Students in Birtle, Manitoba learn skills through esports

The program has students coming to practice esports every Wednesday. A grant allowed the school to buy six gaming computers.

Students at Birtle Collegiate, a high school in Mnitoba’s Park West School Division, now have the opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills and strategy development while also practicing leadership and teamwork through a brand new esports program.

Esports — video games that are played in a highly competitive environment — include virtually any video game in which players take part in an organized competition, be it in the world-building game Minecraft or League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle game.

The program, which is still in its preliminary stages, sees students coming to practice esports every Wednesday, said Tanis Cheasley, an English Language Arts teacher at the high school. A grant from Westman Communications Group for $5,000 also allowed the school, located 145 kilometres northwest of Brandon, to buy six gaming computers.

“We have a small computer lab set up specifically for this now,” Cheasley said. “We have six active members on our team, and they come in once a week.”

The students are also able to come to the esports lab during their lunch break, when Cheasley supervises them. So far, they’ve mostly been focused on the Minecraft build they’re working on.

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Minecraft, a game developed my Mojang Studios in 2011, is the best-selling video game in history, with over 238 million copies sold and nearly 140 million monthly active players as of 2021.

In the game, players explore a blocky, procedurally generated three-dimensional world with infinite terrain, where they can discover and extract raw materials, craft tools and items and build structures, earthworks, and machines. Depending on their chosen game mode, they can also fight hostile mobs and co-operate or compete against other players in the same world.

The game has received critical acclaim, winning several awards, and multiple video game journalists and magazines have called it one of the greatest video games ever created.

In the current Minecraft build challenge the students are taking part in, they must do a formal presentation, Cheasley says.

“They’ve been just practicing creating presentations and how to give presentations.”

When she learned about esports in schools, Cheasley admits she was hesitant and that she didn’t know much about it. But seeing how the students are flourishing and learning through the program, she’s become a staunch supporter.

“Seeing this group of kids over the last couple of months practicing the amount of critical thinking and problem solving and teamwork that they have to do to solve their problems, how to present, public speaking skills — there’s so many other types of learning going on, well beyond just video games,” she said.

The students are also learning about how computers work by taking one apart and rebuilding it, Cheasley added, with the help of Noel Schwalm.

Schwalm, who works for the Park West School Division in information technology, said the students are getting a lot of technical knowledge about how electronics work.

“I was talking with them a couple of weeks ago on how transistors work,” he said. “They were fascinated by it, and I was impressed to see kids that were actually so thirsty for that kind of knowledge.”

In addition to playing Minecraft, the students will play Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. in the near future, Schwalm said.

There are many benefits to having esports programs in schools, said Melissa Burns, founder and chief executive officer of Esport Canada, a federally recognized not-for-profit organization that provides community, competition, advocacy, and resources for Canadian gamers.

From positive impacts on student self-esteem to increased focus in class, increased participation, engagement and attendance and improved academic performance, creating a space for esports in schools alongside traditional sports and other activities is the way forward, Burns said.

And since many children already play video games in their spare time, making it available in a learning-focused environment can derive even more benefit from it, she added.

“When we look at video gaming as something that students are all engaging with, it is a part of our job as educators to not only equip our students to be academically successful, but also to be socially successful and to become great citizens,” Burns said.

Part of being a good citizen is digital citizenship — the ability to navigate digital environments in a way that’s safe and responsible, and to actively and respectfully engage in those spaces.

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No matter what careers or paths students choose once they graduate, the skills they learn by participating in esports will serve them well, Burns said.

“It’s connection, it’s self-awareness, it’s self-regulation, citizenship, creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. These are all skills that are transferable, that will serve our students no matter what they end up doing in their lives, professionally or personally.”

Bringing esports into the classroom also allows educators to teach using a medium that students are already engaged with and is helping gamers become better learners.

Burns is relieved and encouraged to see that students from all backgrounds and interests are taking part in esports, and that gaming is no longer relegated to something that only “nerds” do or that should be looked down on as “dorky.”

“When we look at the statistics of who is doing it, it’s all of our students that are engaging in online play,” she said.

Using something that students have in common — in this case, video gaming — is also a great way to help them form connections and relationships that they otherwise might miss out on if they move in different social circles and have different interests outside of gaming.

Working together in a classroom setting, developing social skills in a collaborative way, further cements that connection and learning, Burns said.

“It’s an opportunity for them to interact in ways they normally wouldn’t, and hopefully, to build some empathy.”

Esports learning also brings out creativity, with children unafraid to “test the limits” in games, Burns said.

Looking into the future, Burns believes that educational institutions and organizations will see a positive impact from incorporating esports into schools. Students who find their interest sparked in a career in technology — such as coding or video game design — can also be boons to local economies, she said.

Currently, in traditional jobs, many students have to move away from rural, small towns to find jobs in bigger cities. But because many computer technology-related careers can be done remotely, those students could end up staying in their communities and raising their families there, contributing to their local economy.

“By intentionally creating opportunities for them to learn transferable skills, they will then have what they need to be employable for a lot of these high-paying remote jobs, so that they can have the high-paying job and stay in their local community,” Burns said.

This story was originally published in The Brandon SunIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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