This post was written by Head of Middle School at Worcester Academy, Rebecca Yacono.
It was a couple of weeks into the school year when the first major discipline issue cropped up: four students had gotten into a toxic chat on an online messaging platform popular among video gamers. What had begun as a salty back-and-forth among classmates devolved into an ugly spat, which came to include others who had been invited into the conversation without the consent of all the original participants. Three of the students were adamant that a fourth student had invited outsiders to their server and that he and those strangers had ganged up on the three others with misogynistic and homophobic hate speech.
None of them could identify what they might have done to prevent, redirect, or resolve the situation. The idea of leaving the server to avoid further insult seemed to be anathema as a strategy to these seventh graders.
With few conflict resolution skills at their disposal and no adult to intervene, the dispute spilled over into the school day. On campus, the tables turned, and the three made a tacit (and obvious) agreement to ostracize the one whom they held responsible for allowing others into their space and allowing the verbal attacks: Marcus.
Generally speaking, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are full of paradoxes. They are grappling with identity and their peers’ opinions carry a disproportionate weight in shaping their self-image. They are keenly interested in justice and will challenge decisions or actions that they deem unfair; indignation is a regular state of being for middle schoolers. At the same time, they are extraordinarily good at hurting other people’s feelings and getting their own feelings hurt. In addition, they tend to have wide mood swings (which may or may not be related to the onset of puberty). Young adolescents also prioritize their peers’ opinions over those of their teachers or parents. Having a group to belong to is essential, and loyalty to that group becomes a core value, even as middle school friend groups can be fragile and tenuous.
When I got the phone call from Marcus’s mother, I wasn’t surprised at her concern about his lack of friends. In addition to the online incident earlier in the year, the election was fast approaching, and Marcus (and his family) was quite vocal about his political views, which stood in direct opposition to his friends’ (who were quite vocal in their own right!). Furthermore, Marcus struggled to communicate with his classmates fluently; he took everything very seriously, and as a result, he was awkward in his attempts at casual banter. Marcus was struggling even to come to school, and for several days in a row he stayed out until we set up a mediated conversation among him and his classmates.
One of the first rules of being a middle school educator is: Never try to make kids be friends. The kids will tell you -- and they’re right -- it’ll only make things worse. I could address Marcus’s role in the ugly online exchange, which I did, but I couldn’t make his classmates forgive him or accept his political stance. Adults were having a hard enough time communicating civilly across party lines; I could hardly expect seventh graders to do so. Even after Marcus returned to school, he largely kept to himself, ate by himself, and participated reluctantly in class.
Right about that time, I received an email from Ed Lallier from Vanta Leagues. He described the start-up’s concept: to provide middle school students with coaching and supervision in an esports league, complete with weekly competitions streamed on Twitch along with color commentary. The initial concept was to provide players a setting with a trained adult to coach players in gaming strategies along with lessons in sportsmanship, teamwork, and communication. He invited Worcester Academy to participate in Vanta’s inaugural season, from mid-November through the start of Winter Break in December. Knowing that the students in my school had stayed connected throughout the pandemic by playing Among Us and communicating on Discord, and knowing that from Thanksgiving through mid-January, our students would be learning from home, remotely, I jumped at the chance to provide them with an opportunity to stay connected with each other in an environment where they already spent much of their free time: online games. Furthermore, I realized that Vanta would not only provide adult supervision in the gaming environment, but even better: coaching, modeling, and practicing social-emotional skills such as goal setting, communication, and self-awareness.
Marcus signed up right away, along with eight other WA students, who learned to play League of Legends. Two nights a week, they practiced their teamwork and good communication skills under the supervision and guidance of a Vanta coach. In February, when Vanta invited Worcester Academy students to participate in their beta season, Marcus signed up again, this time for two leagues: Rocket League and League of Legends. The Vanta season bridged winter and spring, and the gamers from Worcester Academy continued to participate, even over Spring Break.
One spring day, when the seventh graders were eating their lunches -- still socially distanced -- on the patio outside, I realized that Marcus was sitting with another Vanta gamer and two other boys, including one of the original three who had “excommunicated” him from their friend group back in the fall. He wasn’t just sitting near them; he was participating naturally and easily in the flow of the conversation.
Granted, seventh grade is a time of profound growth in children. Many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds make great strides in their abilities to communicate, senses of humor, and self-awareness. Nevertheless, Marcus was making exceptional progress. Reports from Ed Lallier at Vanta were that Marcus was connecting with other players on his teams as well. It seemed that Marcus had found a way to fulfill that most basic need of teenagers: to belong. I am convinced that his participation in the Vanta esports League -- with its coached sessions and focus on players’ social and emotional development -- has been pivotal in his growth.
Research shows that online gaming provides young people with the chance to develop both “meaningful” relationships with peers and opportunities to maintain those connections. Having opportunities to interact doesn’t mean young teenagers have healthy relationships; they need lessons in what healthy relationships look like and how to cultivate them. Children can learn social and emotional skills in school, through watching others, and by experiencing opportunities to try them out themselves, and doing so in organic settings -- environments where young people already spend their time -- make those lessons relevant and immediately applicable.
The online gaming environment provides a zero-gravity playing field. Players write their own narratives and curate their online identities. In that environment, a trained adult coach is at once a mentor and a trusted advisor. The setting of the Internet at large is a feral backdrop for anarchy and vigilante justice, where children and teenagers can get derailed, lost, and traumatized. Vanta Leagues is blazing a trail through that wilderness, where young people receive coaching and instruction in social skills, including self-awareness and self-management as well as social awareness and relationship building.
I have no doubt that Marcus would have matured and developed his social skills and ability to communicate with his classmates eventually. On his Vanta team, Marcus was able to develop relationships and demonstrate social skills that he has been able to transfer to his in-person peer interactions. The context of online gaming allowed Marcus to access the lessons of a trusted adult coach who was there to teach the players how to communicate and work as a team; furthermore, an adult was present to mediate conflicts and model strategies for moving forward.
It isn’t realistic to expect that parents and educators have the capacity to stay current with all the latest and greatest video games, social media platforms, and online trends that our teens and tweens follow. At the same time, it is our responsibility to give them the tools to make good decisions, build healthy relationships, and set mindful boundaries. Those tools -- the social and emotional skills cultivated at home, at school, in rehearsal halls, and on sports fields and courts -- can also be cultivated in the online gaming environment if we begin to think of those environments in the same ways: as opportunities for young people to learn from trusted and trained coaches in organized team settings.
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