Developing Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in School-Based Esports
When we launched our varsity esports program at Guilford High School in Rockford, Illinois, in 2015, we believed we had thought through everything. At that time, there was no blueprint for creating a school-based esports team from scratch. Working with our administrative stakeholders, we built out a plan we assumed would provide the greatest experience for our students. We purchased the best equipment we could afford. We had a coach who thoroughly understood our first game, League of Legends. We had a brand-new space seemingly— almost serendipitously— designed by the gaming gods for esports: the library at Guilford. In short, we had assembled what could easily be seen as a solid win.
When I look back at those launch day photos from April of 2015, though, a sense of uneasiness winds its way through the images of our best intentions. We had been so focused on the technical and gameplay aspects of this experience— the “what” and the “how”— that we had not fully realized the potential of the most important part— the “why.” Equipment and facilities are not where the bar should be set for your esports program, I now understand. The real standards of excellence are inclusivity, diversity and equity of access.
When launching our esports program at the Walden School in 2016 in Racine, Wisconsin, I knew we had to rethink the experience around inclusion and diversity and provide equity of access. The Rockford deployment taught me, in hindsight, to prioritize the invitation over the invoice— meaning, achieving the goal was not to be measured in what could be accounted for on purchase orders or how the space was laid out— though such things do have their roles in play. This time, the overarching goal was set at who we could reach and encourage to join us— to walk in that door— and find connection, camaraderie and personal value in the club space. After all, it is far easier to upgrade computers and room layouts later than it is to reset attitudes.
Thus, I re-imagined school-based esports around five key ideas:
- Redefine athletic culture
- Diversify opportunities for student participation
- Promote good mental and physical health
- Increase career and collegiate scholarship pathways
- Honor the importance of play
In Racine, we wanted to consciously create an experience of esports that would be a vehicle for so much more than just playing the games. We also wanted our esports teams to be a cross-section of their student bodies, and provide a supportive experience for all. As we have expanded to all five high schools in the Racine Unified School District, diversity and inclusion have been key tenets of our program. We operate our esports in a shared space with all the high schools practicing together to provide equity of access— and we fully recognize that we cannot claim ultimate success simply by measuring the growing line-up of medals and trophies.
Four years into our esports program in Racine, we have not yet met our goal to be as diverse as the student populations in our schools or to be fully inclusive but the strides we have taken have been astonishing. We did not expect to get there right away. What matters to us is that every season, we are seeing the invitation reach more and more students. We are watching more gender-diverse students, more students of color, and more differently-abled students come through the door. The effectiveness of our invitation to play is evolving in its potency and extending its reach. That is how we measure our success.
Two documents produced in the last year provide good insights into why we all need to continue to work towards a diverse and inclusive esports experience, and how your school can do that. The first document is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report, “Free to Play? Hate, Harassment, and Positive Social Experiences in Online Play.” The second is the AnyKey report, “AnyKey Report: Diversity & Inclusion In Collegiate Esports: Challenges, Opportunities, and Interventions.” The data we have collected shows that our efforts to prioritize our focus on diversity and inclusion have helped move us toward the esports teams most reflective of our ideals.
The ADL report explores the social interactions and experiences of video game players across America and details attitudes and behaviors specifically in the gaming social space. It is critical as we are building esports programs in our schools to be cognizant of the data in this report. It will help implementers understand the very real concerns some of our students will have stepping into, or avoiding altogether, our programs. The report details a mix of positive and negative data with regards to social interactions. There are concerning trends: 74% of all online multiplayer gamers have experienced some form of harassment, with 38% of women and 35% of LGBTQ+ as the leading demographics of those harrassed. For some, that harassment has led to changes in gaming habits of varying degrees; for others, it has resulted in no change at all. At the same time, the report also details that 88% of respondents have had positive social experiences in online games. World of Warcraft, Minecraft, NBA2K, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive lead the list of game titles that have had the highest reported instances of positive social gaming experience.
Coming out of the ADL report are a series of calls to action for the game industry, for civil society, and for the government to consider to combat online harassment of gamers— such as providing ratings of online gaming communities, improving reporting tools, broadening workplace inclusivity efforts at gaming companies, increasing opportunities for research around online communities, and even strengthening local laws and law enforcement tactics in dealing with online hate.
What is noticeably absent from the report, though, is the role schools can play in combating online hate. One recommendation I offer is for school-based esports programs to embrace social media and provide ‘walled gardens’ within which students can more safely and comfortably engage in online spaces with their peers and teachers. Using a platform such as Discord, schools can create spaces that include active adult mentorship and guidance in what is appropriate and inappropriate in an online world. Setting a tone of mentorship instead of monitoring/policing is helpful in engaging students in these conversations.
Creating online walled gardens is just one response to the data in the ADL report. An indirectly complementary report was produced just three months later from the advocacy organization AnyKey. AnyKey’s mission supports inclusion, diversity, and equity in gaming. One of the first key steps- often overlooked in a rush to implement an esports program in a school- is the creation of an esports code of conduct. School leaders may feel an existing student handbook provides enough disciplinary oversight and spend more time deciding on tangible hardware and software choices than recognizing that an entirely new ecosystem with new vulnerabilities has emerged online. Sadly, when we focus so much on the games themselves, we lose out on a much bigger opportunity to engage our students in unique ways. One of those ways is through the development of a code of conduct.
The purpose of the AnyKey report is to provide the basic things schools can be doing to make sure diversity and inclusion are front and center to school-based gaming. While the report does focus on collegiate programs, the recommendations carry over into high school programs as well.
There are twelve recommendations in the reports:
- Perform a diversity audit and create a plan for inclusion.
- Take preventative approaches before punitive ones.
- Provide a code of conduct and enforce it.
- Develop programs for diverse levels and forms of participation.
- Encourage co-ed play.
- Establish networks of support.
- Use inclusive language and establish non-discriminatory policies.
- Offer meaningful diverse representation in media broadcasts.
- Formulate holistic selection criteria for varsity teams.
- Invest in moderation infrastructure.
- Provide formal training for bystander and allies.
- Incentivize and reward good social leadership.
The report dives into each recommendation in detail but I believe that the key recommendation is the third, followed by the complementary seventh one. “Provide a code of conduct and enforce it” (emphasis placed by the author), and “use inclusive language and establish non-discriminatory policies” are of utmost importance. One may find an example of a code of conduct provided by the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). This code of conduct is free to download and may be modified to fit your program. In my own experience, codes of conduct in their infancy need to be treated as living, breathing documents that will likely need to be adjusted and amended unique to each school-based program. Ultimately, they should champion inclusive, diverse and equitable ideals.
The results of the efforts in my own school district to provide gaming spaces free from harassment, and experiences that aspire to be inclusive, diverse and equitable has been reported as largely successful by our students. Through two surveys given in March and December of 2019, with an equal number of respondents each time (N=32), the qualitative and quantitative data has been positive. When asked to rate on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being strongly agree and 1 being strongly disagree, the statement “Esports promotes positive interaction among participants of different background and identities,” 23 respondents rated that statement a 5, with 7 rating the statement a 4, and 2 rating the statement a 3 (neutral).
Similar results were seen with the statement “All participants are respected regardless of their identity (race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship),” with 22 respondents rating a 5, 9 rating a 4, and 1 rating a 3.
What was most powerful coming out of this survey was the qualitative data. To the question of “What was your best memory from this season?” the responses included:
- “It got all my friends together in a usually encouraging manner, which sadly doesn’t happen very often.”
- “When I won my first game the rush of happiness I felt made me feel relevant.”
- “Being able to make amazing plays with my friends.
To the question of “Has esports affected your view on school?” the responses included:
- “Esports has given me friends and experiences that make me look forward to school.”
- “It has helped me become more comfortable with myself.”
- “I try a bit harder in school so I am able to play in a game.”
To the question of “What benefits do you think esports has for your daily life?,” the responses are the most impactful:
- “It builds a community and gives me a place to escape a busy school life.”
- “It honestly makes me happier, playing games has always been a pass time for me but going into a competition is a highlight of my day.”
- “It helped me stay really positive and gave me a type of escape when things are rough at home.”
To quote a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” We are the founding generation of educators involved in school-based esports and have a responsibility to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable experience for our students. The choices we make now create the framework this can become for them. For our students, we must become responsible, forever, for what we have tamed.