ESports High – just a click away?


Occasionally, I muse over the potential of  E-Sports High Schools. Not fake ones that do a bit of coding and Minecraft – but one that actually develops talent to play pro, or to work in the industry – player, developer, media, cosplayer – the REAL world that swirls around ESports. For example, why not ENCOURAGE kids to stream an find the media success that their streaming and YouTube hero’s have found? Why can’t someone such as LoserFruit not get a high school start?. There is no real barrier aside from culture. There is plenty of evidence that Australia can create new schools – and models – especially high schools – so to have an Esports focus is also proven possible in the eyes of NESA and the all important government funding. So anyone who’s sniggering at the idea – simply fails to understand the shift in youth culture – and what kids actually want to learn about every day. There’s nothing to suggest that studying ESports every day would be BAD.

“Interactive games are woven into the fabric of our culture – a culture more nuanced and capable of enjoying the benefits of the digital economy than ever before.” – Digital Australia Report 2018

I have four essential arguments for a ESports High School Academy.

  1. There is sufficiently low-cost digital technology to deliver a full (high qualigy) high school program online as: fully online, blended, block or campus mode, and plenty of subject teacher talent to do it – not just well, but exceptionally well.
  2. The ESports industry is a well established growing one that is not served by current educational models. 92% of people play games with OTHER HUMAN BEINGS which make ESports not just viable, but attractive to people which very high cognitive processing and dedication. The myth of the fat-slacker-loner is long since dead.
  3. 93% of Australian households have had gaming devices since 2013 which places games as being as more culturally accepted in Australia than ANY sport.
  4. The ‘for implementation’ digital technologies curriculum in 2019 is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the gaming industry (coding, playing, producing, broadcasting etc.,) as an elective from year 9 onwards.
  5. Yeah, I know +1 right – THIS IS HOW YOU DEVELOP ‘Digital Nutrician” in kids by GIVING them what they want … the solution to too much gaming is, in fact, more gaming.

I’m not here to argue the benefits of gaming – these are well documented. Unless you’re so ingrained in a micro-belief that MINECRAFT is the apex of gaming – it’s easy to see the vast number of careers and media related opportunities there are for ESports High School. Not everyone will be as great as “IEATYOUUP”, but there are thousands, if not millions that are playing. Consider that ESport Pro player and broadcasters are POST SCHOOL AGE – is this not an industry that is “of the future” that educators on Twitter bang on about endlessly – but never do anything about.

In addition, I’m just going to say that the road to making this happen is both short and low cost – if the industry gets’s behind it, even to a token degree. Of course not every edumactor who’ s been mainlining EdTech for the last decade could do this – but there are some that can – me included. And no, I’m not going to road map it for you.

I’m just a dude researching games, working in eLearning for a decade plus and know exactly how this gets turned into a REAL EDUCATION. But I’m also super realistic that “games based learning” isn’t really understood in the context of school culture. But if parents want to deal with ‘screen time’, media culture and get the most from the millions of kids who LOVE gaming … or if Australian education REALLY AND TRUELY wants to tap into the multi billion dollar ESports media industry – I can totally assure you that pissing about with Minecraft and Hour of Code is amateur hour.


Why are real games missing from STEM?

The Australian video games industry, as it turns out, is both successful and ignored by the government when it comes to funding. The developers of games (the industry that makes them) reported revenue of $111million in 2015-16. In the same period, sales exceeded $3billion, with over half of that being digital only sales. The industry associations continually stand with hands aloft asking why the government is removing funding, not adding to it. While the government (and education) bang on about ‘jobs of the future’ and ‘computational thinking’ – they overlook games. In education, the education-brain is unable to evolve past Minecraft Edu, which it thinks ticks the STEM box nicely. Except it doesn’t. It is simplistic and panders to conservative sensibilities.

When we see schools engaged in eSports, when there are rows of consoles in a media-lab and high end PCs with sufficient grunt to play and render … then we can say we are rushing towards the future. We can honestly say that we are engaging kids in games.

Why do I say we are not? Shaw (2010) argues the central themes in game studies are: knowledge acquisition, identity and performance, representation, and the relationship between media and audiences. He says game studies included a “pervasive sense of video game culture as separate from a constructed mainstream culture, as something new, different, and more importantly definable” (p.404).  This is not true of schools. Thy continue to BAN games. I would argue most of the Minecraft loving schools still ban other games – or make teachers jump through hoops to get them unbanned.

So no, the fact some schools play Minecraft does not mean Australia has included video game making and playing in it’s STEM culture. What these school have done is created narrow explorations and narrow critical language – something academics said would happen. Schools do not like divergent media cultures – and yet Game Devs – professional and hobby rely on them for connectedness and shared-space.

There is, as many have said – an embedded conflict of the ‘prior’ and ‘current’ narrative. While STEM should support the multi-billion dollar game industry – which dwarfs television, radio, film and novels in both income and time, schools still defer the idea of playing eSports and funding media labs to ‘the future’ – which seems a place filled with Thought Leaders making bland statements as they watch thier follower count +1. To me, these pundits are part of the apparatus that prevents change. They sit in influential judgement when they could step away and acknowledge the need for diversity in the narrative. But I totally get that the ego-buff of being the Twitter/Teach Meet Alpha is compelling enough to represent the potential of developing professional game devs as Minecraft with the narrowness of the K12 STEM bubble.

So why are we not preparing kids for the future? Because we don’t actually want to – the games industry future is massive – and yet here we are with less funding and Minecraft (to which people say “but it’s a beginning” – when games are over 30 years old. It’s just culture which is still shit scared of games).

Why don’t teachers use Minecraft?

Last week saw another Tweet-storm from Minecraft creator Notch. A series of unapologetic statements, replies and foul language which website The Gamer called a “melt down”. He was happy to attack fans and critics alike.

Interestingly, a number of educators, often vocal about the game were quick to distance ‘their game’ (Minecraft Edu) from Minecraft and with it, saying that Notch has nothing to do with the game. Of course, that’s true. Notch has long since sold the game, and Microsoft was been quick to further monetize Minecraft Edu, following on from Joel’s original cash-grab educational version of the game. What is also true, is that Minecraft Edu has so far, never been shown to have any educational advantage over a vanilla version – yet this doesn’t appear to worry edu-fans of the game at all and seemingly, they don’t feel any need to ask for any evidence before putting students into the creepy treehouse school environment.

If like me, you have been researching and working with games in the educational context, you might appreciate how much resistance there has been to games and virtual worlds such as Second Life, Teen Second Life, Quest Atlantis, Warcraft etc., The educational community – happy to adopt unproven tools such as blogs and wikis, demanded evidence and proof before even considering a limited adoption or trial.

So it seems that Minecraft Edu doesn’t see Notch as an influence on children anymore. Research tells me that games are significations systems which play a central part in producing meaning through media representations – what we say about them, the emotions we associate with them and the ways we classify and conceptualise them. On this basis, the school game may look like the public game, however, their creepy treehouse school server.

I argue that this meaning making – ie whatever teacher created and mediated activity, lack the very post-structural elements which make the public game such a powerful element in the overall media representation of games, and furthermore doesn’t attempt to consider the continuity of change in children’s play and games as texts. This is why these Minecraft Edu fans use the game almost exclusively because meaning making is reflective and not constructionist. What they attempt to do with Minecraft Edu is drawn from the teacher’s own culture and relfection of what games are, what play is etc., and this is hugely divergent from a teacher whos is using Minecraft vanilla of Minecraft Pocket on a public/private realm.

So if teachers want to annex Notch from the cultural game-soup of Minecraft they also have to accept that they way they understand and deploy Minecraft Edu stands isolated from game cultures and the media representations that children access out of school. The success (if you call it that) or the tragedy of Minecraft Edu is successfully appeals to traditional conceptions of what children should do with technology.

Minecraft as a phenomenon, allows children to access and create media representations which is destabilising conventional meanings of power, values, conceptions and beliefs. I maintain that Minecraft Edu (and it’s vast EduCulture) deliberately avoids this because it puts the power in the hands of the teacher community which remains more interested in sanitising gameplay as part of children’s media culture – because it makes them feel powerful. They have already formed into classic ‘us’ and ‘them’ factions. As one teacher said “you don’t know me or my kids” … which is true – but I do know the difference between an authentic use of media and a creepy treehouse.


Adaptive Game Design


There are two main discourses about games in school – gamification and game based learning. Neither are as new as some suggest, and both require a level of understanding and development that is difficult for classroom teachers to pull off – given the current demands of being face to face instructors. While courses and units can be put into a ‘blended’ online format, most practice revolves around using online ‘content’ to supplement a lesson or creating new resources to ‘flip’ the classroom and extend the school day. There are examples of truly innovative work, using MUVES and MOOs, but not in recent times.

So here I’m talking about mashing up game design, instructional design and adaptive learning theories and methods to create flexible blended learning frameworks.

Adaptive game design approaches take theory from games and cultures to create new frameworks to engage students in learning experiences which are linked in some way. Perhaps they are linear and incremental, perhaps branching. The design of these are geared towards the kind of experience needed (to learn) and to play. Therefore some frames are about analysis (problem solving) others are for comprehension of challenges.

An adaptive game design approach allows a teacher to use technology as well as corporeal space – towards a more flexible delivery of learning which is not welded to the sermons of PBL or any other ‘model’. At the same time, it draws upon proven methods of instructional design, gaming, challenge, scenario, problem and enquiry.

The key to delivery is in being able to create adaptive frameworks for teachers to use easily in the design of learning activities. Think of how games allow players to create different ‘load-outs’ for game-play. These allow them to play in different strategic ways.

Introducing a Games Based Enquiry Model

After somewhat of a hiatus in developing a methodology for using games and game-like thinking in learning design, I hope that you’ll tune in and spread the word among like-minded colleagues about a series of posts I’m going to publish in the next few weeks and months.

This isn’t about levels, badges or using Minecraft. It’s about constructively aligning enquiry based learning with the NESA curriculum requirements – drawing on game theory and game cultures to surpass what I see as an increasingly dated PBL model (which is now 25 years old).

I’m not going to tell you enquiry is good, games are good or puppies are good – but explain how to develop a K12 KLA based learning continuum which is more dynamic and flexible because it taps into children’s own experiences of games and media.

It is drawing on my own research into video games and children and over a decade of talking about and using PBL in schools and university. I will talk a lot about Overwatch – as to me, the mechanics and dynamics of this game and culture are incredibly relevant to learning and teaching – and I’m so sick and tired of Minecraft being falsely seen as the edu-apex of what can be possible.

Why post this at all?

I’m going back to beginning – WoWinSchools, Skoolaborate and other gem’s of brilliance that seem to have been lost in the dreariness of Minecraft discussions. You don’t even have to play games – or use games, but you do need to accept that games-media is the most significant interactive phenomenon in children’s media-lives. If you don’t, then I’d suggest you read more than Tweets – as this has been a fact for well over a decade now.

The story begins …

Before reading on – go back to basics – JSB – who talks about why tapping into knowledge as a network is more powerful than any single person or technology. This ten minute video presents complex and thought provoking alternatives to schooling – and to me remains as relevant today as it did a decade ago.  Most of all, this video was made at a time where brands and products did not dominate or distort discussions about new ways of learning and teaching. To me, this one of the most important videos ever posted.

So a decade on from this talk — this series of posts is my attempt to share what I’ve been thinking, constructing and tinkering with.

What is GBE?

Firstly, this is a framework which takes in numerous theoretical elements from education, gaming, and media theory. Secondly, it’s a framework to design enquiry, measure progress and give feedback within the constraints to the Australian curriculum. For the most part, I’ve been working on this in some iteration for well over a decade so some of it might seem familiar. It’s assumes: learning is blended, the pace of learning is dictated by the student and given to them at the outset – in full.

The posts are going to set out how I go about creating a blended learning environment which is brand-agnostic and can be implemented in the primary and secondary school setting. They will establish how to use an enquiry approach, in which students solve problems through projects. I hesitate to call this PBL or GBL as both terms have been hijacked by psuedo-celebrities etc., I’m going with a new neologism – GBE – Game Based Enquiry – in so much as it attempts to draw upon the patterns of rhythms experienced in awesome games. If you don’t play games, then you will not get much of this as it really requires more than a shallow understanding of what it feels like to explore the wilderness of your own understanding while blasting bad-guys.

design thinking

This ‘design thinking’ illustration helps underpin my approach to GBE. It also connects with the work of Pam Cook in constructive alignment using Biggs’ SOLO Taxonomy.

The most important pillar of GBE is to approach learning design through ‘learning intentions’ rather than problems to solve. I’ve departed company with classic (vanilla) PBL methods in order to focus on what teachers see as their intentions at the outset, rather than starting with the end in mind and then trying to come up with an open ended question to lead students to it. What is often not talked about in PBL is the degree to which teacher-bias limits the supposedly broad scope of student voice and choice.

To me, if you know the ending in a narrative driven game, there would be less enjoyment and motivation. The important initial discovery phase of learning becomes yet another creepy-tree house created by teachers. If you like, GBE’s whole ethos is to allow open-world movement, rather than follow a set narrative – where the boundaries are set by time, resources and alignment to the reportable-curriculum.

Ready player one?

The above diagram is lesson one. Imagine learning as a horizontal plane that moves though phases of inductive and deductive thinking. There are three phases, and unlike PBL, there are lots of interchangeable parts to work with (I’ll expand later on that) – which I tend to call EPISODES as GBE necessarily uses the narrative of school and the teacher.

Think about a decent multiplayer game – players choose from a set of options, and each option shifts the experience of the overall game, depending on what players select. For example: In Overwatch, Junk Rat is best played when the opposing team plays three tanks with low mobility. He’s less effective against high mobility team compositions. The better players select heros based on composition, not their looks, characterisation etc., For teachers, choosing the right enquiry composition is essential – to avoid the boredom of sticking to the BIE method and dictatorial language conventions – Seriously, kids soon become bored with ‘need to knows’ as much as they hate being Power pointed and given a test.

So where PBL starts with a driving question, GBE starts with discovery and initial insight experienced as a challenge or narrative-scenario. We still want to cast students as the hero who is about to undertake an adventure … but we don’t want to give them some teacher question based on a TUBRIC or contrived question. In my experience, teachers spend way too long trying to craft a great driving question – and ultimately 50% of kids switch off as soon as they see it – as it isn’t interesting – and from that point, the intention is not to learn, but to get through learning.

So in the next post I’m going to deal with how a GBE framework creates ‘learning intentions’ in more detail.

Hit the subscribe button and tell your friends …

Testing Teachers

I have only watched part of the SBS documentary Testing Teachers. A young teacher was trying to teach year 8 science class with a baseball hat-wearing swear bear – while also trying to sort out an on-going social-war between a group of students. Most interestingly, the solution (monitor modelling and role playing) was based around the experience of an other teacher. The incidents on camera were both based on the students’ use of media and devices.

The is a clearly a big problem with students at this age using devices as extensions of their social exploration of the world around them – and the boundaries of behaviour and cultural acceptance. It is utterly naive for any parent to believe that once they have enabled a teen with Instagram, Messenger, Yellow app etc., are not at significant risk of being part of toxic image sharing, group trash talk etc.,

Children are not users of phones. They are active agents in cultural reproduction of media – some of which is not simply negative, but a proving ground for the adult-toxic content and behavior online – and in the work place.

Some are obviously creators of this, some are invited in (and don’t feel like they should declines) and there are more that are more than willing to find this negative and insulting culture amusing. The issue is that the bystanders are also enablers and influencers. They believe as they don’t post, that they are not as responsible as the person who did.

We know that social media is a medium of cultural reproduction. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that young people have poor judgement when it comes to isolating entertainment fiction from reality. So a child who’s involved is not behaving in isolation from real life. Children who present defiant and challenging behaviors in class – happy to defy instructions, socialise rather than try their best appear (to me) to also be invested in their personal phone. While I’m sure the parents provide it for communications home – they cannot escape the fact that poor phone behaviour and poor classroom behaviour are more than co-incidental.  Of course some kids will directly challenge teachers anyway – but this show’s director UN-intentally showed the link between phones, apps, behaviour and the amount of time schools now invest in dealing with this problem – directly – and the indirect behaviours that result from so called private conversations that spur on behavior, create in-group belief about taste and decency etc.,

I can imagine that the outraged and helicopter parents would instantly say “that teacher needs to control the class”. No, sweetie – control your own behavior. Then walk a mile in the teachers shoes.