How educators can leverage esports culture in a school setting

Competitive video gaming 'when focused through the lens of scholasticism, has the effect of preparing middle and high school-aged students for more than just the leaderboards'
Photo courtesy of Fort Pierce Westwood High School/Florida Scholastic Esports League

When I speak about “esports culture”, I have to reflect on the meaning of the two words.

My path into the naissance of scholastic esports drove right through my experience as a classroom teacher and professional interpreter/translator, so I beg the reader’s kind indulgence if this sounds like a lesson!

The chart presented here provides understanding on how our modern word “culture”, used to describe “an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.[1] “, finds its metaphorical and real root in the Latin verb colere, “to tend or prepare soil for crops”.

This is a fascinating point when we consider the growth of any school-based culture, whether in drama club, traditional sports, academic or merit societies or, in this case, scholastic esports.

What esports promotes through its culture is a preparation for students as young as middle school to become involved not only with gameplay (the sort of wrapper or banner for what is commonly <and errantly> perceived as the basis of esports), but with an entire vibrant, challenging and gratifying ecosystem of inter-related kinds of work that are each necessary in a synergistic way to bring the esports environment to life.

Let’s break down what Edward Tyler in 1871 described as the elements of “culture” and see how they apply to what we know about scholastic esports. Tyler posited several evident markers, all of which pertain directly to what is learned, practiced and experienced by those in the game as well as in clubs:

  • KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEFS (Esports Analogs: Game Knowledge, (Meta-) Strategy, Theory-crafting.) This is where gamers seek validity among their own, “flexing”/demonstrating their deep game lore understanding
  • ARTS (Esports analogs: Game design, fandom art and media, cosplay, shoutcasting and content streaming, social media, etc.) This is where non-gamers or casual players can stay tangentially involved, providing support functions that are necessary to growing the culture and the community
  • LAWS (Esports analogs: Tournament or gameplay rules, code of conduct.) Although games have mutually agreed-upon rule sets, what makes scholastic esports culture different from just playing online is its commitment to adopting a code of conduct both in and out of the game. Good digital citizens are grown early on through consistency of practices.
  • CAPABILITIES (Esports analogs: Exposure to 15-plus kinds of real-world careers related to STEM and academic standards.) While most parents, administrators and educators only see the stereotypical player and the screen, they are not aware that there is an ecosystem of aligned career paths that mirror Career Technical Education (CTE) courses taught in most U.S. states, courses that provide real-world skills and industry-preferred certifications for high school course completers
  • CUSTOMS AND HABITS (Esports analogs: Inclusion, equity, access, teamwork, community outreach, involvement.) Although there is always the spectre of toxicity and harrassment behind the anonymity of the screen, club culture seeks to represent individuals beyond the game and extols the virtues of welcoming and enhancing uniqueness as a benefit to the entire esports club community.

Esports culture can work outside of the club space with amazing efficacy and impact. When working with teachers in  South Florida (Miami-Dade area), they told me about how CTE and Common Core coursework that had been adapted to include esports elements were not only better-attended classes, but that students completed work up to three times faster than in regular (non-esports) classes.

Additionally, students demonstrated an increased propensity to do further, more extensive research into assigned projects, and to explore topics related to those assignments, even though not tasked to do this additional work. In short, students did more, on their own time, and they LIKED IT.

This kind of content engagement is all the more necessary under the restrictions of the current pandemic, where kids of all ages are feeling disassociated from classmates, teachers and even the brick and mortar institutions. Esports are natively digital, and kids who play them get this, so by aligning curricular offerings with a purpose, standards can be achieved by growing a scholastic esports culture of learning wherein students actually ENJOY what they’re learning.

To sum it all up, esports, specifically when focused through the lens of scholasticism, has the effect of preparing middle and high school-aged students for more than just the leaderboards; when game play and its component CTE elements are laced through curricular requirements, students can see immediate applicability for what they’re learning.

Where there is applicability, there follows a desire to want to learn MORE, to do MORE with what is learned, and to express one’s individual strengths with confidence and conviction. By establishing esports clubs on a campus, and by encouraging the unique culture we have examined herein to flourish, we’re not only allowing our student scholar-athletes to excel in game play, but we’re allowing them to find themselves and their place in a larger world of higher education and the world of work.

Kevin Brown is a licensed CTE instructor, mentor teacher and wears the mantle of “esports Program Specialist” in a joint position with the Orange County (CA) Department of Education and the North America Scholastic esports Federation (NASEF). As a life-long gamer, he sees his job as the perfect linkage between parents, educators and administrators, helping them cross the seemingly impossible divide between video game play and all of its inherent scholastic and social emotional merits. GLHF!

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