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Esports in School – Where is the Learning Potential?

In our last blog we defined esports for education as 'competitive, collaborative, organized play', and suggested that esports, when scaffolded by educators as part of a learning experience, could be a powerful driver for learning. In this blog we peel back the layers to examine the pedagogies that underpin successful esports learning, with a focus on the Pedagogy of Play and Game-Based Learning (GBL), and Mastery Learning approaches.

Play, Game-Based Learning and Esports

Using games to learn is nothing new. In fact, there is evidence of games being used in some of the most ancient civilizations. One of the oldest games known to us, the counting game Mancala, can be traced back to Egypt’s Age of Empires in 15th century BC(1). It is an integral part of civilizations because it is an innately intuitive medium for learning. Research indicates it can enhance childhood development from 33%-67% (2), supporting the growth of a wide range of skills including:

  • Intellectual - problem solving, logic, IQ

  • Social – communication, turn-taking,

  • Emotional – self-awareness, goal-orientation, perspective-taking, empathy

  • Physical development - gross and fine motor skills, reaction-time and so on

Experts in childhood development suggest that it is through play that children develop important 'learning to learn' skills, problem solving skills and create important neuro-chemical pathways that govern skill sets such as organizing, monitoring, and planning for the future. Play does not become any less important as we mature. The nature of play gradually evolves and is accompanied with an increase in complexity, including rules, ethics, morality, judgement, decision-making, and social engagement providing young people with opportunities to practice and refine the growing skill sets they will need in later life.

Is there a place for games in the classroom?

A report by the Federation of American Scientists (2006), suggests that the same building blocks that comprise well-designed video-games are also found in high-quality lessons(3), including:

  • clear learning goals,

  • opportunities for practice and reinforcing expertise

  • monitoring progress (*through feedback)

  • adaptation to the level of mastery of the learner

In particular, the elements of progress monitoring through continuous feedback, and mastery learning, with 'just challenging enough' obstacles, help scaffold the student’s development, providing a personalised learning experience suited to the learner’s own capabilities. In this sense, video-games are particularly inclusive, providing endless opportunities for practice for students who need multiple attempts before developing competence.

Mastery Learning in Esports

This use of Mastery Learning approaches, where students are given time and repeated opportunities to improve their skills until they reach a desired level of expertise, is strongly-associated with the development of fail forward attitudes, resilience and persistence in students. Because game mechanics allow for tracking, scoring and progress monitoring, and that often players have many 'lives', they reinforce the concept that failure is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, it is a useful signpost indicating where further practice is needed(4).

This aspect of DGBL has also been associated with shifts in learner identity, whereby learners with low ability have fresh opportunities to leave behind their classroom 'tag' as a low achiever and instead forge a new identity for themselves as they work towards mastery(5). Where esports is concerned, the highly collaborative nature of the game-play provides opportunities for master-apprentice relationships to develop between students, rather than just between game and student.

Esports embody all of these important aspects of high-quality learning environments, with clear goals, and opportunities for practice, but demanding collaboration, effective communication and decisive strategic action, combined with the highly connected communities that promote reflection, pro-social skills, co-creation of knowledge and the development of tacit skills. What sets esports apart from many other approaches is that in almost every case, the interest and the passion is innate to the student, and therefore the learning is student-driven.

However, in the growing body of research on Game-Based Learning, one thing is very clear, in order for students to be able to capitalise on the learning potential afforded by the game environment, the role of the educator in scaffolding the experience, connecting play with learning goals and in facilitating discussion and reflection is paramount.

In our next blog we explore the role of the educator and the affinity space in esports in greater depth.



1. McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin. 

2. Sutton-Smith (1997) in Goldstein 2012, Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-Being, Toy Industries of Europe 

3. Federation of American Scientists. (2006). Summit on Educational Games. Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists  

4. Educause (2014) 7 Things you should know about games and learning  

5. Barab, S., & Dede, C. (2007). Games and immersive participatory simulations for science education: An emerging type of curricula. Journal of Science Education and Technology,  

6. Frederik Rusk and Matilda Ståhl personal communication based on research study conducted by Rusk, Ståhl & Silseth, submitted for review.


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