PROCTOR — A new summer program aims to use video games to teach students about computer technology and foster meaningful social connections.
The Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union is offering an Esports Summer Enrichment Program to all students entering grades 9-12 in the fall. GRSCU schools include Proctor High School, West Rutland High School and Poultney High School.
Proctor High School science teacher Alena Wehof will oversee the program along with GRSCU Chief Technology Officer Gregory Connors.
Connors said the program — which runs July 6-8, 13-15 and 27-29, and August 3-5 and 10-12 — was made possible through an Elementary and Secondary School Relief grant, part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law in March.
Wehof said she plans to use the summer sessions as a launchpad for a district-wide esports team.
Modeled after traditional athletic contests, esports pit teams from different schools against each other in structured, multiplayer video game competitions.
Teams compete with other schools around the state and have the opportunity to play in regional and national championships.
The events have become a spectator sport, Connors said, noting the popularity of video game livestreaming service Twitch.
Wehof, who is a gamer herself, will act as coach for the new team.
“It’s similar to other types of sports programs where students have to be engaged in teamwork to accomplish their objective. Just, in this case, instead of using their physical bodies to work together to accomplish the goal and win the game, they’re using their minds,” she said.
Wehof is quick to note that the games teams play are not mainstream ones, like “Call of Duty” or “Fortnite,” but are more strategy-based.
In one game, titled “Rocket League,” players use cars to play soccer.
In another, titled “League of Legends,” players select characters with different roles, strengths and skills that they think will counter an opponent’s character in combat.
Wehof said the game requires research, training and teamwork, which means the team will have practices and run drills just like any other sports team.
And while the size of the team may vary from game to game, Wehof said she will structure it so every team member will get a chance to play.
Zach Stuhlmueller, a rising junior at Proctor who signed up for the summer program, said he is looking forward to having the chance to play esports at school.
Stuhlmueller said he first got interested in esports by gaming at home, and has learned the value of teamwork through playing games like “Call of Duty” and “Minecraft.”
Wehof said she currently has 10 students signed up for the summer, but expects more. She said information about it is posted on all GRCSU high school websites.
But before any gameplay can commence, students will have some work to do.
High school esports programs are generally PC-based, according to Wehof, meaning teams play on personal computers rather than typical gaming consoles, like Xbox or Playstation.
As part of the summer program, students will build those PCs.
“The first probably few sessions of the enrichment program is building the computers themselves,” said Connors, who explained that staff members from the GRCSU technology department will assist with the builds.
Connors said one of the goals is to teach students actual computer skills and about various components and hardware.
He said esports are part of a larger trend at GRCSU schools of embracing “transformative” technology-based programs, like robotics, maker spaces and 3D printing.
“We’re very much trying to be in the movement of where education is going,” he said.
Wehof said the experience will give students a preview of possible careers in fields, like information technology and computer programming.
“There’s tons and tons and tons of jobs in the technology field. This is just another way for (students) to get access to a whole host of careers, but in a very fun way.”
Connors and Wehof acknowledged potential criticisms about launching a program based around video games after a year during which students spent an above average amount of time in front of screens because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they argue it’s a good fit for some students.
“I think we have enough curriculum-based ammunition to show people that these are generally kids that are isolated from social structures, and we’re bringing them into very supportive environments,” said Connors.
Wehof added that the summer program won’t include much screen time at all.
“We’re going to be digging right in and building computers. It’s going to be extremely hands-on without screens for a while,” she said.
In addition to technical work, Wehof said the program will also discuss gaming culture, including its toxic aspects.
“Something we’ll talk about is, what does it mean to be a good, contributing member of the gaming community and promoting positive culture?” she said. “The kids who are signing up primarily all do game on their own, and they all game online with strangers … so we want to make sure that they know how to handle those kinds of situations as they come up.”
Wehof and Connors also see esports as a way of shaking off “nerd-culture” stereotypes.
While gamer culture — and nerd culture in general — has become more mainstream in the past couple of decades, they both acknowledge that some social stigma still exists — especially in rural Vermont, where young people’s interests can tend to be more focused on traditional athletics and outdoor recreation.
Wehof noted that the team will connect like-minded students from across the district, as well as recognize and celebrate their interests and skills within the school community.
“This is their world that they’ve been just kind of doing on their own,” she said.
Connors, who describes himself as “an old-school, Gen-X nerd,” said he wishes he had such an opportunity growing up.
“I am one of those people who didn’t have an outlet in my high school days, and can see how something like that would have been very valuable to me personally.”
Another stereotype Wehof and Connors hope to combat is the male-focused nature of gamer culture.
While Wehof said mostly male students have shown an interest in the summer program and esports team so far, she has had one young woman sign up.
“As she put it, she’s like, ‘I’m not really a gamer, but I want to learn how to build a computer and get into this because I think a strategy game sounds way better than running around and shooting people.’”
Connors noted another benefit of esports is the lack of physical limitations that would require male and female teams.
“This is a really equal playing field here,” he said.