Growing up, James Choong recalled being that kid who used to sleep a lot in class. In other words, he hated school.
“I would question why we had to learn certain subjects like Geography and History. I would complain about everything that had to do with our education system,” he said during an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Choong, now 26, went to secondary school in Puchong, Selangor. Then one day, he realised that he could change the education system if he wanted to.
“That person said, ‘If you complain about something so much, then it means you care about it.’ That’s when I set about changing the education system – from within.”
After graduating with a degree in marketing, Choong signed up for Teach For Malaysia in 2015. This is a fellowship programme for young professionals to gain working experience as a teacher.
“Teach For Malaysia works with high-needs schools. Teachers have to deal with issues like poverty and gangsterism which lead to problems like students with low motivation who underperform.
“I felt that if I wanted to bring about effective change, then I needed to experience what teachers go through on a daily basis.”
Choong was assigned to teach History at a secondary school in Miri, Sarawak.
“I focused on how I could help the community instead of forcing my ideals onto the people there.”
At that time, Choong met three other Teach For Malaysia fellows: Sophia Ngiaw, Raee Yeoh and Liew Kah Hong. One night, they bonded over a board game. “Suddenly, it was like, why don’t we do a board game about our lives? Then we got to talking about our experiences as teachers and how it could become certain moves in a game,” Choong recalled.
It did not happen right away. At a board game social event in Kuala Lumpur last year, someone approached Choong to ask about if he had any games to offer.
“I said I didn’t have a board game but I did have an idea.”
How to play The Cikgu Life
Choong and his friends began working on a prototype for The Cikgu Life, a board game in which players take on the role of teachers in Malaysian schools.
The process from conceptualising and devising game mechanics to illustrating the product took about a year and a half. The Cikgu Life was released on May 16, just in time for Teachers Day.
“The goal of the game is to prove that you’re an effective teacher, by getting your students to move from Grade F to Grade A.
“Then, you must also prove that you’re efficient. Teachers will get a pile of paperwork that will grow throughout the game. They have to remove the paperwork to finish the game,” Choong explained.
The game can be played by three to five players. They can choose to be a teacher in a national school, rural school, international school or any of the other four schools.
Then there are event cards like Malaysia Win Sports where players get to remove one pile of paperwork. For action cards, players can dish out moves like Poach Student to steal a pupil from another teacher or Taichi Master to force an opponent to take their paperwork.
Choong is happy to hear that other teachers can relate to the game. He also feels that the game helps to bridge the gap between teachers and those who are not in the education field.
“One thing we realised is that most players get frustrated when bad things happen to their students in the game. They will talk about how it’s unfair. Then we’ll inform them that the in-game scenarios happen in real life. There’s that ‘Oh!’ moment when they realise that something needs to be done to help students who are struggling in school.”
The Cikgu Life is meant to create conversation and awareness about the education system from a teacher’s perspective.
Apart from being a board game developer, Choong is now also a full-time teacher at a community centre in Puchong. He hopes that more people will try to understand a teacher’s predicament first before complaining about the lack of quality education.
“People think teachers have an easy life because they work for half a day and there are a lot of school holidays. But a teacher’s life is more than that. Ultimately, good teachers are underappreciated and underpaid.”
So far, more than 200 units of The Cikgu Life have been sold. For the first run, Choong and his team only produced 500 units.
“A tip to win the game? Pray that bad events don’t happen to you! But, seriously, it’s for players to realise that they have to help instead of sabotage one another. Otherwise, the game will never end.”
The Cikgu Life board game is priced at RM85 and is available on Shopee (www.shopee.com.my). For more information about The Cikgu Life, check out facebook.com/thecikgulife.