District institutes ‘game over,’ banning online student gaming

Carmel Unified recently placed a district-wide Internet restriction on all websites tagged as games—except for a two-hour window every day from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.—evoking a wide variety of responses from staff and students.

According to Paul Behan, CUSD’s chief technology officer, “The decision was driven by concerns raised by middle school parents and staff about the number of students who were significantly over-using games during school hours and at home.”

Teachers at the high school have met game-playing in class with varying levels of acceptance. However, the sudden change in policy is primarily in response to issues over at Carmel Middle, where sixth graders with Chromebooks have been abusing their privileges since the beginning of the school year, according to CMS principal Ken Griest.

“We…began to get complaints from parents about how difficult it is to monitor their child’s use of the Chromebook because [students] say they are doing homework, but then spend hours playing games,” Griest says. “As we have monitored student use of the Chromebook, we noticed that a good number of students were spending hours and hours on non-school related websites, and it was clearly creating issues at home.”

A Carmel High student playing computer games in the library, one of many able to get around the recent ban on games.

A Carmel High student playing computer games in the library, one of many able to get around the recent ban on games.

Alongside worries over how students are managing their time, there have also been technical concerns about students overusing their Chromebooks in general.

“Our technical staff had concerns because recent usage of the network has approached the limits of the district’s available bandwidth,” Behan adds.

While many teachers and students are in support of the restriction of games or have no opinion, others criticize the new ban on gaming websites for its sudden nature and naiveté—including computer science teacher Tom Clifford, who sees potential value in keeping these sites open.

“Playing games in my class is actually an incentive to get work done,” Clifford said in an email he shared with all CHS staff. He also cites studies showing that playing games can help to develop cognitive abilities.

Many students also believe in the beneficial nature of playing games.

“Games test reflexes, and they can be educational,” sophomore Jason Chandler says.

Similarly, senior Hanna Bell says, “I think it’s ridiculous for them to try to control us. Some games can help us relax during break.”

While Behan “understand(s) that gaming is not in itself bad, and that it can even have benefits,” he argues that “it is important to remember that the priority of the district network is education. It is not the school’s goal to provide games, movies, or other entertainment—especially when our bandwidth is nearly maxed out.”

Another argument against blocking games, which Behan recognizes, is that letting students learn how to arrange their own schedule with regards to games and schoolwork is a valuable life lesson in time management, better given at a young age.

In the words of Clifford, “The ultimate criticism…that I have with the blocking of games is that we are missing a great opportunity to teach about digital citizenship…. I think we’re missing an opportunity to talk about classroom management techniques with Chromebooks.”

Though Spanish teacher Olga Chandler is of the mindset that the purpose of Chromebooks should be educational, she agrees with Clifford on this note: “[Games] shouldn’t be blocked since teachers should control it, and students need also need to understand cause/effect and action/consequence, as in, if I ignore this class to play games, here comes the F.”

Perhaps the most pressing argument, however, is that the filtering of all games is too much of a sweeping response to an issue that requires more precise care.

“I think that there are probably kids that are playing games they perhaps shouldn’t, but I think that it’s pretty isolated, and coming up with a uniform rule that applies across the board is perhaps unnecessary,” Clifford says.

Math teacher Dawn Hatch is of a similar opinion: “Banning them across the board—which includes young adults at the high school who should be learning how to manage their time and make appropriate choices—is a blanket solution that I do not support.”

The opinion that blocking games was a hasty solution is a popular one among CHS students opposed to the ban.

“I think it’s an easy way out of a problem that should have been handled more maturely,” says junior Dominic Buraglio, who calls the decision “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.”

Not all teachers, however, are against the filter.

When asked about the recent ban, French teacher Suzanne Marden noted, “The Chromebooks are not ‘personal devices.’ They are owned by CUSD, not the students, and they are intended for educational purposes. I don’t think ‘Slime Soccer’ is educational for French class.”

Industrial arts teacher Paul McFarlin agrees that games have been adversely affecting certain kids who have trouble concentrating.

While teachers remain fairly split on the matter, most students with an opinion criticize the filter, especially for its ineffectiveness. Many students, like junior Harrison Whitaker, note how quickly people were able to find sites or methods to undercut the Internet restriction.

Clifford, however, does see one good thing in the new ban on games: “From the computer science teacher’s perspective, in a way it’s a good thing, not because we’re blocking games, but because we’re teaching kids to hack, which I think is a good skill.”
-Ari Freedman