Interview: Constance Steinkuehler talks e-sports and education at UCI

The Orange County High School Esports League is more than just an e-sports opportunity for high school students. The league is also conducting research with the participants in order to connect their love of video games and e-sports with academic framework. Connecting e-sports with STEM fields is of utmost importance for University of California Irvine and the OC High School Esports League, and it’s an opportunity that hasn’t been explored by many.

Constance Steinkuehler, Ph.D., leads the effort from University of California Irvine’s side, and her impressive background puts her in the perfect position to lead the effort. In addition to her various bachelor’s degrees and master’s degree, her doctoral thesis was on “cognition & learning in massively multiplayer online games.”

From 2005 to 2016, she founded and ran the Games, Learning & Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. There, academics, game devs, and government leaders met to discuss the social significance of gaming culture and how it could be used to transform the way people learn. From 2011 to 2012, she worked as Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of Science and Technology in the Obama administration.

I spoke with Constance about the research being done with the OC High School Esports League, and how gaming can help students engage in learning.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity, content, and length.


GameCrate: You’ve been committed to video games for a long time. Why?

Constance Steinkuhler: Thank you for starting with that. I started studying games back with my dissertation. In fact, I was in a field called cognitive science applied to learning. I looked at things like people in chatrooms working on problems together—it’s a great environment. A nice little petri dish for reasoning in groups.

We were building these environments and studying cognition, and we could show that with different scenarios or environments you could get better or worse reasoning, and you could show significance statistically… but as I started improving my own ability to analyze social interaction online—like language itself—I started looking at transcripts of what people were doing and saying rather than just numbers. What I found was that, overwhelmingly people hated doing the activities we built—they hated being there. It may look, from the statistical sense, that they were making great games in terms of reasoning, but when you looked at what people were doing they were so disengaged.

At the time, I really felt that if I wanted to study cognition in this environment I needed to be in a place where people care. Where people give a damn about what they’re doing. I needed a space where I could see cognition in the wild. My advisor, James Paul Gee (Ph.D. Linguistics) said that I needed to be studying MMOs.

I downloaded NCsoft’s Lineage because it had the biggest global market share in the world at the time. I started playing, and within the first 24-hours what I saw people doing, and paying subscription money for, was so beyond the complexity of anything we were doing in the lab. I was blown away. I changed everything—dropped everything I was doing, changed departments, I changed my whole field.

I couldn’t believe the level of complicated problem solving, reasoning, and cognition that I was seeing, all under the guise of play. It was beautiful. It was amazing, and I never turned back. You can design an experience for someone… it’s the most amazing thing. There are really deep reasons why if you want to look at learning and cognition, play is the space to do it in.

Take a look at Steam. I can spend two hours just picking a game on Steam. The variety is unbelievable. The playfulness, the range of games played, the ubiquity, the platforms of games. I just don’t think it could get any better. It’s just a really great time to be in the scene.

Then I got to UCI and had a chance to watch their e-sports teams for a while. I was blown away. I couldn’t believe the level of collaboration and teamwork that was happening. In terms of even just regulating each other’s attention, the information sharing—just on a cognitive level it was amazing. That was what really got me into e-sports.

GC: How about with the OC High School Esports League? What kind of academic framework are you incorporating with it?

CS: The biggest thing we’re doing—we’re standing back and doing the cognitive intellectual analysis of this league. By that I mean, we’re going out and looking at—we’re doing field observations and interviews—what kids are doing in this league and where does it have natural, authentic connections to what they’re being taught in school.

Now bear with me for a moment—one of the things that comes up time and again is this theme on interest driven learning.  Think about the story earlier—looking at games for the first time and realizing they were people doing all of this amazing complex work and paying for it. That is because games are these beautifully designed environments. They’re built to be understood and learned. They pull you into this complex space in a way that is fun and engaging, rather than too challenging or too easy.

There are already these natural connections to all of these big ideas that we say we value when we look at the education standards. For example, understanding systems and feedback among components, or understanding data and how to think about data in a way that shapes human behavior, or how to do expository writing for the web to persuade someone that your team is the best, or how do you organize a community to have a major event? How do you pull that off? All of that labor, not just around an e-sports team, but all of the people that are participating to make e-sports and league competitions what they are.

What I see are all of these places where the high school curriculum and college curriculum intersect. They’re already doing the things, at least partially, that we want them to learn in school. But they’re doing it in a way that they understand the goal. They’re doing it out of passion.

So, what my job for the league is, is to watch what the kids are doing, and watch what teachers, GMs, and coaches are doing, in order to identify where are the places in which you already see them using Math, English Language Arts (ELA), Science, and etc. in places where we can amplify. Where we can point to it and say, “Hey, this work that you’re doing right there to explain to another kid why they need to change their strategy? That’s technical writing, that’s persuasive writing, that’s data analysis.”

That’s the kind of analysis we’re doing for the league. There are two other things we’re doing. We’re also watching, as sort of a formative evaluation, of where things work and where things don’t work. This is the first year and no one has ever done this before. We’re doing the best we can, but we don’t know what is going to work and what isn’t.

We’re also doing a series of interviews of other people who are starting to spin up these high school leagues themselves. Trying to understand what strategies they are using, and if they are connecting it to high schoolers’ educational lives. And so far, no one is doing that. When we ask them what they think the value of it all is—the long term enduring value is—and it’s usually something around the love of e-sports. Which is fine, but I don’t think that students need my help to love e-sports. I think we’ve got that down already.

I do think that there is a need to show the people that don’t play—especially for young women—what it can all be about. What the possibilities are. What I’m really interested in, is again, all of that beautiful intellectual work that goes into games. So, I think if there’s one thing I’m really proud of, is that out of the gate this has been jammed on STEM. It’s going to be about entrepreneurship, about real, living connections to STEM, not just classwork. We’re going to make something that really counts for kids.

In short order, we put together a whole advisory board of teachers/designers to build a 4-year college prep, ELA curriculum that kids can take. They don’t have to take all four years, they can jump in and out as they please, but it will be available and they meet all the requirements of ELA for 9th thru 12th grade. Every year they do a different college tech education focus. The first year is on games and simulation where we focus on games and data, while the senior year is connected to event planning. Hopefully, those students will run the semi-finals and championship of the OC High School Esports League itself.

It’s ambitious as hell. It’s probably why I’m so excited about it.

GC: So far it seems great. Do you see these classes being implemented at lower levels in the future?

CS: My first instinct is that—I’ve always studies kids 13 and over for the simple fact that I study online social interaction. Under 13 you deal with a lot of different regulations and laws about kids being online, and you also see under 13 girls drop out of the equation. For a lot of families, girls are kept off of things like MMOs and other platforms for, I think, protective reasons, which I have opinions about but won’t get into right now.

I’ve always studied 13 and older, but 13 and older can include middle school. What we’re going after right now is really ambitious and we’re going to do everything we can and see how it plays out. I will say, though I don’t know if it’s totally public knowledge, but we already have a school that is already doing the curriculum we designed in the fall. It’s fairly astounding that we already have a school district stepping up and saying we want to run this. I think that if there’s interest there, and teachers and students are interested, we’ll bend over backwards to support their work.

GC: Awesome. What are you doing to get more women interested in these classes?

CS: Oh, thank you for asking. When I first got here, my first instinct was why don’t we just have a female league? Or why not mixed teams? What’s going on… why isn’t this happening?

And the secret, well I guess it’s not really a secret—the headline no one wants to talk about is that we have sincere pipeline problems where girls are not going into e-sports because, bluntly put, some of the spectating audience of e-sports is toxic and obnoxious. The headline for a lot of young women is, why would I bother with this? Girls are participants—if you broaden the lens to look at the community instead of just the competing teams, women are everywhere.

How do we get more women involved? I think they already are in the community. But with the teams? That’s what I want. I would love to see fully co-ed teams with gender parity on them.

I think that the e-sports community has been very grass-roots in the states. Yes, you have professional teams and such, but the industry is really scrambling to catch up and monetize. But when you bring e-sports to the campus, now that grass-roots activity has to meet the standards and values of college campuses. Whereas an e-sports community may have no mandate for diversity, campuses do. Not only Title IX, which applies to all clubs, educational courses, and sports, but at UCI we have an entire division for inclusive excellence, and this is a campus that takes that very seriously and I’m really proud of that fact.

Part of what I think is the bigger trend is that—for me the reason that it is so vital that e-sports become a collegiate sport, and not just a professional sport, is because colleges will not stand for that sort of toxic behavior that you see from mostly spectators in the e-sports field.

I think it’s a very small minority of people that spoil the game. But the way they spoil it is this, they create this hostile environment, and what gamer, male or female, wants to play in a way that exposes themselves to constant abuse and interrupts their fun? The reason you don’t see them on professional teams is because they drop out of the pipeline. They think, screw it, I don’t need to play this anymore if it’s going to be this rotten to do. They’ll play in casual ways with their friends, but they stay out of the high-end leagues.

We (UCI) just put out our diversity report at the beginning the academic year, and that report has been circulated and is the first college policy piece about what we’re going to be doing on campus to change how the pipelines are working. And that includes overtly bringing more women into e-sports. Not because women need to love e-sports, but because we want to open up the gateways in certain ways.

Working on early pipeline issues, all the way to doing bystander training—not just with competing teams, but with the community on campus as well. So they understand that, not only are not supposed to be threatening people (that’s sort of a duh, right?), but in addition, when you see abuse you need to stop the abuse. Doing simple bystander training so we as a community are not going to allow it. We are not going to have UCI branded channels full of toxic behavior.

That’s what gets me really excited about this space. Now that being said, are we going to have parity on collegiate or professional teams tomorrow? Nope, we’re not. The problems aren’t as simple as just getting more girls trying out. The problem is deeper, and it’s going to take a while. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t solvable.

I have a bigger play—my bigger play is that I’m confident that video games, e-sports included, is the new golf or tech industry. So, to me, having more women involved in games and being more visible in games simply helps change the field of not just video games, but STEM in general. And STEM is in trouble. STEM has had very low rates of women and the numbers are even on the decline. So, I have a much broader agenda of getting more women in code-based fields period.

Games have this way in which you can attract a much broader audience of players and people, but also launch them into a whole array of STEM fields, in a capacity that computer science doesn’t seem to be able to do. And I would argue, in my very humble but mouthy position, that one good hypothesis would be that, the fact that game design and game research is creative—so it’s code-based fields, but creative fields is the draw. I think it’s also the playful creative aspect of games, and the fact that we don’t have the same historic problems that code-based fields can suffer from.

I know that was long-winded, but I want you to see that there are other places that games are playing a very transformative role and broadening participation generally in code-based domains. So, the notion that on campuses, something like e-sports, could actually be used to broaden participation, is not just poppycock. That’s not just me tilting at windmills. There are actually similar sorts of cases you can point to.


If you want to learn more about the OC High School Esports League, you can check out their website at

The league is currently in its inaugural season that concludes on April 28th. You can check out the competition on their Twitch page at