The Kindergarten Application Game

As the parent of a Kindergartner and someone unable to see the world other than through the filter of game design, I spend a lot of time thinking about what our educational system tells us about computer games… and vice versa.

See, in San Francisco, unlike most other American cities, the choice isn’t between your friendly neighborhood public school or a handful of private prep schools. In typical SanFran so-fair-its-unfair fashion, the choice is between a public lottery assignment based almost entirely on luck and a host of independent schools so competitive they make Survivor seem like a trip to grandma’s cottage.

The descent into the decision-making inferno starts with an innocent tour or two. Before you know it, the private schools have charmed the cynicism right off you with their music studios full of transcontinental woodwind instruments, their second grade film societies, and their organic nutritionists. Many of these institutions have their pluckiest students lead tours and you see first-hand how confident, well-spoken, and utterly certain of success these leaders of tomorrow are.

Meanwhile, most of the public school tours are given by harried principals, shuttling you through crowded classrooms that feature dazed kids slumped most unphotogenically going page by page through district-approved workbooks.

There are other choices, of course. You could always home school. Or there are democratic schools where kids do literally whatever they want all day (a good friend of mine made a brilliant little film about that). Or you can (heaven forbid) move to the suburbs and be guaranteed a solid and decently-crafted public education. But my family just wasn’t ready to seriously consider those lifestyle-changing experiments.

And so you fret. You over-think, over-worry, and over-indulge yourself with the school application process — a process you don’t have much control over.

“Chill out!” many outsiders say. “Let it ride!” After all, life isn’t like an RPG where the most skill points wins! Life is more about trade offs! It’s fuzzy in a way that RPGs just aren’t… where a boost in one attribute is often a detriment to another. Isn’t it all relative?

For instance: Private Schools give you a +10 Wealth (Elitism), +19 Charisma (Self-Assurance), and +13 Intelligence (Overall Academics), but they will totally stymie your Wisdom (Streetsmarts), Strength (Self-Reliance), and Dexterity (Diversity) quotients, right?


When your first-born child, your flesh and blood, the radiant light of your every lost hope, enters a system that will likely claim her for over a decade — it’s difficult to just “chill” and “let it ride.”

You consider your own educational upbringing, and how much in retrospect it affected and shaped you.

You try, really try, to know your five-year-old and anticipate the little creature’s intellectual, social, and cultural potentials.

You spend late nights skimming blogs that let you empathise with and debate other neurotic parents putting themselves through the same idiocy.

And you conclude, no matter your bent, that this is most certainly a big decision.

And so, as much I’d like to be politically correct and think the choice between private and public are equal sides to the same coin — that turns out to be an absurd argument. They just aren’t.

As unjust as it is, there’s a valid reason people pay over $230K per child for their child to experience nine years of elementary education.

That said, life isn’t exactly as simplistic as an RPG. It isn’t just about maxing out your skill points. In life, there really are core values assigned to each attribute, and real negative implications for earning too many points in one category over another. Some people want to give their children the greatest chance of future financial success. Others want to turn their kids into rebels. Everyone says they just want their children to be happy — but definions of happy are personal and parent-centric.

And so, unsure of where we stood, my wife and I played the game. A move to the suburbs lurked in the corner like a Martha-Stewarted bogeyman.

When the assignment letter came in the mail, we wound up getting none of our initial public school choices. Our child had been enrolled in a low-score, low-achieving “challenged” place in a “challenged” neighborhood far from our home.

We also got into a bedazzling private school.

On a whim, we toured the bottom-barrel public school and found it actually had a “hidden gem” of a Japanese immersion program.

We met with a few of the other parents in that program and developed some of our own point-distribution strategies given the new specific factors:

  • Public: +16 Cool New Language, +8 Ability to Make Palpable Difference, etc.
  • Private: -39 Financial Stress, -5 Snobbery, etc.

Full of fear, not without remorse and regret, we took a deep look at our values, held hands, and relinquished the slot in the private school to another “lucky” child.

After a few days at her new Kindergarten, my child was singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in flawless Nihongo. Gem, indeed.

And, as it turned out, a few days later our waitlisted school (and our original first choice) called up and said a slot was available. This was one of the few public “trophy schools” with deep parental involvement, a generous PTA fund, and a commitment to social justice — all within biking distance. An even more gemlike, if unhidden, gem.

When it comes down it it, we got lucky. Our little game of Kindergarten applications had a happy ending. My kid is slowly leveling up in most of the key attributes our family considers important. But it could just have easily have gone the other way, with us frustrated in a place that didn’t align with our family’s goals and values.

Now how can we express real-world point systems like this in Role Playing or other computer games in such a way that the decisions the player makes have the same deeply emotional impact, the same challenge to core values, the same very-personal definions of success or failure?

It would make for quite a little game.


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