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This board game helps navigate the dilemmas of academic life

How did you get to where you are now? This is a key question in the Academic Life Course board game, developed by and for academics. ‘In a normal working week we hardly ever talk about the career choices we make, but with this game, we do.’

Dietsje Jolles, Rachel Plak and Kiki Zanolie work as social scientists with project 'Expeditie Binnenwereld' and are active as Faculty, and Institute council members within Recognition & Rewards. Photo by Suédy Mauricio.

Just imagine: you suddenly have a promising idea for a research proposal, but you don’t have a lot of time. What do you do? Do you put the idea to one side for the present, or do you go ahead and work on it in the evenings and weekends. These and dozens of other devilish dilemmas are at the heart of a new board game, devised by social scientists Rachel Plak, Dietsje Jolles and Kiki Zanolie.

Academic Life Course

‘The idea for this game started last year with our joint science communication project ‘Expedition Inner World’.  As part of the project we visit weekend schools with a lesson programme, and use games to teach children to think about questions like: Who am I? What possible paths are open to me?’ Dietsje Jolles explains. ‘As well as this project, Kiki and I are together in the Faculty Council, Rachel and I are in the Education and Child Studies Institute Council, and Rachel is Vice-Chair of Young Academy Leiden. In that context we talk a lot about Recognition and Rewards and the different paths you can take as an academic. Then we had the idea of transposing the game for children to an academic context: a kind of Academic Life Course.’

When they were asked to devise something fun for the Faculty 60-year celebration, it all came together. Rachel Plak: ‘We asked colleagues within Education and Child Studies what dilemmas they had come across in their daily work. We then developed this game with Heleen de Lange and Julia Weening based on those ideas.’ 

Onderzoekers spelen het spel tijdens het Academia in Motion-festival in najaar 2023. Foto door Monique Shaw.

Extra point for work-life balance

Let’s get started. Players start by picking a character card. The card has the name of a fictitious scientist on it and describes what this person believes is important, for example organising outreach activities and also making sure they have enough time at home with their family. This card determines the player’s starting position and how many tokens they receive in four different areas: research and teaching, outreach, social life and work-private life balance.


Then they throw the dice. Zanolie draws a dilemma card: You have some time left over at the end of the day. What do you do with that time? Do you prepare the tutorial for the following day, or read in preparation for an interview with the Klokhuis TV programme about your research?’ She thinks for a moment. ‘I would probably prefer to prepare for Klokhuis, but the person on the card I drew wouldn’t. So, I’ll go for the first option.’ That means an extra point for research and teaching, and one deducted for outreach. Jolles draws an ‘experience card’: ‘It’s good weather and you take an extra-long break in the sun. Add an extra point for work-life balance.’

Further on in the game there are also challenge cards: tasks that require some experience. Jolles: ‘You’ve had a stressful week and want to ask a colleague to take over one of your tutorials. You need six work-life balance tokens for that and five social tokens. Have you got enough? No? Then you have to get some more experiences.’   

Examples of the dilemma's.

Living game

Jolles: ‘In a normal working week, every academic is making career choices all the time. Do you put a lot of time into pre-registering your research, or writing papers, for example? But we hardly ever talk about these choices.’   Zanolie: ‘This game gets you talking to one another; it invites you to discuss different perspectives and possibilities together.’  Besides the Faculty’s anniversary party, the game was also a success during the Academia in Motion festival. Jolles, Zanolie and Plak are shortly going to play the game with Faculty dean Sarah de Rijcke, Cas Henckens (coordinator of Recognition and Rewards) and Karlijn Hermans (Open Science coordinator).

But the board game is not just for big, official occasions. Quite the opposite. ‘We hope this will be a new instrument in the toolbox that everyone can use during a work meeting or at an awayday. Do get in touch with us if you want to borrow the game,’ says Plak. Afterwards they’ll be happy to receive feedback from colleagues, or suggestions for new dilemmas. ‘After all, it’s a living game.’ 

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