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Winning the academic game: How studying in Higher Education is just another game

While undergoing one of my annual clear-outs of unused files, I discovered this rather good wee article I wrote with the help of two esteemed colleagues, David Arnaud and Alan Grundy - Lor' bless 'em both...

The easiest way to understand anything new is to see it in terms of something we already know. Imagine, for example, seeing a zebra for the first time. Perhaps the first thing that would occur to you is that you had just encountered a very strange looking horse! In the same way, someone coming new to the academic world of Higher Education can find it is useful to have something to compare it with – something we are already familiar with. Since everyone knows what is involved in playing a game, this seems to be a useful place to start.

Start with what you know

Using analogies in this way is something we can often do, in all kinds of new situations, in order that we might have a more familiar and reassuring reference point. For example, I remember when I started in Higher Education myself. I used my experience of starting secondary school as a model – initially I felt a little threatened by the unknown quality of a new place and new people and it took me a little time to find my feet. Finding the same unknown, threatening quality at college I used my previous experience at school as reassurance. ‘I have been here before’ I told myself, ‘and it’s nothing to worry about’.

The first idea then, refers to the general process whereby we constantly use analogies to make sense of novel situations – starting Higher Education can be like starting school or taking up a new job. It can be like driving to a place you have never been or putting on a snorkel to and peering into the strange world of the sea.

For this article, we have used the analogy of playing a game. Why?  Because the analogy with games is the very best way of understanding what Higher Education is all about.

Interesting. But how exactly is academic study like a game?

Like all figurative exercises, there are countless possibilities, but here are a few ideas of mine for starters:

Almost any activity can be made into a game. Kicking a ball around is one thing. Add some rules specifying what players can and cannot do, and now you have football. Change the rules slightly and the activity becomes American Football, or Australian Rules football, or even rugby. Knowing what the rules are makes it possible to play the game and become good at it.

In the same way there are rules about how academic work is undertaken and presented. Some of these are rather tricky. Commit a foul in football and you will get a yellow card. Do it again and you get sent off. If you copy another person’s work and present it as you own this is called plagiary or plagiarism and you will get a warning (a yellow card, if you like). Do it again and you will get sent off!

And yet, another rule of academic work is that we have to undertake a great deal of research and include this in our essays.  So how can we do this and at the same time avoid a yellow card for plagiary?

Tricky! Tricky for us as well as for you. We need to make clear the rules we use when marking your work, just as a referee needs to make sure footballers know his decisions are made according to the rules, and that he is not simply making them up.

Knowing the rules of how academic work is put together and then how it is marked will help you become good at it.

‘Practice makes perfect’. This is fairly obvious, but being obvious does not make it any less true. On the one hand there is some truth that some individuals have ‘naturally’ good hand/eye co-ordination which makes them good at certain sports. For most sportsmen and women though, it’s a matter of practising and perfecting basic skills. Again, the same is true with academic study. More than this though, however it may be that we associate academic with intellectual activity and capacity, reading and writing (those key skills through which that activity find expression) are also practical activities which improve with constant practice.


I suppose it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that studying for a degree is a serious business, involving a great deal of time, effort and money. All this is true but, again, its useful to see the parallels with games.

‘I like playing cricket‘ conveys (in a way that ‘I am doing cricket’ does not) the idea that we derive intrinsic pleasure from certain activities which appear to have no obvious or rational purpose. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called this the Ludic Principle and suggested that it was a central feature of human life. Playing the academic game is a challenge because it is a difficult game to master, but it also provides its own intrinsic rewards in addition to any formal prizes (good results, better career prospects, etc.) it may deliver along the way.

So – the academic game is a challenge. For many it will be completely new, so everyone needs to find out exactly what the rules are. When we know the rules, then we practice. The more we practice, the better we get and the more enjoyable it becomes.

Well – that’s the idea…!

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