Mind Sports is a generic term used to encompass a variety of mental games, such as Chess, Checkers, Bridge, Go, boardgames and miniature wargaming. I believe that they offer a valuable addition to a child’s development, and any school’s extra-mural programme. Many schools will have a Chess Club, but the benefits of offering a range of games needs to be considered.
I have a feeling that playing games is probably very good for developing cognitive skills generally. This is not the place to explore this notion, but as Einstein observed, “Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” The formal thinking, the effort that needs to go into analysing positions and understanding the tactical and strategic aims of good play in any game, and the work that needs to be done in terms of memorizing opening theories is all probably very good for working and developing general intelligence.
But beyond a general notion that mental exercise is probably good for you lies several social reasons for building strong Mind Sports at schools. Especially for boys. I don’t want to exclude girls here, but the following TED talk illustrates some of the factors which are disadvantaging boys in education these days, and illustrates a role that I believe Mind Sports can fill.
What emerges from this talk most strongly is the need for male role models, the need for good cognitive male role models, and the need for schools to engage with gaming sub-cultures and give them a space within the school.
eSports has recently been brought inside the fold of what Mind Sports encompasses, certainly in South Africa which is one of the few countries in the world to have an officially recognised sporting federation administer a range of games. Chess and Bridge are excluded for historical reasons, but all other codes fall under the aegis of Mind Sports South Africa. The incorporation of eSports, computer gaming, under Mind Sports has been somewhat controversial.
Many teachers, who are quite keen on seeing children play Checkers and other boardgames as an extra-mural, are dubious, at best, about seeing children play computer games, especially those that employ violence. This year Mind Sports South Africa introduced a high school eSports league, and probably the very first official inter-school eSports matches have been played, involving Warcraft III, DotA and CounterStrike.
Ali Carr-Chellman makes the case far more eloquently than I could, but I can add some personal observations from the Mind Sports programmes that I have run.
Firstly, it often seemed to me that, especially the boys who joined Mind Sports were often those who were being failed by the schooling system. Often very bright, their marks were low or they were socially disruptive. While I was running the Mind Sports Club at St Enda’s, an inner-city school in Johannesburg, some of the students who excelled at Checkers or Morabaraba were amongst those I found discussed at teacher meetings as being at risk. A visiting Checkers Grand Master played a simultaneous demonstration match against fifty of our students one year, and identified a number as being extremely gifted. These very same boys were being described as slow and problematic by their teachers!
A few years later, most of these same boys were identified as candidates for the St John’s Academy, and although I cannot prove it, I am convinced that some of the confidence that they gained from success at Mind Sports enabled them to rise above the difficulties they were experiencing in the classroom. Nothing helps someone who is under-achieving quite like being told that they are mentally gifted, I am sure!
My second observation is that for many boys especially, if you do not fit into the sporting hierarchies at school, you are condemned to finding refuge amongst the lesser sub-cultural hierarchies, where low self-esteem is often a contributing factor in turning boys off school. The geeky culture of gamers, both traditional boardgamers, and the eSport gamers is not generally rewarded within the school system. While many geeks are academically bright and are recognised for this, many are not, often because of the reasons outlined by Ali Carr-Chellman above. If they are not sporting then they receive no recognition at all. There are too many boys slipping through the gaps at school, and taking refuge in sub-cultures such as gaming. It seems to me that if we have a vibrant schools Mind Sports culture which recognises gaming skills and gives them recognition, we will have a way in, a way of helping these boys find their place within the schooling system.
My third observation revolves around the controversial inclusion of electronic gaming, and the need to have it recognised within the school environment. And here I want to bring the girls back into the discussion. I saw some stats recently which suggested that more girls than boys, in the tween age group were engaged in online gaming. Even where boys are still in the majority, it is certainly not the case that girls don’t play video games or game online, and increasingly teenagers and tweens especially are spending more time gaming online. As much time, in fact as they are spending in school. It is common sense then, to realise that if we don’t leverage some of the benefits to be derived from online gaming, and there are positives, we are wasting a considerable opportunity. Also, it is far too important to be left to chance. As teachers, and parents we need to have an influence on what our children are up to online. We have an imperative to help them make the best of it. Strong eSports at schools would go some way towards providing some of this leverage.
The tradition of Muscular Christianity, espoused by great educational thinkers such as Arnold, and immortalised in books such as Tom Brown’s School Days, places great stress on team sports in building character. All of this is true, but I believe, very strongly, that we need to help the digital generation, who are increasingly involved in eSports, whether we like it or not, develop the character building aspects of the online gaming world. This is a world where collaboration and co-operation are highly prized. It is a world where everyone is accepted and has a place. It is a world where those who break the codes are dealt with by the online community. It is not really a world teachers should be afraid of.