Once thought by many to be a sedentary waste of time, the respect given to esports has turned so dramatically that programs are now cropping up on college and high school campuses. There is even increasing evidence that esports can be utilized to bolster a STEM learning environment.
STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (there’s also STEAM, which adds “Art” to the acronym), is a teaching philosophy that creates learning opportunities out of everyday situations. In a STEM-based education, subjects are not taught in independent silos (such as a math class, science class, etc.) but incorporated in a unified way that represents how people work and problem solve in their daily lives.
Many of the skills acquired by gamers are in line with STEM initiatives. In fact, several schools with organized esports programs are also known for their STEM initiatives. For example, one of the most respected engineering programs in the country, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also has one of the leading academic voices on esports on staff: Professor of Comparative Media Studies, T. L. Taylor. Additionally, the school has sponsored an esports panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for nearly a decade.
Organized esports programs are also extending beyond higher education and into the primary levels. In a recent commentary in U.S. News and World Report, researchers from the University of California – Irvine examined the esports program for the Orange County school district. They noted that, over the course of one season, the students became more team-oriented and moved from a reactionary approach to losing (“This stinks!) toward a proactive stance (“What can we do to improve?”).
The researches also detailed how the students began to incorporate STEM activities without being instructed to do so. From the article, “We’ve seen students in the clubs, on their own time, create websites for their teams and fill the pages with expository writing and promotional media. They’re digging into their gameplay data to figure out how to improve their skills and, in so doing, realizing that basic math and comparison metrics are critically useful for understanding gameplay in a whole new way. Students are learning how to manage their own emotions and attention, how to avoid ‘tilt’ that clouds one’s judgment and deteriorates performance, how to win well and how to lose well.
“Students at one school filmed and edited their own news clips for the school television station. At another, they did research and began hosting their own “lessons” to improve their game. At a third, students are learning how to replace the processors on the lab’s computers so their machines will run faster. Research findings from this first year already show that interest-driven learning in the context of esports can connect kids not only to social-emotional skills but to the standards-based content covered in class.”
Last year, Delane Parnell announced the creation of PlayVS, an esports startup that created an infrastructure for district- and state-wide high school esports league play. PlayVS has partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), an organization that writes competition rules for most high school sports in the United States. It’s basically a high school equivalent of the NCAA.
“Esports is about more than just playing games – it can be used to help students grow their STEM interests and develop valuable life skills. And since there are more high school gamers than athletes, it’s about time we foster this pastime in an educational setting,” Parnell said in a press release.
However, PlayVS is not the only high school esports league. It is competing with the High School Esports League (HSEL), which is currently the top esports league for high schools. HSEL has a partnership with the National Association of Collegiate Esports and last summer affiliated with the juggernaut Fortnite Battle Royale for its Summer Open season. The collaboration highlighted a difference in philosophy between HSEL and PlayVS. PlayVS has expressly stated it will not include shooters as part of its offerings.
Yet, despite the difference between the two originations, they both recognize the STEM benefits derived from playing esports.
“The way games are set up, figuring them out, playing through them, and then beating them; the goal-orientation of esports [connects with STEM majors,]” Mason Mullenioux, CEO of the High School Esports League, said in a SportTechie article.
“It’s something that is unique compared to traditional athletics, how much we over index in the STEM field,” Michael Sherman, Director of Collegiate Esports for Riot Games, said in the same article. “Although we don’t think there is one type of student that makes up top League of Legends talent, 62 percent of our participants are from STEM majors.”
In addition to the STEM benefits of esports, video gaming, in general, has been shown to have many positive effects on areas that help real-world and academic performance.
Attention and Concentration
Video games, specifically action games, require constant focus. The player is either searching for a solution to a puzzle or trying to avoid losing a life. Two studies looked at how gaming improved attention and concentration.
A 2012 study found that players of action games were better able to quickly pick out a target from a field full of distractions (a test that is a good indicator of a person’s driving ability). The second test showed people a specific object and asked them to track it across a field filled with identical objects. Action video games were shown to improve both children’s and adults’ performance on this task.
Gaming requires that a person does many things at once: track what is happening on screen, learn the button layout, utilize the controller accurately, and more. Over time this can significantly improve a person’s concentration.
Research conducted in 2013 found that players of action video games were better able to handle multiple tasks. Players were asked to take a multitasking test before and after spending 50 hours on an action video game. The Multi-Attribute Task Battery test simulates many aspects of piloting an aircraft: monitoring fuel levels, reacting to the instrument panel, coordinating with radio communication, all while using a joystick to keep a target centered on a screen. The results after gaming showed significant improvement.
Video games, especially adventure games, frequently send players on tasks that become increasingly harder as the story progresses. Action games also ask players to abide by a set of rules, and they must make split-second decisions on the interpretation of these rules. Both aspects have been shown to improve real-world problem-solving.
For example, researchers asked a group of people to take a test where they needed to respond to a particular stimulus (perhaps a blue triangle) and not respond to another (maybe a blue circle). Most of the options required a response with a few no responses thrown in. The participants who played action games performed better on the test than those who did not.
A study asked participants to take a test where they were asked to distinguish between various subtle shades of grey. The participants then played action video games over 10 to 12 weeks; the goal was 50 hours. They then retook the test, and the results showed improved results compared to a control group that did not play video games.
It is likely, as technology continues to progress, that careers utilizing STEM proficiencies will become increasingly in demand. If we can get students invested in these skills through something they love, like video games, it makes learning fun while improving their education. For more of our thoughts on integrating an esports program in a STEM setting, give EGENCY a call at 972-323-6354.