eSports is undoubtedly the fastest growing sport in the world, and South African schools are not being left behind. Over the last few years more and more schools have joined the MSSAonline championships and leagues. Teachers and players have been grappling with issues such as how to get school computer rooms up to scratch, how to manage bandwidth, deal with Load Shedding and fitting eSports into an already over-loaded extra-mural timetable.
While students have brimmed with enthusiasm, many teachers have experienced a level of opposition from school managements concerned about the implications of recognising eSports. Aren’t video games bad for kids?
Is it even a sport?
Research in recent years has overturned the view that video games are dangerous. It is now generally held that a moderate amount of computer gaming is actually good for students. Anything over three hours a day is problematic, but depending on the individual between one and three hours appears to promote social well-being and cognitive progress. While there is no direct correlation between gaming and school marks, only excessive gaming appears to harm school grades.
I believe that teachers are right to be cautious, however. Gaming clearly has to compete with family time, reading, homework, sport and above all sleep! Finding a healthy balance is a challenge for many households. Some students do fall foul of serious gaming addiction, and sleep deprivation is a huge concern. Teenagers need more sleep, and many are simply not getting it!
Nevertheless I believe that embracing eSports in schools is the way to go. Gaming addicts are already addicted. I can see on my Steam account that kids are already playing at all hours of the day and night, and racking up some serious hours! Anything that can help channel that obsession into healthier preoccupations is to be welcomed not shunned. Sport offers a way of channelling and focusing energies in meaningful directions, and away from more obsessive, addictive behaviour.
Thomas Arnold’s educational reforms at Rugby in the mid-1800s supported a vision of muscular Christianity, of healthy bodies and healthy minds, and elevated the role of team sports in promoting moral development. This view has anchored the approach of schools ever since and defines the sense of balance we would be wise to seek. People often think of gaming as an anti-social and solitary pursuit and picture the teenager, alone in his, or increasingly her bedroom, turning inward and withdrawing. And yet online gaming is intensely social. For a generation facing fears of safety and security in the streets, teenagers congregate online, and gaming is a key form of social chilling. The games themselves require intense team-work, every bit as much as rugby or soccer, possibly even more.
I am not saying that students should replace traditional physical sports with eSports. Exercise and physicality is vital. But I do think students need to be doing Mind Sports such as eSports as well. Mental exercise is important, beneficial and healthy, and for those students who play computer games, being able to turn that activity into a recognised team sport which brings rewards and status is important in learning to manage life and gaming. As gaming has moved from the periphery into the mainstream, more and more people need to learn how to manage their time, and gaming as a sport helps bring discipline and order into what can easily slip into obsessive or addictive behaviour. The rhythm of match days and set practice times is, I believe, helpful in avoiding unguided and unmanaged behaviours. The recognition of being awarded colours and merits helps validate self-worth and normalise gaming as a healthy and social activity rather than a shadowy activity.
I realise that this view is somewhat controversial, but it represents a case that I think needs to be put before schools and tried. If it works it can only help teenagers who are already playing those games anyway! If it does not work, schools will not have lost or even risked anything.
In my experience eSports gives to a group of students, often not that sporty, an opportunity to move beyond social gaming to find more disciplined, team-focused outlets, to experience the pride of representing their school, of training with purpose and finding within themselves qualities of grit and determination they did not know they had. Those qualities that make team sports valuable for teaching life’s lessons are all present in abundance in gaming. Casual or Social gaming, however, is often dominated by a culture of misogyny, racism and disregard for others. Bringing gaming under the umbrella of the school’s sporting ethos is really the only way to hope to change what is often a toxic online culture.
Girls especially find it hard to carve out a space in this online culture, as gamergate showed, and as more and more girls adopt gaming, the need for a channelled space becomes more important.
Over the past four or five years Roedean, a school steeped in tradition, but embracing change, has sought to use eSports as a means of show-casing our commitment to the role of technology in education and all spheres of life. Our computer room has hosted MSSA Championships and even National Team Trials, and our team has represented the school with distinction in the inter-school leagues.
This year Roedean is determined to make a splash and emerge as the top girl’s school team in the country! So, to all girl’s schools out there, we challenge you to join MSSA and see if you are woman enough to take us on!