Infusing STEM into Esports

By Garrison Wells, UCI

At their core, video games are a product of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) concepts coming together to form an interactive medium that forces gamers to actively learn new skills and solve problems in unique situations. And whether it be League of Legends players constantly monitoring their champion’s statistics, gold, and move cooldowns to quickly calculate what tactics are available to execute, Overwatch players experimenting with team compositions and strategies in order to solve an opposing team’s gameplan, or Super Smash Bros. players combing through frame data to determine the optimal attack to use, esports players utilize those same concepts to figure out how to improve and succeed during intense competition.

A Space for Learning and Skill Development

For decades, there has been a collective movement throughout academia to promote STEM learning and interest among students. Through its esports programs, NASEF has worked to bolster these efforts by showing its community members how concepts based in these academic areas can be directly applied to gaming. Our research team at the University of California, Irvine, has been researching connections between esports and learning. We surveyed NASEF students to ask them what motivated them to participate in the organization and what we found was that the strongest factors were to gain and apply knowledge and skill, while the weakest factors were peer pressure and boredom. What this suggests is that these students join NASEF not just to hang out with friends or to have somewhere to go after school, but to actively learn about esports and gain experience doing something they enjoy.

Applying Scientific Thinking

Scientists follow a common process when conducting their experiments: find a problem, think of possible solutions, test those solutions, determine if those solutions successfully solve the problem. Players will often apply this same process when trying to out-think and out-play their opponents in-game. During school visits, we’ve often observed students analyzing character statistics to figure out the best strategies for an upcoming match.

“I’m definitely more critical of certain actions, especially in League, which is pretty much all I play. But compared to other games that I’ve played, I’ve never really analyzed the game more closely than I have League… a lot of factors can weigh into whether you succeed or not, I think.” (2018.05.07 student focus group)

Another student describes bringing the analytic mindset they developed while gaming to other aspects of their life.

“I believe I’ve become a lot more analytical in situations. Strategy games like Hearthstone that I’m playing currently allow me to analyze what my situation is and what cards I should play and how I should try to maximize the amount of damage I can do… I’ve been able to manage myself not just with games but also with homework projects, study time… I may schedule myself, understand how much time I’m supposed to spend on each certain task in order to maximize the amount of work I get done, understand which questions I need to prioritize, try to finish the work that I need to get done, try to get myself a little personal time, just try to relax, make sure that I can balance my schedule out to keep myself nice and healthy.” (2018.05.07 student focus group)

Generating Interest in STEM

Seeing NASEF students learn to approach problems scientifically, we then examined the extent to which they have changed their views of science overall. In the third year of the program, we surveyed students on their beliefs and attitudes towards a variety of educational and socio-emotional constructs. The results showed that of the 19 variables, STEM Value, STEM Career Interest, and STEM Engagement made up 3 of the top 4 strongest reported positive changes in attitude as a result of the program. Students see STEM fields of study as important to learn, are interested in learning them, and would like to possibly work in these areas later on. What’s more, they view these constructs even more positively as they progress in school and develop a greater sense of STEM identity. As they begin to prepare for college and the job market, students begin to seriously consider how they can prepare for their futures. This coach summarizes NASEF’s role in that preparation.

“That's the whole power of esports is that through participating, in some way, whether you're a player, a caster, graphic designer, however you're involved, that is an opportunity for a student to discover who they want to be after high school, and maybe even after college. So, that is a big driving force of why we do esports here. And hopefully that rubs off onto them, that this is much bigger than all of us, and we have to do things for the greater good and not just for ourselves.” (2020.03.05 coach interview)

Promoting Equity 

While NASEF has been shown to improve overall attitudes towards STEM among its members, the rate of those improvements seems to differ between genders. In our surveys, male students report consistently higher in STEM career interest and STEM identity, while female students report greater STEM career knowledge and STEM value. This suggests that while the girls know about STEM opportunities and hold them in high regard, boys may feel more confident in pursuing those opportunities. These results reflect the larger societal trend where boys have historically been encouraged to pursue careers in the sciences while girls are often steered more towards the arts and humanities, stereotyping that has in part led to the noticeable lack of female representation in STEM industries (including the gaming industry). By continuing to promote STEM learning to students of all genders, NASEF will hopefully play a role in breaking this trend for future generations.

Find out more about our research at the Connected Learning Lab.