Communicating Big Ideas and Slaying the Game

If you think the degrees beside a name predict a person’s capacity for social engagement, then Constance Steinkuehler (and her three undergraduate majors, masters and PhD) will turn your assumptions upside down. Even over the phone, I am struck by Constance’s breezy attitude, her comfort and ease with talking about her career. This is not surprising when she explains why she went to graduate school in the first place—to study social interaction. At that time, Constance admits (with the right amount of self-deprecation) she was a bit of an academic snob, someone who turned her head from pop culture. Luckily an advisor suggested she pay attention to the changing world of games, which inspired her to download Lineage, the medieval fantasy massively multiplayer role-playing game released in the United States in 1998. She was impressed by the level of complexity in which people engaged willingly; the problems were multi-step, sometimes taking days to solve. “People were doing this work for free and paying for the opportunity,” she told me. After playing a lot of Lineage, not only did Constance take games more seriously, she also incorporated them into her PhD studies.

Now a Professor of Informatics at University of California—Irvine, Constance focuses mainly on Esports. UCI has an Esports team with a dedicated arena on campus where she saw her first match. “I was totally taken with it. I loved the energy, the mixed audience, the excitement and enthusiasm. It had a grass roots feel to it,” she recalled. When she’s not watching UCI compete, Constance runs a lab where she studies team optimization and dynamics and examines analytics like predictors of a win, loss or draw. There is a wealth of data to glean from games such as information sharing, stress biometrics and attention control to name a few. Although the field has broadened since Constance started studying games, academic research on Esports is only just starting to emerge. She could see a field developing with conferences and journals to follow.

This is not all an academic exercise for Constance though. She believes games can be practical and powerful tools of education, connecting kids to computers and coding and pushing them to process data and information in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. To that end, she has spearheaded the creation of high school esports leagues in Southern California. What started as one class and one school has now evolved into thirty-eight teams across twenty-five schools and a four-year English/Language Arts curriculum, infused with next generation science standards.

In addition to the global nature of games, the connections they build, and what they can tell us about team dynamics and social interaction, Constance asks me to consider the viewing audience, to understand how they’re different than say your average National Basketball League or National Hockey League viewers. The Esports audience is comprised of many more people who actually play the game, who understand the challenges and the theories. “The spectators slay the game,” she told me. “There is a connection between players and viewers in Esports that doesn’t exist in the traditional games.”

Constance doesn’t just pat Esports on the back; she sees the ways in which the sport can change for the better. Like anything connected to an internet company, Esports and its audience have a problem with online toxicity, she explained. “Anonymous people online will be more extreme. In face-to-face interaction, you try to establish a common ground, even if a ‘hello how are you.’ Online, some feel they can unleash in a way they would not otherwise consider.” Most women don’t want to linger in an environment rich in prospects for a grotesque verbal assault, which may in part account for the woeful lack of women on Esports teams. Constance is confident that the right discussions are happening around this problem, that industry giants among others are working to make online discourse less toxic and extreme—to make it more productive. And to hear Constance describe the virtues of games, taming the verbal violence is well worth the effort. “Games are still the best place to give someone a first-person experience. I can create a world that I can then hand to you and let you experience. You couldn’t do that before games. That is really compelling, especially if you’re interested in communicating big ideas.”

Cate Stern is an attorney and writer. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughters.


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