Reflections on Gaming With the Younger Generation
I have played a lot of games with teenagers over the last several years. In reflecting on all those games, and all those teens, I've found a new appreciation for the hobby and a renewed passion to keep playing.
When I started teaching seven years ago, it was a couple of my students visiting me during lunch who rekindled my childhood interest in chess. In time, my room became quite the gathering place for gamers with chess and euchre proving most popular at first.
About that time I picked up a copy of the top 100 Games from Games Magazine and that fed my newfound interest in the hobby. My game collection grew accordingly and we added Abalone, La-trel and Terrace to the list of lunchtime games. At the time I would have said I'd discovered an interest in gaming. Looking back, though, it was really just a desire to get as many new games as possible. I was hooked on the novelty of unique games and the reaction they'd get when I showed them to students.
I find it interesting that I remember all those games mostly by remembering the students I played them with. In that first year I met one freshman named John who liked to play Chess with me. It was easy to see John didn't fit in well with his peers. He was a very special student who needed someone to relate to. In his four years of high school he never passed up a chance to stop in my room for a game or two. Our relationship grew over those years and, most of the time, it happened over a game board.
Ben was another one of my students that year. Though he'd play just about anything during lunch, he preferred role playing games. Once he invited my wife and I to take part in his Amber campaign at the local game store, The Red Dragon. I hadn't played an RPG in some time, so we decided to join him. I remember one session lasted about three hours. In that time my cleverly created character threw his weapon at a demon. That was it. Three hours and my character threw a weapon - once. Sure, we had a lot of laughs in that time before a mother called, reminding one of the guys he had to be home shortly. But it was about this time I learned a very important lesson about gaming with teenagers. Ultimately I'm doing it for them more than for my own enjoyment.
And so it continued year after year. New students came along, intrigued by the games or just looking for someone to be with. There was Chris, in my second year of teaching, who taught me the importance of saying, "Good game." His favorite game was Pyraos and once he got the hang of it, he never lost. He'd beat me at Chess and just about anything else as well. I had a bad habit of always blaming my losses on distractions. It seems someone would always come along at the wrong time, asking just enough of me to distract me, giving me an excuse for my defeat. Chris would tell them to leave us alone, hoping to beat me once when I had no excuses. I didn't see at the time how much he needed to feel good about his wins, but I've since learned the importance of encouraging teenagers whether they win or lose against me. Their self-images are greatly affected by the smallest statements.
I think I started better appreciating the time with the students a couple years later. There was a great group of students who stayed in my room to play games everyday during lunch. Amanda and David were new students. John, the freshmen from my first year of teaching, was now a senior and he joined us too. They got along well together and I never had to play the adult when I was gaming with them. We usually played Titan the Arena, Raj and The Great Dalmuti. Somehow we'd even fit in a board of RoboRally once in awhile. We shared a lot of great times that year.
A couple weeks after school got out that summer, we arranged a meeting at a local park at our usual lunch time. We played a whole game of RoboRally for once, but it turned out to be our last game together. The next year David switched schools and I haven't seen him since. Though it's often hard for me to think of these younger teens as friends, that game of RoboRally in the park certainly was a special reunion for us all. Far from just showing off my latest games, I was finally learning to enjoy games and the people I was gaming with.
The next school year found me in the middle of a Chess binge. Armed with a copy of Chess for Dummies, I attempted to actually get good at a game for once in my life. Consequently, I played a lot of it with the students at lunch. I could usually win quite easily against them, but that didn't stop Brad. He was a bright, terribly over-active freshman who was obsessed with beating me. He often lost badly and was probably the poorest player out of the regulars at lunch.
Winning most of the time was something new for me and from that experience I learned an important lesson about competition. I found out quickly that if I simply beat the students and left it at that, most of them would soon get turned off. Slowly I started to see competition as something that I could use to push them to play better - not something that just made me look better. That way every game was a potential win-win situation. Speaking of winning, I remember that first time Brad finally beat me at chess - just when the Principal stepped in to visit. Brad burst into a victory dance with such enthusiasm all of us in the room were embarrassed, except for him. Sometimes that youthful passion gives me a headache.
That winter I took the small crew to a nearby chess tournament. Between games, everyone would gather in the cafeteria and wait for the really good players to finish up. Most of the kids would just sit around a play chess, but our group caused quite a stir as we played other games like Terrace, Pente, Knightmare Chess and even Starbase Jeff. I thought it was a shame that so many teenagers, all of them interested in gaming, were so unfamiliar with newer games in the industry. Of course, it was probably our exposure to so many other games that caused three of the four students in our group to leave the chess tournament empty handed. Though I still don't understand it to this day, Brad was the only one of them who carried a trophy home.
Board games turned to role playing games near the end of that year. I lead the lunch group through a hilarious adventure using a homebrew comedy system I wrote. Somehow my old friend John heard about our gaming and he came back to school most days (usually riding his bike or running about 8 miles) just to participate. Those students still remember those days at lunch and ask me from time to time to write another adventure.
It was about that time that I began to understand the essential ingredients for a game. It's not always necessary to have lots of new, costly games with tons of fancy components. Instead, we had hours of fun with scrap paper and a big ten-sided die that cost me a buck. What I loved about gaming was the mental stimulation and having a good time with other people.
Over the last two and a half years since that time I've met a number of students who really love games. Some of them have met in my room almost every school day for lunch for two years to play something (Ricochet Robot is the most popular game by far). Often, thirty minutes just isn't long enough for many of the games they like to play, so this year we decided it was time to do something a little more organized. We formed the official game club at our school and we meet every Monday for about two and a half hours at the end of the day.
Now, what began with chess during lunch has turned into some serious gaming. Besides the games at lunch and our weekly Monday meetings, we usually spend one full day out of any vacation playing games. Last month I spent nearly 40 hours playing games with students. Being a husband and a father who has many other responsibilities as well, I often ask myself if this has been worth it. There's no doubt, though, that as the amount of gaming time has increased, the benefits have become more evident.
As I've been reflecting on these years of gaming for this article, I got a call from Tom, a member of the 1997-1999 lunch crew. He wanted to play some chess online for old time's sake. It's great to meet with him again and see what he's been up to. Further reflection got me thinking of John, who I haven't talked to in a number of months. I contacted him via e-mail and he was glad to hear from me. He told me to remind the students at school that they are making great memories and that the times we played games together were some of the best times of his life. It's frightening that I never thought of those moments as so important at the time they were passing.
A couple weeks ago a woman at school introduced herself to me. She works with the truancy program in the district and she thanked me for providing the game club on Mondays. It turns out one of the students who's been attending often has a lot of trouble getting to school. The game club meets on Mondays, which was usually his hardest day to get there. Now, the club's a major motivating factor that gets him up and off to school on Monday mornings. I talked to her about the club and how it attracts some of the students who don't fit in other places. She said she's going to mention it to her brother, also a serious gamer, and see what he could do about starting a club in his local high school. Again, I felt the weight of the responsibility I have.
I hope I haven't glorified the gaming experience with teens too much. There's no doubt that when given the choice, I'd rather game with adults. Still, when gaming with adults I feel a lot of pressure to keep everyone happy (I'm usually the one who organized the gathering). I get lost in the mix as I teach the games, swayed by the whims of the controllers and at the mercy of the sore losers. Sometimes I have too much riding on the game. I have to prove I can win or that I can at least beat so and so. When I game with teenagers, though, I'm able to get beyond all that. I can sit back as an observer and I learn a lot more.
After these seven years of observing, I've learned much about other people and about myself. I'm convinced now that games are only valuable to the extent that they teach us these things - things we can take beyond the game table. It might be something about how we learn, what we're good at or how well we get along with others. Through the gaming experiences with teens I've learned the power of words and the importance of counting my blessings. These lessons weren't on the surface. They were thoughtfully drawn from our moments of competition, strategizing and joking around.
As a math teacher I spend a lot of energy trying to teach students to manipulate equations and appreciate the power of numbers. When it's all said and done, though, I doubt Tom, John, Chris and the others will remember much about the square roots and parabolas we studied in math class. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if they always remember the good times over games at lunch. I know I haven't forgotten all those laughs and the lessons.
- Mike Petty