The Grind: Back to School

When I think of back to school time I often think of the capital-g Grind. You know The Grind, right? You’ve felt the daily struggle in your own lives, whether that be at work, going to school, or simply just existing.

Wikimedia user: Kleuske, used under CC BY-SA 3.0

As an educator, I know The Grind well in my work: It’s a mythical place where work is getting done but the days still don’t seem easy.

All hail The Grind.

This summer was a chance to unwind and recuperate. For me, that often means time spent with family: What we’re doing isn’t so important as who we spend that time with. It was a time of tremendous growth for my nephew, too, and it was time I valued spending with him ahead of entering the third grade. From NERF wars to swimming, sleepovers to science lessons, we spent a tremendous amount of time together. He has, over the years, also grown an affinity for gaming, a Mega Man 2 purist born of his own desire.

We shared one gaming experience together this summer: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. I’m perhaps more fond of the game than others: There have been numerous, rightful, calls against the finer technical details of Ultimate Alliance. The camera is perhaps the worst offender, focusing wherever the action isn’t rather than where a screen full of goons is assembled. The scripting is predictable to long-time fans. A number of features that made the first games well known are stripped away. The list goes on.


My attachment to Ultimate Alliance is clearly one of fondness for my nephew. Where I see a stuttering frame rate, my nephew sees one of his favourite heroes interacting in a way he never imagined. Where I see hair astonishingly shiny hair (sorry Medusa), my nephew sees a combo meter inching ever higher.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a lot of bombastic, eye-catching explosions: If you’ve ever played a VLT in a casino you know what you’re getting. Particle effects, flashing lights, and an overwhelming cacophony of sounds is at the heart of its presentation.

Buried underneath all that polish and sheen is a Diablo-lite system of management paired with a Smash Bros-esque sense of collecting characters for the journey.


The Grind is very much so alive.

This was my nephew’s first real exposure to grinding: for levels, for ability orbs, for costumes, what have you. He sunk immediately into it.

I watched my nephew plow through the Friendly difficulty into the Mighty mode. Farming the game’s optional remixed stages the infinity rifts–particularly Wakanda–for experience was something he figured out on his own. No help from me. Nothing from YouTube. He was min-maxing his characters at the age of seven.

The gentle way that Ultimate Alliance introduces The Grind–such that a witty third grader can figure out what to do and how best to optimize his results–is instructive. There’s buckets full of presentation, a gentle curve through the campaign, and copious rewards for those who venture to infinity and beyond.

As we prepared for this back to school themed release I couldn’t help but reflect on my nephew embracing The Grind.

Kenneth Shepherd writes “there are most certainly people having a rougher time in school than you are” as he nudges you to finish your homework and get caught up studying for your midterm. Your life isn’t forfeit to the powers that be across the four games he surveys with back to school grinds going in unfortunate directions.

Writing on Brothers in Arms, Elijah Beahm notes that “soldiers aren’t action heroes, but just everyday people trying to stay alive and do their duty in the face of uncertain odds.” If ever The Grind was a matter of life and death then it is the case here.

Deep dives on Persona 5 by Desma Fettig and Fire Emblem: Three Houses by Larissa Jones punctuate the idea of micro-teaching and building relationships, respectively. Steve Wooley explains helpfully that the school libraries you once engaged in The Grind in are going the way of the dodo: “school libraries as we know them are dying. Full stop.”

It’s interesting, then, that when tasked with writing about the back to school season, our authors focused in on the things we’re most intimately connected with in education. After spending years within a classroom aren’t we all educational experts?

Maybe not.

After all, my nephew has engaged with The Grind of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 more than is perhaps healthy, but he can’t explain to me why the combo meter gets as high as it does or why, specifically, we need to first stagger every big bad we encounter. We do it because we know to.

The Grind is real.

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