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Game clubs foster sense of belonging

Snohomish High School game clubIn a society often divided by differences, games can be tools of unity, weaving bonds that go beyond backgrounds and personalities.

From the realms of Dungeons and Dragons to the battlegrounds of chess and checkers, groups of district students are discovering a common ground where togetherness, healthy competition, and friendships flourish. Whether navigating a complicated real estate transaction in Monopoly or unraveling the dynamics of Magic the Gathering, games offer more than entertainment. They provide a place where students from all backgrounds can come together to share laughter, make lasting connections, and embark on thrilling adventures.

Each week dozens of middle and high school students regularly head to one of the after-school game clubs. It’s here that students engage with each other and immerse themselves in intense battles of wit and skill across a variety of tabletop, board, video, and card games.

Glacier Peak High School (GPHS) teacher Eric Benson, who professes to be “an avid board game, role-playing game and video game geek,” is the school’s game club advisor. Benson says students are drawn to game clubs for a variety of reasons, including the chance to mingle with people with similar interests. He added “the great unifier is likely the events that stretch game club to more than 10 or so hours … allowing for an exhausting and rewarding memory of being able to nerd out for a long, long time with buddies.”

Benson added that the format of game club is very flexible. On a typical game club afternoon, visitors will find students seated at tables, scattered across the classroom floor, or spilling into the hallways to play any one of dozens of games. Some students may be devoted to easy-to-learn boardgames such as Sorry or Life, while others are drawn to the immersive nature of video games such as Super Smash Bros. Those looking to engage with a bigger group may be ready to join a Magic the Gathering or Pokémon tournament. He added that games that allow a multitude of people to join often make for the best experiences, letting kids meet one another and test their skills (or luck) within a chosen game.

In a GPHS hallway on a Thursday afternoon, sophomore Garrick Ravo and friends diligently set up their Beyblade arenas. With a swift and practiced motion, the boys shriek as they launch their Beyblades into the ring to engage in an epic battle. For students like Ravo, game club offers a sanctuary - a place where the pressures of school fade, allowing him to engage in the joy of friendly competition.

“We come in here and just duke it out,” Ravo said. “We can play to our hearts’ content. It’s just not the same as playing at home. My friends are here. This is one of my favorite places.”

Jami Nielsen, Centennial Middle School teacher and game club advisor, highlighted the significance of game clubs in providing students with a much-needed outlet for stress relief during the day, while also providing an opportunity to escape through a favorite pastime. A thriving game club, according to Nielsen, should provide a secure environment where students have access to a variety of options, clear game rules, and a structured setup that offers both clarity and consistency.

Typically, club members may be students who do not participate in the more traditional extracurricular activities such as athletics, debate, and music, said Linda Sparks, Snohomish High School (SHS) teacher and game club advisor. She added that last year, SHS students took further ownership of their group by crafting their club’s code of conduct.

“I was amazed at the respect each member has for this code of conduct and how it is referenced and enforced during game time,” Sparks said adding that this organic code of conduct “helps make all kids feel safe, heard, and included.”

Junior Rylynn Smith found herself in unfamiliar territory when she first joined GPHS a few years ago as an out-of-district student. Eager to connect with her peers, she actively looked for opportunities to broaden her social circle. Meanwhile, fellow GPHS junior and game lover Keegan Arnold often finds himself at odds with family members who don't share his level of enthusiasm for gaming. At the game club, he discovered a place where he and his friends could indulge in their shared passion with a beloved favorite or a new gaming experience.

“For me, game club is like a family,” Smith said. “It’s a place where I can just be me.”

The allure of game clubs lies in the sense of belonging, the chance for kids to "find their people" and just “let kids be kids,” said Jennifer Angelos, teacher and Valley View Middle School game club advisor. She shared an instance where a student confided in her … expressing that they "think about game club all week." She also shared another example of another student who struggled with fitting in. This year, she asked the student to help her set up the club, to which they “absolutely came alive.”

Watching kids who are in special education or on the autism spectrum join the club and find their people has been especially impactful to Sparks. She added she has taught students who are non-verbal in a classroom setting, but through game club will laugh, engage, and share a game with a random group of kids they’ve never met before. She’s also had students new to the school district who wander in to see what’s going on and find a new set of friends in the process.

“The welcoming and inclusive attitude of the group draws even the most timid of kids in,” Sparks said.

In his nearly two decades of serving as a high school game club advisor, Benson reflected on the impact the club has had on students. For instance, Benson recalled how some students, initially reserved and introverted, formed friendships that extended beyond high school. Some of these connections have grown so strong that members have gone on to officiate each other's weddings. He has observed students who were often too shy to speak in class blossom into class officers. He has witnessed the club’s impact in helping break down social barriers. Despite initial perceptions of social circles, Benson has watched students and staff from a wide variety of backgrounds come together in the spirit of camaraderie to play games.

“I've seen that games have the ability to erase pre-conceived notions about what it means to be a gamer, and I've seen students from all walks of life realize that their hobby isn't something that needs to be hidden or ashamed of,” Benson said. “We're all geeks. We all just want to have a good time.”

View photos of our middle and high school game club activities by clicking here.