Building Community

by Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, UCI

Since its inception in 2017, NASEF has strived to create a community of youth esports players, enthusiasts, and spectators who collaborate, compete and celebrate each other in positive ways. And since the first year, this notion of “community” has been a persistent theme that shows up in our research. But how does one build community? 

Begin with Shared Interest

NASEF began by just creating a shared space for students who love videogames and esports, and this shared interest is the bedrock for building affinity – the same as with traditional sports.

“We’re the geek squad, so we all are on the same page.  We have certain games we all like. In [other] sports, they’re all very athletic. They all like the crowd, the attention...  Here it’s more like a different side where, you know, you don’t have to be strong or fit or tall or short, whatever.  You can just pick up a computer, download a game, and start playing. And everybody enjoys that.  Everybody here enjoys that, and everybody has spent hours on it.  Nobody needs anything unique or special.  You just kind of get together and play together.” (2018.05.08 student focus group)”

Strengthening Social Skills

But even in the very first pilot year of NASEF, we noticed that, when we interviewed students about what they personally got out of the program, many discussed their increasing social awareness of others and relationship skills. As one student explained,

“I feel like you really need to understand how another person would feel about their own mistakes and really say something in a nice way and not go so, you know, off the charts with it, and really get off like, ‘hey, this would help and this and that.’ Like, just be nice about it, and not just be like, grr, you know.” (2018.05.08 student focus group)

We tested this pattern by counting how many times social awareness and relationships were mentioned and the pattern held: social awareness and relationship skills were the most frequently discussed benefits that students talk about in student interviews.

Identifying the Mechanisms of Change

So we investigated these themes further by interviewing the coaches and general managers (GMs) who work with students one on one. And again we found the same themes and patterns – but in these conversations, we also found some interesting clues as to how these social skills were being developed. 

Coaches and GMs talked at length about their own direct mentoring of students’ social awareness and their active encouragement of students to take up responsibilities and leadership roles within the teams and clubs. In one focus group, a mentor described how their “biggest goal” was to get the students “working as a cohesive unit, as a team.”  (2018.05.21 coaches focus group) Another coach described how they transformed a more vocal team member into a team leader.

“One of the teams had a very prominent voice and he was great but he would get very upset when the other team would get forwarded, so I coached him in a way that would not only improve and increase his game play but [would also improve] the way he speaks to his peers, the way he leads them.  So, I think he’s going to go off and do great things because not only is he a smart person but he’s like a super passionate person so it was nice to see somebody grow so much.”  (2018.05.21 coaches focus group) 

So, we checked that pattern in the larger collection of data, testing whether talk about student gains in social awareness and relationship skills matched up with talk about student leadership opportunities and mentorship (so that talk about the one meant talk about the other). Again, the pattern held. 

Across all the student and coach interviews alike, social awareness correlated with mentorship, and relationship skills correlated with opportunities for student leadership. These burgeoning skills were no accident: NASEF coaches and GMs were actively cultivating social skills among players through direct mentorship and opportunities for students to not just follow but to lead. 

As one NASEF students summed it up when asked what advice they’d give others: “Trust your coach and trust your teammates.”  (2018.04.28 student focus group)

Sustaining and Expanding Community

Since these early insights in the first year of the program, we have measured changes in social skills quantitatively, surveying students in NASEF about not only their cooperation but also more specifically about their relationships with their peers and adults. The pattern holds. 

Students in NASEF report significant gains in their ability to cooperate and their relationships with both peers and adults as a result of the program – and those significant differences continue into year three as well. In fact, these gains are even more dramatic when we examine lower-income schools and when we compare NASEF students to non-NASEF in the same schools, we find that NASEF kids fare particularly better in terms of relationships with adults

Expanding the Community Circle

This community aspect of NASEF has not gone unnoticed. In our recent interview study of NASEF parents, we found that community was the number one benefit listed. Every single parent interviewed said that the NASEF community was the #1 advantage of having their son or daughter in the program. As one parent aptly put it, 

“It’s good for [my kid] socially. I’ve seen him expand since he’s joined the video game club. He has friends now that he talked to online in [different states]. They talk on a regular basis.” (#5).

In the end, it is these peer-to-peer and peer-to-mentor bonds that form the glue that makes the NASEF community. Even today, with school moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing does not have to mean social isolation! Communities can and do thrive online when there is shared interest, joint activity, and social bonds. Today more than ever, meeting kids where they are, connecting them with each other and with invested mentors, can be a crucial vehicle for building social skills and relationships. As one student explained,

“I get to meet new people, like friends and stuff.  I’m really happy about this because I was really afraid, didn’t know what to expect about the club or the stuff.  Then I realized they are really good people, they’re family.” (2018.05.08 student focus group)

Find out more about our research at the Connected Learning Lab

Additional Resources for Educators:

______________________________________________________________