent that the programmer is able to capture his or her vision through the procedures of the game).

UPLIFT as an Alternate Game Mode

The game's alternate mode, the Utopian Potential for Life with Instructors at Full Time (UPLIFT) game mode, is an example of one way that we might use simulation games to advocate for change in an affirmative manner by demonstrating how alternatives would work. This mode represents a fairly radical redesign of the university system in order to demonstrate the possibilities that designers might choose to invent. This system eliminates the tenure system entirely and instead imagines higher education as entirely run by full-time instructors. But in having done away with tenure requirements, faculty are also freed from the publication requirements that dominate the first few years of a faculty hire. This creates a distinctly different game flow for the player.

I am not trying to argue that the UPLIFT model is a truly utopian model of labor in the university. Indeed, I'm very wary of some aspects of the UPLIFT model such as the non-existence of tenure. Rather, I am arguing that the system of contingent labor within the U.S. higher education system is so widespread and so problematic that it is worth at least considering if a radical re-visioning of systems such as tenure would be necessary to allow equitable employment of faculty. I am also providing this example of a game mode in order to demonstrate that games are able to model radically different systems through a set of core tools that can be modified, added to, or removed as needed. I hope that DESPAIR has created a model that scholars can use in order to discuss labor in the university, advocate for better working conditions, and even demonstrate options for how to enact change.


Adjunct professors are low-paid teachers employed by colleges and universities. Generally hired to teach introductory-level courses such as first-year composition (FYC), they often work without health benefits or job security, and do not know how much work they will be given from semester to semester. They are occasionally assigned to teach classes with minimal warning, or may even have promised classes taken away on short notice.

In many cases, adjuncts are paid as little as $2,400 per section of FYC. At this level of pay, an adjunct who teaches 4 sections per semester (the widely accepted definition of full-time teaching at most American universities for faculty members whose primary job responsibility is considered teaching instead of research), an adjunct would not quite earn $20,000/year. These adjuncts often travel between several colleges to ensure that they can teach enough sections because most institutions have rules in place that do not allow part-time employees to teach enough classes to be considered full-time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, adjunct professors were rare in most colleges and universities. But that trend started changing in the 1980s, when universities began employing an increasingly large numbers of adjuncts. The reasons for this trend are complicated, but it's certain that today the reasons are largely tied up in the financial incentive to hire large numbers of instructors at very low cost to the university.

Today, adjunct professors and other part-time faculty make up over 50% of all appointments, and non-tenure-track positions make up 76% of all instructional hires in American higher education (American Association of University Professors, 2016).

Few universities allow adjuncts time and support for professionalization or continuing education. The high work load taken on by many adjuncts (who often teach 6–8 sections of FYC by traveling between multiple colleges in a day) can prevent them from undertaking detailed lesson planning and updating syllabi. Many adjuncts are under pressure to create assignments that are quick and easy to grade, rather than assignments that may be ideally suited to achieving course learning outcomes. The university structures are often complicit in this system because adjuncts aren't always seen as part of the regular faculty so much as outsiders hired to teach the lowest-level and least prestigious courses that the tenured faculty are deemed too valuable (and too expensive) to teach. Yet despite this, many adjuncts will work for a department for decades. They are effectively permanent temporary workers with low pay, no job security, and little ability to advocate for better working conditions. In some states, they are legally forbidden from entering into collective bargaining agreements.

Game Design

DESPAIR was written in JavaScript to fulfill two functions: First, to allow ease of access and distribution. The JavaScript platform allows DESPAIR to be relatively platform agnostic. Players can be invited to the game simply by being given a URL, which might be e-mailed or linked from another site. DESPAIR does not require any advanced computer hardware, nor lengthy installation time. The JavaScript language itself is a fairly high-level one with a lot of built-in objects, which makes modification of the game relatively simple.

Second, JavaScript is run entirely within a browser, and players are provided with the code used to run the game. Because the code is not compiled into a non-readable form (a common practice for computer languages such as C), the exact formulas and other procedures used to model the game can easily be seen. Those formulas can also be changed in minor ways such as altering a specific value to increase the amount of happiness faculty incur when given release time. This makes minor modification to the game very simple and straightforward.

Alternately, whole new procedures and aspects of the game can be created. A programmer might create modeling of literature classes or break the monolithic score of teaching ability modeled for the faculty into sub-categories. Students might be individually modeled. A truly ambitious modification might add in a more granular view of the term, to model weeks of time or possibly even days.

I would like to invite other scholars and critics to develop their own simulations as a way to create new conversations about the workings of the educational system, its conditions of labor, and the effect on people such as students and teachers. My goal in creating DESPAIR is not so much to communicate to the public how depressing and dysfunctional the system of contingent labor can be (though I suspect DESPAIR does that), but rather to provide a means by which players can understand perspectives on a more emotional level than previously possible.


American Association of University Professors. (2016). Background facts on contingent faculty. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from

Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Copyright 2016 by Way Jeng. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Geoff Canard for his coding help.