Esports competitions motivating force for First Nations students, educators say

Esports clubs are allowing First Nations students to play against peers from other on-reserve schools without the costly and time-intensive trips required for basketball, hockey and other traditional extracurriculars.

For teacher Karl Hildebrandt, one of the many motivators to grow Manitoba’s online gaming community is giving youth in rural and remote areas more competitive opportunities to represent their schools.

“When you tell kids they can play video games at school, their eyes open and when you tell them you can compete against another school in the province, their mouths drop,” said Hildebrandt, director of rural and northern esports for the Manitoba School Esports Association.

A handful of members of the Manitoba First Nations School System, including Lake Manitoba, Brokenhead, Fox Lake, Roseau River and York Landing, have started developing cybersport programs. Some teachers have also started integrating online games into their everyday lessons.

“Technology is forever changing, and (students) need to be caught up with everything. Not everyone learns the same and I find that when we are in Minecraft mode, everyone is full-on engaged,” said Vanessa Lathlin, a Grade 9 teacher at Sergeant Tommy Prince School in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.

Last week, the school board, which is operated by the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, invited budding teams to Winnipeg to participate in its inaugural esports conference.

It was a rare occasion during which students met their opponents in person and competed under the same roof Friday. Competitive teams were given the better part of the day to create escape rooms in Minecraft.

The students built maps using resource and behaviour packs (elements that change the way the world-building game looks and works) from Manito Ahbee Aki, a special edition of Minecraft Education that resembles a pre-colonization Anishinaabe society.

The Louis Riel School Division partnered with Microsoft Canada to bring Manito Ahbee Aki online in early 2021 so users across the world could learn how Anishinaabe people lived before European settlers arrived in what is now known as Manitoba.

Naeyli Desjarlais, 14, and her team secured the top prize. The Brokenhead team’s final design incorporated a pixelated replica of a residential school, graves and flowers.

“It is a heavy topic, but it’s something that needs to be discussed,” Naeyli said. “A lot of stuff did happen in our history. Horrible, horrible stuff, and our people need to heal so I feel like putting this inside a game is a form of healing.”

The ninth grader is studying Fatty Legs, a non-fiction book about an Inuit girl who shows resilience when subjected to cruel torment at a residential school, and learning this year in social studies about the Canadian government-sponsored schools created to assimilate Indigenous children.

Her group’s final submission to the esports competition — which she said was the product of much problem-solving due to tech issues that taught her the importance of teamwork and patience — also included a red dress to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It’s special for students to see familiar symbols that reinforce what they are learning in school, Lathlin said, noting the Seven Sacred Teachings are acknowledged in the game with the inclusion of pixelated elements ranging from a turtle to sabe (bigfoot) — which represent truth and honesty, respectively.

The English and social studies teacher said she had never seen her students more focused than they were during the Oct. 27 competition. “They were all communicating, and it was good; I was proud of them.”

The scene — two dozen pupils from Brokenhead and Roseau River competing in a downtown convention centre room — was a stark contrast to stereotypes of dedicated gamers playing in isolation in dim-lit basements.

“Here, they’re working as a team. They’re working in the light. And they’re working on their teamwork skills and communication and collaboration,” said Hildebrandt, an education technology facilitator at MFNSS. “That’s the educational piece out of it. Minecraft’s the hook.”

The University of North Dakota’s Matt Knutson said school esports yield many of the same benefits as their traditional team counterparts.

Knutson, who studies esports, said they promote engagement, student buy-in and, ultimately, have a positive impact on graduation rates.

“Esports is part of digital culture and students acquire skills with digital media, familiarity with digital media, which is important for the kinds of career trajectories that we want students to have,” he said.

Knutson added the growing popularity of these student clubs on First Nations is one example of how youth interest in competitive gaming can be an effective entry point to networked communication.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press