When I was in high school, I was an expert in pretending to pay attention. I used to read Spin Magazine in my math textbook because it was basically the same size as the book. I also occasionally texted under my desk, and a few of my friends memorized their phone’s keyboard so they could text in their pockets. Kids nowadays aren’t all that different, and teachers, as ever, have to deal with all sorts of student schemes.
Kids in school now have technology issued to them by the school, often for digital textbooks and class materials. But if you’re going to allow middle and high schoolers access to the internet, they’re going to try to fool around. Arthur Wieckiewicz, a history teacher in the suburbs of Chicago, said, “I give at least one detention a week for catching a student ‘abusing their iPad privileges,’ and it’s usually because they were playing a game.” So, what are people playing in classrooms? According to the teachers we spoke to, games like Slither.io are popular among students, as well as Clash of Clans. “Students in today’s schools are so equipped with the ability to use technology that they usually can swipe things away faster than I can see them,” said middle school science teacher Brent Wilson.
There are students who bring in consoles, like the Switch, but they’re mainly relegated to breaks and lunch hours. “Most, if not all the times I’ve seen kids playing Switch, it’s like a Nintendo commercial,” Wieckiewicz said, referring to the Nintendo Switch launch trailer, which featured a woman bringing her Switch to a rooftop party. “Several people [were] crowded around a tiny screen laughing and oohing and aahing as each race or match went on. The controllers were being passed around and it all seemed like a really positive experience,” Wieckiewicz said.
Other students, like my old high school friends, have convoluted measures to goof off in school. Brian Wilson, who teaches middle school math in Texas, once saw two students bring a TV and console physically to their school on exam days. “I never let them set up in my room, but they would take their exam in band or PE or art in 10 minutes then play an old DBZ fighting game for the rest of the 2 hours,” he said. Some students freely admit they bring games to school, too: high school freshman Coleman told Kotaku that he’s snuck in a few games of Battlegrounds on his laptop during class, but only during the lessons of a substitute teacher.
Cell phones are another pernicious problem, and one that is harder to police beyond barring phones or confiscating them at the start of class, which some teachers do. Teachers said that spotting the kids playing Clash of Clans is easy, though. “Since I teach choir, the students use big black choral folders. So, these become natural hiding spots,” said middle school teacher Eric Elftman. “However, it is extremely obvious when any of them are playing because none of them have EVER paid that much attention to their music.” Elftman said that students often claim that they were just checking school related resources or texting their mom, and not playing a game.
Other teachers mentioned students hiding phones under the desk or behind large bags—warning signs that they weren’t paying attention. “It really isn’t hard to spot someone playing on their phone or game when their head is constantly looking up and then to their lap over and over,” said Brent Wilson. “It is great that our students have access to this tool in their pocket, but it is also difficult to compete with FIFA for a student’s attention,” said Arthur Niagara, a high school english teacher.
If you can’t game in class, some students try to shovel gaming content into their eyeballs in other ways. Niagara once caught a student trying to watch a Twitch stream in class while they were analyzing portions of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. “It was bold,” he said, “and unfortunately for him pretty obvious.” Once, James B, the IT systems manager for a small school in England, noticed a group of students huddled around a computer at his school, which is usually a bad sign. When he investigated, he discovered that “they were staring at a real-time counter of subscriptions to their favorite streamer’s YouTube channel. They said ‘We don’t want to miss him hitting a million subs!’”
Many teachers say their students talk about their favorite games all the time, especially Fortnite, which is a hit among middle and high schoolers. Wieckiewicz says students ask him if he plays Fortnite “at least once a day.” Elftman said that kids reenact the game’s emotes in the hallway, usually Fresh, which is “basically the Carlton.” In this school, the game apparently has such a strong presence that “some of the kids that don’t play it are SUPER sick of it!”
Part of the issue, teachers told me, is that there’s no effective way to stop students from accessing games in the first place—and it’s especially tricky when some apps are arguably useful in the classroom. James B said the conversation regarding which websites to block is still evolving, but that his school is “about two weeks away” from blocking all Flash. “That’s going to cause a lot of old classics like Line Rider to stop working,” he added.
Many teachers who spoke to Kotaku have found ways to harness their students’ enthusiasm for games in the curriculum. Tristan Scarbrough, a sixth grade science teacher, said that his method for engaging students who love games was to build lessons around them. “I started a lesson last year with a video to try and explain a point; using the original Super Mario to explain force and acceleration over time. It worked great! The students were actively involved,” he said. He has since taught lessons using examples from Rogue Legacy, No Man’s Sky and even used Skyrim’s alchemy system to teach mixtures and solutions. “I’ve come to find that parents think it’s really cool to have a younger teacher actively trying to connect to students in a way they understand,” Scarbrough said. “Sometimes the families themselves begin to play the games together in order to bridge the social gap themselves.”
It’s not like teachers aren’t sympathetic to the plight of a bored middle or high school student. In fact, some of them remembered bringing consoles to school themselves. Still, they’re teachers first. “I can look back and remember sneaking my Gameboy into school to play Pokémon,” Niagara said. “Still, if I catch a kid watching a stream of League, you better believe I’m calling their parents.”