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No Pineapple Left Behind, from Subaltern Games, turns the controversial 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which connected federal funding in American public schools to standardized test scores, into a bleak management game. You’re a principal attempting to keep your budget afloat, your teachers alert, and your students’ testing high. And you have magic on your side, able to use laser beams to mind control unruly pupils — although abuse your power and they’ll morph into placid, test-taking pineapples.
The game was recently released on Steam, and like Subaltern’s previous title Neocolonialism: Ruin Everything, which I covered for Hyperallergic last year, it warps a familiar game structure, and uses those mechanics to draw attention to a real-world issue. In Neocolonialism, it distorted a world domination strategy game. As a banker buying votes and filling your Swiss bank account, you ultimately destroyed the planet’s economy by winning. No Pineapple Left Behind is based on a business simulation structure, like the RollerCoaster Tycoon series or the similarly somber Prison Architect.
“I try to make unsettling games about real-world issues that challenge the players’ perceptions, because I think that games with intent are better games overall,” Seth Alter, the creator behind Subaltern Games, told Hyperallergic. “Games are very good at putting you in a particular set of shoes, not necessarily offering you an authentic experience — actually, hardly ever — but rather offering a glimpse into the world beyond you.”
He adds in regards to the management game inspiration of No Pineapple Left Behind, “Any game that renders a human to a collection of stats might still be a good game, but, well, humans aren’t stats, they’re humans.”
The focus on the flaws in the education system, even with the No Child Left Behind Act mostly repealed in 2015, was inspired by Alter’s own six months as a teacher. “In the school I worked in, most of the teachers and administrators had the best of intentions but were constrained by the practical realities of the school, namely that their funding was tied to standardized test scores,” Alter explained. “Accordingly, they had to teach to the test as best as they could.”
Unlike similarly socially conscious games like Papers, Please, in which you have a slow descent into unintentional villainy as an inspector at a border checkpoint, you’re pretty much faced with dark options from the start in No Pineapple. In just the second tutorial, you’re already slashing teacher salaries, firing them when they’re burned out, and dealing with students skipping class (although they gain humanity with their mistakes). The first spell you learn how to cast (the way you teach lessons in the game) is the “Televiser,” which gave me a flashback to the fall semester in my high school where the history teachers doubled as football coaches and the television was a constant presence.
I graduated high school in 2003, so my experience with No Child Left Behind was incredibly limited — preparing for standardized tests was barely emphasized. And Alter’s game, while incredibly depressing to play for a long duration of time, is a call to action for many of us who don’t experience the education system on a day-to-day basis. The game is hardly subtle (its bland pineapple characters were inspired by the ridiculous “Hare and the Pineapple” reading comprehension question from a New York state exam), and it’s exhausting to keep up with the minutiae of planning spells/lessons, the constant rotation of teachers, and student management. Yet it’s exciting to see a game reaching for such large issues, and asking players to engage in the daily difficulties of the current school system.
“No Pineapple Left Behind seemed to me like the perfect means of talking about the school system because modern school systems do treat kids like stats,” Alter said. “What better way to show the slow dehumanization of America’s youth than by sticking them in the grinding gears of a management simulator?”