No Pineapple Left Behind is a simple management game painted with the timely imagery of the education reform movement. It’s a “school simulator,” to be precise, where instead of keeping track of tax rates or the number of cows, you keep a close eye on things like teacher’s salaries, grade averages, and how many students have given up on their humanity today. It’s designed by a small team, Subaltern Games, and strongly influenced by its “Captain of Industry’s” experiences as a part-time teacher.
If you’ve played management games in the past, you’ll find the controls and mechanics to be easy and familiar. What lore exists in the game is straightforward as well, setting up and explaining only what it needs to in order to get you playing and thinking about its subject matter. You are the principle of the school, with a staff of teachers that you hire, fire, and order through individual menus. These teachers can cast spells and shoot lasers to influence the grades and attitudes of their students and, at least in the public alpha version of the game, are uniformly white. The students, on the other hand, are black or brown and uncontrollable by you, though you can see their current goals and personality traits, and it’s their academic performance that determines the overall grade of your school, directly impacting your budget’s bottom line. Or, they are pineapples, who only care about their grades thanks to a mysterious curse (or blessing?) that transforms students into pineapples once their humanity levels reach a certain low point.
This juxtaposition of students to pineapples is the crux of the game. The latter is meant to be defined by their lack of individuality or ambition, their hollow nature, but, in actuality, there’s very little to distinguish the pineapples from the students. The students don’t speak beyond the occasional text bubble, they have a seemingly random series of letters for names, and they are resources to be managed as much as your teachers’ spell points. Whether any of this is intentional or a limitation of the alpha version of the game is unclear, but it feels uneasily familiar and suitable for a game set squarely in the context of education reform and driven to deliver a message about the topic.
Even if you haven’t been looking for it, chances are that the conversation surrounding public education in the United States has trickled into your newsfeed in one way or another (assuming, of course, that you live in the U.S. or consume U.S. media). You’ve probably run across key phrases and buzzwords like charter schools, Teach For America, standardized testing, New Orleans, or even just the act that inspired the name of this game, No Child Left Behind. There exists a huge industry dedicated to looking for a solution to the problem of “failing schools” and, by extension, “failing students.”
Though No Pineapple Left Behind is a humble game, it does manage to provide a sharp look into this industry; specifically, many of the debates and policies swirling around what to do to raise the academic performance of “struggling” children. Yes, the magical spells that teachers use in the game are fantastic and absurd, but they’re not far from the idealized version of classroom management that is taught in some teacher preparatory programs where model instructors can use simple hand gestures to keep a class of children seated quietly.
At lunch, you can’t do anything to learn more about the students beyond clicking through their social traits, but you can have teachers zap their students until their personal quests settle on something more amendable to your overall progress. It’s a little like the current drive to teach lessons on overcoming life’s challenges with “grit,” not because it will empower the students to take ownership of their own education, but because it’s been named as an indicator of academic success.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of No Pineapple Left Behind is the ease at which you, the omnipresent principle, can manipulate the entire school. At least for now, there is no player avatar in the game, meaning that you can easily influence or read up on any given person (or pineapple) in your school without bothering to walk the same halls. Your decisions can wipe away a student’s bad memories of bullying, fill an English class with an inspiring lesson, or bore young people to the point of giving up on their individual identities altogether.
You have that power, not for any particular reason, and you can use it to accomplish your objectives however you’d like—the only negative consequences comes from the failure to meet your school’s target financial and academic goals. This seems to be the heart of No Pineapple Left Behind’s commentary on education reform: the awfulness that can ensue when distant adults are able to affect children with as much care and ease as a click on a screen.
This game is small, direct, and currently incomplete. It’s clearly being made for a reason, not simply to provide a new skin for management simulations, but to bring people’s attention to a huge political topic—and to do so in a very specific way. When I took the alpha version for a spin, I soon found myself wondering how much I could save on salaries by replacing experienced teachers with fresh hires and feeling a great sense of accomplishment when a single spell transformed a whole row of students into pineapples.
Once or twice, I felt a little weird when I noticed a student burdened with a hopeless crush on a pineapple or another with a whole series of “teased” debuffs—but there was no laser that would let me chat with them, reach out to them to work through it, so I would zap them into thinking about math instead. It wasn’t like I needed them to be happy, well-adjusted, or even just emotionally validated students to complete the level.