According to Newzoo, the live-streaming audience for games will hit 728.8 million viewers in 2021 globally. For reference, the NFL is projected to hit 141 million viewers. Clearly, esports’ popularity is growing exponentially. However, many people are still unfamiliar with esports, especially the emergence of scholastic esports in education.
The utility of game-based learning in education has been known for a long time, but what is beginning to emerge is an understanding of how esports are having an impact in education. Due to the affordances of video games, esports promotes important qualities, forcing students to develop new skills and problem solve in novel situations bounded only by their imaginations.
Teachers who are pioneering esports programs can attest to this. Tyler Hahn, Director of the Cherokee Public Library in northwestern Iowa, has seen that “esports empowers learners to use the convergence [of] games and their own interests as a platform to acquire communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in all aspects of life”. His program is focused on developing college and career awareness services for middle school youth through esports and community engagement.
In addition to promoting social and emotional learning, esports encourages important STEM outcomes for students. Historically, investments in STEM education burgeoned in the 1960’s, with the impetus of the space race and an overall recognition of the value of STEM to support a workforce to keep up with technically advanced work. Most recently, the Biden Administration has proposed a $39 billion investment in STEM Education across the nation. The intention is to address the growing skills gap, training students for jobs of the future.
Clearly, STEM learning and interest are as important as ever. The University of California, Irvine (UCI) has been researching the learning outcomes of esports, especially those connected to STEM through studies of students enrolled in esports clubs and classes through the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF).
From its inception, NASEF has focused on promoting esports as a ‘trojan horse’ for STEM learning. For example, problem solving, which is vital to STEM learning, is a major component of success in esports. Players often apply careful strategies based in statistical thinking to win matches. There are myriad scenarios to demonstrate this fact. From Overwatch players experimenting with team compositions and strategies to solve an opposing team’s gameplan, to Super Smash Bros. players combing through data to determine the optimal attack to use, esports players utilize important skills to figure out how to improve and succeed in matches. Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, Professor of Informatics at UCI, says gaming involves “high end theory crafting” and “data science” and is “an important part of development”. She has led the team of researchers at UCI in recent qualitative research to demonstrate that scholastic esports is beneficial to students in the realm of STEM learning and interest.
After a three-year research study by UCI, results reflect significant STEM outcomes for students. STEM Value, STEM Career Interest, and STEM Engagement were three of the four strongest student reported positive changes. Students had an enhanced opinion of the importance of STEM careers, with a predictable increase in interest for learning about STEM in school and subsequently enhanced opinion of their STEM identities. One student describes the analytic mindset engendered while gaming: “I believe I’ve become a lot more analytical in situations. Strategy games like Hearthstone that I’m playing currently allow me to analyze what my situation is and what cards I should play and how I should try to maximize the amount of damage I can do” (2018.05.07 student focus group).
Another important finding was the significant differences between genders. Female students reported higher in STEM career interest and identity than male students, while male students reported higher increases in STEM identity. To translate, female students knew about opportunities and were enthusiastic about them, but the research suggests that male students were more confident in pursuing opportunities overall.
Yet another important finding was that students from lower-income schools showed greater gains than students from higher-income schools, contrary to initial concerns about the equity of esports-based programming for high schoolers based on prior research. It is important to note that while the increased learning outcomes for students from low-income schools allow an inference that economic inequities do not interfere with interest-driven learning in this context, they do not assess other forms of equity that create barriers to entry for many. Such findings are therefore encouraging but require further investigation to assess differences based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and level of gameplay skill.