The Cikgu Life

13 August 2018

A group of former teachers turn work into play with a new table-top game.

Popular games are often built on lofty ambitions. Become a property tycoon in Monopoly, or build cities in Settlers of Catan: these games test luck and skill with a dash of fantasy.

But a new Malaysian game has its sights on a more familiar, everyday setting: the school classroom. In The Cikgu Life, the goal is to play as a teacher. You win by advancing your students while facing down obstacles along the way – including a huge pile of paperwork.

Designed with a satirical edge, the creators of The Cikgu Life hope that the game will prove both entertaining and eye-opening. As former teachers, they can attest that many of the obstacles are drawn from real life.

Sophia Ngiaw, James Choong, Liew Kah Hoong and Raee Yeoh met each other under the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship, a two-year programme that trains graduates to teach in high-need schools.

James Choong, Liew Kah Hoong, Raee Yeoh & Sophia Ngiaw (L-R)

The group created the game initially just for fun. “But when we got our first prototype, we got feedback that this could be a way of sharing our experiences,” says Choong.

Ngiaw and Choong both taught History in schools in Sarawak during their Teach For Malaysia Fellowship. Although they hadn’t always aspired to become teachers, they were drawn to the programme out of a desire to make a difference.

“Since Form Three, I’ve been critical of the schooling system. I was complaining a lot,” says Choong. “And someone said, when you complain about something, it means you care about it. But then you need to take action, you shouldn’t just complain.”

Soon, they were facing the daily realities of working in government schools. They were not only teaching, but keeping up with the demands of administrative paperwork and the red tape around funding.  

“When you teach, you’re constantly tired,” says Ngiaw. “A lot of teachers in government schools face this daily. You have to be in school by 6.30am, while class starts at 7.10am. And you have to go in every day, regardless of how you feel.”

Then there were the more serious and sensitive challenges from their students. Some students lacked basic reading and writing skills, and needed more individual coaching. Other students were at risk of dropping out due to drug problems, while some didn’t see the point of studying.

Despite that, both Ngiaw and Choong reflect on rewarding moments during their teaching: when students took a pro-active approach with their studies, for example, or when they came together to set up a music club.

The Cikgu Life offers a glimpse of these daily ups and downs. In the game, three to five players compete as teachers in different schools. You’ll gain advantages or disadvantages depending on the school – ranging from rural to international – and from the cards you draw. You might be set back by students dropping out, while a visit from the Ministry of Education (aka “Big Boss”) will add more paperwork to your pile. 

In designing the game, the group drew on the mechanics of games like Monopoly Deal and Magic: The Gathering. They were also influenced by another local table-top game: Politiko, the game that plays on political scheming.

Having secured RM25,000 in funding from Astro, The Cikgu Life will soon go into production with an initial run of 500 units. The game is now for sale on the online platform Shopee, and profits will be funnelled back into educational initiatives.

Since completing the Teach for Malaysia Fellowship, both Ngiaw and Choong have continued to work in education, although in different areas. Ngiaw now teaches at college level, and Choong is working with children in PPRs (Program Perumahan Rakyat).

While the game can be played simply for fun, the group hopes that teachers and policy-makers take notice too.

“To actually get your kids to improve isn’t easy,” says Choong. “Students get expelled. Flooding happens. Policies change. Despite that, as long as you’re willing to try, you can make a difference.”

“If there’s one thing we’d like people to take away,” says Ngiaw, “it’s that education systems can’t be one size fits all.”

Learn more about The Cikgu Life at www.facebook.com/thecikgulife and buy it on Shopee.

By Ling Low

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