I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to play a game centered on my own occupation. Real-life pilots get to play flight simulators, while commanders can play wargames, and professional psychopaths can play business sims. My prior jobs have just never been exotic enough to warrant a game about them (though if any studio would care to have a go at Fishmonger’s Apprentice, I’d happily consult for a small fee). But at last my turn has come; art has chosen to imitate my life! The Grading Game is all about being a desperate, impoverished grad student who marks up tedious undergraduate papers and strives to appease an angry supervising professor. Strangely I prefer actually living that cruel life to playing the game that makes light of it.
The role-playing veneer is rather thin here, as The Grading Game is thankfully not a true grading simulator (I can imagine few things less appealing). It’s more of a find-the-typo game, a hunt-and-peck exercise in visual recognition of wrongness, set to a frantic countdown pace. It offers dozens of implausibly short undergraduate essays, each equally implausibly rife with grammatical and spelling errors. Once you spot an error, just tap it to correct it. If you can correct enough errors within a short timespan, you’ll get to flunk the student who wrote it. New essays will unlock as you fail your students, and you can re-grade old essays to improve your scores.
The game’s quick pace is at least initially addictive. It’s easy to retry an essay again and again within a short interval, and each new high score trips the brain’s reward circuits effectively. But the fast pace also exposes a significant flaw: it’s not easy to diagnose complex grammatical errors at breakneck speed. Written English can go awry in an inordinate number of ways, but only a few such ways are appropriate for a timed game of this kind. The developers seem aware of this limitation, since they’ve chosen simple misspellings, run-on sentences, improper capitalizations, repeated words and homophone transpositions to comprise the vast majority of the game’s errors. After just a few minutes wading through these I found myself yearning for a dangling participle, a missing verb, a pronoun in the wrong case—anything to break up the monotony. Forget about correcting the truly important writing problems, like poor paragraph order, fallacious arguments, or unsupported claims.
The game attempts to compensate for this limited scope with a wide array of essay topics, ranging from the Voynich Manuscript to the U.S.S. Enterprise (the space shuttle, not the starship). However, since each “essay” is only a few sentences long, they don’t make for compelling reading—not that the short timer would permit such reading anyway. After a while I stopped paying attention to the topics since they don’t affect the gameplay.
The game grows repetitive quickly. Since each essay is supposed to have been written by a different student, you might expect them to exhibit different kinds of errors. Maybe one student should be a poor speller, while another is prone to vocabulary problems, and another to run-ons. But no, each student is equally terrible; their essays contain the same kind, distribution and frequency of errors. So while the variety of essay topics implicitly promises variety in gameplay, that promise is undone: first by the brevity and simplicity of the essays, and then by the fact that each essay plays so very like the one before it.
Frantic, repetitive gameplay can succeed when coupled with a genuine sense of progress. Think of Angry Birds, or of tower defense games, or whatever other protracted exercise in agonizing, mindless repetition you please. Even as I criticize these games I can’t condemn them wholeheartedly, since in the best of them each level shows me something new, either a new toy or a new challenge. By contrast, The Grading Game showed me everything it had to offer within ten minutes.
I had hoped The Grading Game would prove satisfying fodder for grammar nerds like me, but that’s not what it’s trying to be. We grammar nerds enjoy learning the abstruse rules and bizarre exceptions that comprise the backbone of our language. The Grading Game is more about the psychology of pattern recognition than it is about the rules of language. Remember that chain e-mail from a few years back, the one about how our brains can make sense of jumbled words as long as the first and last letters are the same? “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas.”
The Grading Game is all about whether you can circumvent your brain’s built-in tendency to make sense of nonsense before the timer runs out. It doesn’t really depend upon a large vocabulary or a sound basis in grammar. All but the most remedial readers can correctly identify the errors in this game. The question is, can you find them all in under 20 seconds? You won’t lose for being ignorant; you’ll lose for being slow. I wish it were the reverse. I’d rather the game challenge my knowledge than my speed.
Although The Grading Game fails to appeal as either a casual or a hardcore game, I can’t help but be fascinated by its potential. So far as I’m aware the only other games to revolve around correcting grammar are crappy edutainment titles marketed to overfunded school districts. I’d probably give a better grade to a more ambitious sequel.