The Pandemic Changed The Kids, And Not Always For The Better

I always start out my classes the same way, by asking a single question: can video games be considered a form of literature? Over nearly a decade of teaching my class “The Case for Literary Merit in Video Games,” my students have shared many different answers, ranging from an emphatic “yes,” to an emphatic “absolutely not,” to a half-hearted “maybe.” But there was always an answer, because the question tugs on a passion that is their greatest fuel. And it always serves as a low stakes entry into our Socratic-style classroom of discussion and theory.

Until this year, when my class of 24 college students stared at me in complete silence. 

Having a quiet class isn’t unusual for me; some groups are more talkative than others, and a lot of it hinges on the social chemistry of the group. But without fail, we always manage to engage in at least a surface level discourse, and over time students become more comfortable sharing their ideas, even if it isn’t routine. And in any case, I had never had 24 students just straight up not answer my question. 

The class I teach is a one month intensive study. It meets every January, four days per week, 2.5 hours per day. I’m essentially cramming a semester’s worth of content into a 4-week period, and it can be intense for anybody. Over time I’ve grown accustomed to the grind, including the average length of time it takes for the more quiet groups to come into their own and start engaging regularly. But that didn’t happen with this group. No matter what games we discussed, no matter how complex the narrative or how engaging, they just stared at me in silence whenever we entered the discussion portion of class. And I had to really step back to understand why, and to realize it had nothing to do with me.

Gaming Professor
In class instruction is essential to developing strong social and communication skills, and those skills have been stunted in recent years.

The age of online learning during the pandemic brought about unprecedented changes in the landscape of education, pushing students and educators into Zoom classrooms and socially distanced settings. It was necessary and it no doubt saved a lot of lives. But it also had unintended consequences, particularly for college students at a pivotal stage in their social development. In my role as an educator, I’ve observed a noticeable decline in students’ social skills over the past two years, marked by difficulties in articulating thoughts and distress in participatory settings, like being called on to answer one of my questions. This period of social isolation has had massive ramifications, and while I have some ideas on how to remedy this, it’s a much larger problem that all of us must commit to solving.

The sudden transition to remote learning was a necessary response to a global health crisis. That is without question and nothing should have been done differently. It wasn’t perfect, but technology allowed us to continue educating, working, and communicating, preventing a total collapse of all of these structures. However, the virtual classroom lacks several intrinsic elements of face-to-face interaction that are crucial for developing social skills. The absence of non-verbal cues, the reduction in spontaneous conversations, and the limited exposure to diverse perspectives in a controlled digital environment have potentially stunted social growth. Effective communication is not just about the words we speak but also about body language, tone, and the ability to read the room – skills that are difficult to nurture in a remote setting. My hunch is that my students either lacked the ability to effectively read social cues entirely, or that they were unsure if it granted them permission to engage in discourse. Either way, it’s something you really only learn by doing, a thing they didn’t get a lot of during some critical formative years between 2020 and now.

During the pandemic, many of us leaned heavily into video games as a way to distract and escape from the daily horrors that the news would bring. While games can be a gateway to imaginative worlds and offer a form of social interaction, which has literally been the crux of my academic argument for their merit, I suspect that overreliance on these digital interactions may have contributed to a decline in real-world social skills. The immersive nature of games can lead to a form of isolation, where players interact primarily with the game environment or through limited online communication channels, which lack the depth and complexity of face-to-face interactions. I can speak from experience here; I know what it’s like to remove myself from social spaces and to seek solace in my games. But as with anything, moderation is key, and too much of anything can lead to unintended emotional and social effects. 

Gaming Student
While video games absolutely bridge communication that otherwise wouldn’t exist, it still requires moderation and expanding other skill sets.

Today’s college students, these Gen Z’ers that have grown up their whole lives in a booming digital age, rely on this technology as an integral part of their day-to-day. But this doesn’t translate to proficiency in all facets of digital communication. In that same vein, the comfort with texting and online chatting does not always extend to verbal communication, especially in a formal or academic setting. As part of their nightly homework, I would ask my students to come up with at least 5 discussion questions that we could use in class the next day. The questions were always thoughtful, articulate, and indicated a strong understanding and interest in the games we were playing. They just never seemed to be able to convey those same thoughts in class. They had the knowledge and the passion for the material; they just had no idea how to convey it in a live setting.

It’s hard for me to articulate how deeply impactful (and not in a good way) the multiple years of social distancing have been on us as a society, but most especially for college students. The formative years of college life, traditionally a time for social exploration and identity formation, were disrupted. It was a time of uncertainty, fear, and increased stress, feelings that haven’t really been assuaged with our return to in-person engagements. People are depressed, and anxious, and lonely. I often wonder if forcing participation in class discussion caused a greater degree of stress that reawakened these other feelings.

Video game studies present unique opportunities for exploring social themes, storytelling, and cultural critique. I’ve staked my entire academic career on this fact. However, what I’m seeing in this steep decline in social skills has made it challenging for students to engage deeply with these aspects. Their experiences and insights, though rich and interesting, often remain unspoken. The amount of times I’ve read an incredibly interesting question from a student and then felt my heart break when they never once spoke up to ask it is immeasurable. It’s a tragic missed opportunity for both learning and the development of critical thinking and communication skills.

Gaming Pandemic
Digital communication was the backbone of our society during the pandemic, but it can’t sustain itself forever.

So what do we do about it? Honestly, addressing it requires a multifaceted approach, and I would never claim to have all the answers to how that would work. But as educators, we can and must integrate more collaborative and interactive elements into our teaching methods to encourage active participation. Techniques such as group discussions, peer reviews, and role-playing exercises that can provide safe spaces for students to practice and develop their communication skills. I leaned heavily into small group discussions this year, as well as games and hands on activities to force them out of their desks. The success of these activities varied, but trial and error is the name of the game, and I think I can do even better in the future.

Educational institutions, especially universities like mine, play a crucial role in fostering not just academic knowledge but also social and emotional development. Post-pandemic, there is a need for targeted programs and initiatives to help students readjust to in-person interactions. Workshops on communication skills, social events, and mentorship programs can provide platforms for students to relearn and practice social skills in a supportive environment. Hell, maybe a full on Halo LAN party like the good old days in 2004 can provide the catalyst that sends us into the right direction. In any case, we need to approach this with a degree of compassion but also urgency. The world is changing, and it’s our responsibility to adapt to the times and bridge those gaps.

My students are smart. They’re curious, funny, capable, and passionate. They have the skills to succeed, but they need guidance; they need a reminder that video games were never meant to be a solitary experience. They were always meant to bring us together with conversation, excitement, and competition. And while getting back in the saddle as an educator might be a more non-linear process than I thought, it’s about getting back out there and taking those first steps. I know my students will follow when they’re ready. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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