April 8, 2020

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Game, set... graduate!

Schools diving into gaming as a source of education, not diversion

Several duels broke out in the music room at Archwood School over lunch hour, and the teacher just sat there, taking notes.

esports becoming a national strategy to boost economies, workforce

It’s not just schools and tech companies investing in esports. In some countries, the government is doing it.

Last year, the Danish government unveiled its national strategy for esports, recognizing gaming as a potential booster for the national economy and workforce. Denmark’s ministries of culture and financial affairs has also appointed a federal esports panel, made up of elected officials, grassroots community members and professional players.

It’s not just schools and tech companies investing in esports. In some countries, the government is doing it.

Last year, the Danish government unveiled its national strategy for esports, recognizing gaming as a potential booster for the national economy and workforce. Denmark’s ministries of culture and financial affairs has also appointed a federal esports panel, made up of elected officials, grassroots community members and professional players.

“A better integrated talent development structure is needed with clear performance pathways for training if a sustainable food chain of new talented esports players is to be created from the grassroots level to the elite level,” the government writes.

Statistics Denmark indicates 52 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women over the age of 16 play digital games in some form, and research by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation shows as many as 96 per cent of all Danish teenage boys play computer games.

That player base was seen as a launch pad to address labour deficiencies in the country, where an estimated 19,000 information technology specialists will be needed by the end of the decade. At the same time, the government recognized gaming has some unsavoury characteristics — cyber-bullying, toxicity, lack of physical exercise — that a national strategy would address.

It’s also led Denmark to develop some of the best players in the world of games like FIFA, DOTA, and CS:Go.

And while traditional sports are still their bread and butter, some of the biggest sports companies in the world have become champions for esports.

theScore, one of the most downloaded sports apps, has an esports branch with a YouTube channel with over 100 million subscribers, outpacing the growth rate of traditional sports engagement. And the NBA’s NBA 2K league is in the midst of its third season, with actual NBA teams drafting and developing esports athletes to play under their organization’s banner.

FIFA, the international soccer organization, now sponsors the eNations Cup, which will be held in Copenhagen in May.

Ben Waldman

Melissa Burns seemed joyous, grinning as the teenaged combatants did their best to knock one another off an island floating in mid-air on a planet that doesn’t exist, in a galaxy nobody will ever visit. Onlookers were totally engrossed by the battle, and the room — filled with drums, xylophones, and keyboards — overflowed with the percussion of applause and screams of utter delight.

Nobody was hurt. No tears were shed. No first-aid kit was opened. The fight, after all, took place within the virtual world of the Nintendo Switch, within the confines of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and the fracas was projected onto the wall in a beam of vibrant light. If there were injuries to be had, they were only to active thumbs and overly furrowed brows. The duels were no more fatal than a math test, and the participants were risking their digital lives under their own volition.

The skirmish was planned. Dozens of students packed into Burns’ classroom to try out for Archwood’s esports team, preparing to compete in the first-ever season of Middle Years Esports Manitoba, an organization the 32-year-old teacher essentially willed into existence. Eight schools have already joined.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Music Teacher and founder of the esports program at Archwood School, Melissa Burns.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Music Teacher and founder of the esports program at Archwood School, Melissa Burns.

Four years ago, Burns, a lifelong gamer with a degree in opera, began singing the gospel of esports — a term that applies to competitive video games — to her school’s administration, convinced it would resonate with the student body and provide a creative outlet to explore what it means to be a team. The higher-ups listened, and soon, as many as 30 students from grades five through eight regularly showed up to play something other than Chopsticks in the music room.

The popularity of the club isn’t surprising: a 2018 poll by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada found more than 90 per cent of teens play video games regularly, and a poll of most parents would likely find "regularly" to be an understatement. What is remarkable is that a club such as Archwood’s exists in the first place.

On the face of it, the video game Super Smash Bros., among others, and school might appear antithetical, the former a mindless task and the latter a serious pursuit. But teachers are increasingly considering the idea that such thinking is flawed; that video games are more than menial fodder; and that when deployed properly, they teach pattern recognition, reflex development, narrative comprehension, language skills, communication, teamwork, and even humility.

Ever since Gameboys found their way into young people’s pockets, teachers have been taking them away and putting them into desk drawers, telling students to get their heads out of the clouds and into their textbooks.

But Burns, and a growing class of teachers in Manitoba who grew up gaming, are challenging that school of thought, incorporating video games into their curriculum or offering esports as an extra-curricular alternative to football or band.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Not only is Derek Robillard allowed to play Super Smash Bros. in school, he’s also cheered on by his teacher.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Not only is Derek Robillard allowed to play Super Smash Bros. in school, he’s also cheered on by his teacher.

A few weeks after the tryout, Archwood was set to face the Raiding Raptors, a team from James Monroe Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., in what Burns has billed the first-ever international middle-years esports competition.

"Nice job, Derek!" Burns shouted after one student’s avatar blasted an opponent’s off the face of the earth.

Is she an overzealous esports fan, or is she on to something?


"Two teams compete against each other to conquer each other’s territory, and in that territory, there are a bunch of things that you have to destroy. That’s probably the easiest way to describe it," says Brian Cameron, principal of Louis Riel Arts & Technology Centre, a career-oriented school five minutes from Archwood.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre Principle, Brian Cameron is a big supporter of esports in schools.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre Principle, Brian Cameron is a big supporter of esports in schools.

What Cameron is trying to explain in layman’s terms is League of Legends, which is arguably the most popular video game in the world. It’s a multi-player online game, where teams, as Cameron describes, conquer each other and destroy stuff. Since its creation in 2009, the game has become a global phenomenon; according to its developer, Riot Games, more than 80 million people play every month.

At least 100 million viewers watched December’s League world championships, almost equalling the amount (102 million) who tuned in to watch Super Bowl LIV.

Cameron is co-president of the Manitoba High School Esports Association, a fledgling supervisory body founded two years ago.

He doesn’t fit the archetype of a millennial educator; he is in his fifties. But he was part of the first generation of video gamers, raised at least in part in Atari’s glow. As new gaming systems came out, he kept up, and played games such as the first-person shooter title Halo seriously until about eight years ago.

"I just got tired of having my rear end handed to me by six-year-olds," he said. "That’s my joke, but it’s true."

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Tryouts for a new sports team that represents the future of athletics in Manitoba: the esports team at Archwood School.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

Tryouts for a new sports team that represents the future of athletics in Manitoba: the esports team at Archwood School.

But for whatever deficiency Cameron displayed as a gamer, he did have one unique skill: a little sway with the administration.

Louis Riel is also a unique school: its students are not its students, but rather students from other schools who are there for a semester or two starting in Grade 11 to hone career-oriented skills while technically still enrolled elsewhere.

So when students showed interest in competing against one another in an esports tournament two years ago, he was more than happy to oblige. Broadcast media students streamed it online, with 2,000 people watching — more than their own production of the Manitoba high school football championships a few weeks earlier.

Once some web security issues were dealt with by the school’s IT department, Louis Riel’s esports team got started. It is the only sports team the school has.

Teachers and administrators from elsewhere in the Louis Riel School Division soon got in touch, and interest poured in from other divisions. There are now 14 schools in the league.

Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Students at Archwood School convert a library wall into a playing surface.</p></p>

Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Students at Archwood School convert a library wall into a playing surface.

But it didn’t happen quickly. Some administrators had trouble accepting esports as a worthwhile endeavour. Cameron understood: there are undoubtedly concerns about screen time and the detrimental impacts of gaming; when unchecked, online chats can easily spiral into harassment or bullying, and teachers are just as cognizant as parents of the need for students to do more than just game.

"The image of gaming is often one of kids sitting in the dark in the basement for hours on end," he said.

That’s partly why the league exists. Players are required to sit in the same room as teammates, and sportsmanship and respect are central to the league’s code of conduct. Another way the league operates differently than, say, the Manitoba High School Athletic Association, is that there are no gendered divisions. By design, that breaks down stereotypes about who gamers are or what they look like. Gaming, especially online gaming, has well-documented issues with sexism and hate against women and LGBTQ people. In its infancy, the MHSEA presents a progressive vision of what gaming could be.

It all fits into the idea that gaming can teach "digital citizenship," basically how we treat each other online.

"It’s basically instant friendship," said 17-year-old Jacob Allard, a Louis Riel new media student who joined the school’s team last year.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Archwood is one of eight schools competing in the Middle Years Esports Manitoba league.</p>

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

Archwood is one of eight schools competing in the Middle Years Esports Manitoba league.

Rather than butting heads with the reality that students play video games, leagues like the MHSEA and Burns’ middle years program embrace it with open arms.

Kurt Squire, a professor of infomatics at the University of California, Irvine, is one of the foremost proponents of video games as a tool of experiential learning. His book Video Games and Learning has become somewhat totemic for teachers with the inclination to embrace gaming, and it makes a compelling argument for shifting educational systems to better reflect students and modern tools.

Asking whether schools can use video games to better serve their students, Squire has said and written, is like asking 500 years ago whether universities could embrace books.

James Monroe Middle School’s Miles Harvey, the media literacy teacher who leads the Albuquerque school’s esports team, echoed Squire in an interview a few weeks before the match with Archwood.

"Ignoring games in school is like if books came out, and we said, ‘Too many kids are reading these,’ and we told them to just leave them at home," he said. "I think we’ll see that over the next decade, experience will become the most important element of learning, not a static text."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Burns (centre) and students prepare for their international match against students from Albuquerque, N.M.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Burns (centre) and students prepare for their international match against students from Albuquerque, N.M.


In his book The Game Believes In You, Greg Toppo, education reporter for USA Today, documents in detail the spread of video games as curricular tools.

The idea of a video game as educational is nothing new, Toppo writes. Almost as soon as games such as Pong became rec-room sensations, games such as The Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand were developed as ways to teach geography and economics respectively. Different versions of those games have been created like clockwork since, but so too were games that taught lessons covertly.

One of the best examples is Pokémon, the ever-popular creature-capture game and trading card series. Ostensibly, the game is centred on adventures to locate and catch Snorlaxes and Gangars, with intermittent battles against trainers and the villainous Team Rocket. But as Stanford theoretical linguist James Gee points out, and Toppo relays, the game made millions of children into miniature Carl Linnaeuses, the father of binomial nomenclature.

"(Pokémon)...taught children how to analyze and classify more than 700 different types of creatures through trading cards that were dense with specialized, technical, cross-referenced text," Toppo writes.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Archwood School students Skype Albuquerque N.M.’s James Monroe Middle School as they take part in the first-ever International Middle School Esports League game.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Archwood School students Skype Albuquerque N.M.’s James Monroe Middle School as they take part in the first-ever International Middle School Esports League game.

Gee called Pokémon "perhaps the best literacy curriculum ever conceived."

Some people might be quick to call Gee a nutcase. But there’s a case to be made that he has a solid case. Gee, Toppo points out, also argues that game play relies on a cycle of "hypothesize, probe the world, get a reaction, reflect on the results, and reprobe to get better results," a distillation of the scientific method.

Toppo’s book is a testament to the theory that digital play and gaming can boost student performance, and supplement, not supplant, traditional methods.

Jodi Asbell-Clarke, an astrophysicist working on math and science games, told Toppo, "We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers. We’re trying to turn your gamers into students."


Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>The competition against Albuquerque was nerve-racking, judging by Lily Relucio’s expression.</p></p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

The competition against Albuquerque was nerve-racking, judging by Lily Relucio’s expression.

It’s an idea Manitoba teachers are taking seriously. The Gaming Association of Manitoba Educators (GAME) started as a niche Manitoba Teacher’s Society group in 2018; it now has 400 members using board and video games as teaching tools or "gamifying" their classrooms, bringing elements of games into class everyday.

One of those teachers is Tyler Muntain, a middle school teacher at Winnipeg’s Victor H.L. Wyatt. "Instead of giving marks, I give experience points (EXP)," he said. So a science test out of 30 becomes a challenge out of 10,000 EXP. It destigmatizes failure, and rewards success in tangible ways: the points can be used to collect perks, such as switching chairs with Muntain or having control over the light switch.

"He turned his entire classroom into a gaming experience all day long," said Mike Heilman, GAME’s president, who was Muntain’s principal at Glenwood Collegiate last year. "It was pretty incredible."

Heilman loves games — he has more than 350 board games in his basement — and looks for opportunities to use them wherever possible. The board game Settlers of Catan is used to teach resource management, for example.


Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Archwood students chat with their opponents from Albuquerque.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Archwood students chat with their opponents from Albuquerque.

In the U.S., teachers are taking similar steps.

Kristy Custer, a high school principal at Complete High School in Maize, Kansas, and Michael Russell, a social studies teacher, developed a curriculum for a Gaming Concepts class that’s been adopted by schools in more than 40 countries.

"We always say we aren’t teaching video game play," Russell said. "We’re teaching skills like social and emotional learning, perseverance, and teamwork. It’s about harnessing the power of the game."

A few years ago, Custer went into her basement to tell her teenaged son to stop playing video games. He gave her a response that threw her for a loop: "If I we’re outside playing basketball or reading, would you be mad at me? This is what my friends and I like to do."

"I realized I wasn’t belittling video games, I was belittling my child," she said. "I had to figure out a way to bring games into the school."

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Archwood student, Aiden Elk, warms up with fellow students in as he gets ready to compete against opposing students in Albuquerque.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Archwood student, Aiden Elk, warms up with fellow students in as he gets ready to compete against opposing students in Albuquerque.

Custer said she doesn’t game, and most teachers who use her and Russell’s curriculum would say the same. But she insists that shouldn’t matter.

"I’m interested in kids. So if they’re interested in esports, then I have to at least make an effort to learn," she said.

The curriculum was picked up by the High School Esports League, an organization with 2,400 American schools as members, and is distributed by Microsoft.

People are quick to complain esports don’t belong in school and they don’t lead to careers. Custer always compares it to band class. "No one will argue if band is valuable, but very few people go in to the world and play flute professionally, but we know band students are some of our highest achieving students," she said.

Esports success in high school can actually pave the way to university: more than 170 colleges in the U.S. now offer esports as a varsity sport through the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), and more than $16 million in scholarships were paid out in 2019; in 2016, there were only six NACE schools. Ontario’s St. Clair and Durham colleges are also members.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Lily Relucio (left) and Audrey Pusung team up for a two-on-two game during tryouts.</p>

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

Lily Relucio (left) and Audrey Pusung team up for a two-on-two game during tryouts.

"(Esports) are a great way to recruit high performing students into athletic programs," said Jason Kirby, the HSEL’s president. "Typically, they have great transcripts."

Beyond college, gamers can make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars playing professionally; it’s far more realistic for a League of Legends player to go pro or become a game designer than a high school point guard to make the NBA or coach the Indiana Pacers.

But the journey to esports success doesn’t start in the basement anymore. It starts in places such as Archwood Middle School.


The international match is a few minutes away, and the library at Archwood is louder than a library normally is. Mountain Dew and Sour Patch Kids are flowing. Kids are cheering, and an Imagine Dragons song is blaring on the speakers.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>"We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers. We’re trying to turn your gamers into students," said Jodi Asbell-Clarke, an astrophysicist working on math and science games.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

"We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers. We’re trying to turn your gamers into students," said Jodi Asbell-Clarke, an astrophysicist working on math and science games.

Melissa Burns sits with her laptop, trying to set up a video chat with kids in New Mexico, such as 14-year-old Yousef Drakmih, who only recently found out that Winnipeg exists.

The Archwood students shout questions. "How old are you?" asks Samuel Nlwedim, 13.

"Are you better than your coach?" Derek Robillard shouts.

Shortly after, the game begins.

Ten-year-old Rosie Morisseau sits patiently, holding the Nintendo Switch controller in her hands. She’s only in Grade 5, but she has a reputation as one of Archwood’s best Smash players, earning her a call-up to the big show. She and four other Archwood students will play Monroe one-on-one in best-of-three matches, with each player given three lives per match.

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Rosie Morrisseau goes up against students in Albuquerque.</p>

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press

Rosie Morrisseau goes up against students in Albuquerque.

Using the character Ridley, she comes out blazing. Peering through and above her glasses, she expertly deploys several attack combos against her opponent. After Rosie’s avatar falls off the edge, she becomes even more focused. She cradles the controller and leans forward, sticking out her tongue as she switches her strategy.

Monroe’s player, using the character Toon Link, is good at avoiding attacks from above, so Rosie starts to go at him from the side. Using a downward scooping motion, she tosses Toon Link off the stage repeatedly, eventually giving him so much damage that he plummets off screen and loses the game.

The library erupts in applause, but Rosie remains stoic, knowing she still has more to prove.

Toon Link doesn’t let Rosie win another game, and Monroe takes the first match, but it’s hard to tell based on her cheering section’s reaction.

One by one, Archwood players sit down to play. And one by one, they stick their tongues out, smile and laugh.

When Archwood eventually loses the match 3-2, there are no frowns and no detectible frustration, just excitement that they had the chance to play.

"Great job everyone!" Burns says. "Group hug!"

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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