What We Can Learn From the StarCraft II Elites

March 4, 2013

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



In early February of this year, I visited a middle school near a historic district in Chinatown. The school is one hundred years old with a rich colonial history. I met Gary, the head of information technologies at the school, who is also a math teacher.  Gary mentioned to me he wants to develop an app to help their 800 students learn about the school’s heritage. In the past, the school had students fill up a booklet by answering a list of twenty or so predetermined questions, like naming a celebrity alumni. I suggested to Gary that digital media may provide the tools to uncover the school’s extensive heritage beyond their traditional means to educate. I encouraged him to consider using an app that students could use while exploring the campus. Gary, however, was skeptical: “I doubt students would voluntarily use their smartphones for schoolwork. In class, we have to direct students to specific urls, and ask them to read these specific web pages, which will help them understand their classwork. Without prompts, they will search no further. They will not direct their own learning.”

Gary’s earnest explanation made me wonder: Why do some students use digital media to pursue their interests more deeply, while others do not? Are students who use digital media tools to pursue their interests more deeply supported by other factors in their learning environments?

In research on computer use in classrooms, Gerry Stahl (2002) argues that online discussion platforms provide few real opportunities to promote learning. The reason is that discussions among students through such platforms often do not go deep enough to justify its use. Gary’s own teaching experience had similarly led him to believe that digital media in K-12 classrooms had not engaged students in more than surface learning and did not encourage them to explore more on their own. However, in another study, Danielle Herro (2010) finds that students use highly collaborative digital media practices in specially designed courses that emphasize the use of digital media as a classroom tool. Using the digital media tools designed for the class, the students co-constructed multimodal products, negotiated between peers, and created a unique aesthetic in an interactive environment. This indicates that deeper than surface learning can occur with digital media in schools under the right conditions.

We saw a very different relationship to media use and learning in our SCII research, which looked at “elite” SCII players. We participated in online communities and interviewed those who are already highly independent digital media learners. They are the cream of the crop of StarCraft II: national and international players, league and tournament organizers, and award-winning modders. Since StarCraft II is rarely taught in formal education, we found that all of these participants had directed their own learning of the game outside the classroom. What makes these participants different in pursuing their interests so deeply? Are there social and cultural factors in their homes, schools, and communities that are unique? Or is it a difference between the learning environments of school and StarCraft that make young people more or less self-directed?

Two weeks ago, we invited one such participant, Stephen Paolini, to blog about his experience growing up in a family of video game enthusiasts. In his blog post, he discussed how he grew up playing video games with his family. Stephen played video games with his parents and other gamers older than him, and he was often challenged to communicate with them in ways he would not with peers of his own age. Thus, he learned various language and social skills that are academically relevant, but which he may not otherwise have been exposed to at his age.

We found other StarCraft II elites who shared similar stories of adult involvement in their learning. One was a professional commentator whose first experience with professional gaming started with his mother buying him an airplane ticket to a professional tournament. Another a professional tournament organizer who spent his childhood living in a poverty stricken community, who remembered days he was singled out and beaten by other kids. He found an outlet in StarCraft through the hands of a caring cousin, while others we interviewed had similarly sustained and deepened their interest through the active support of older siblings or cousins (shared purpose). In these examples, older peers can provide important social connections or outlets, as well as a guide, through communities of learning that surround the Starcraft II game.

By focusing our study on the learning elite of StarCraft II, we were able to look at the issue of digital media deployment in classrooms from a different perspective. By studying successful learners who have situated their learning activities in a different environment, we have an opportunity to examine alternate scaffolds of learning that may be missed in classrooms. After all, the world is larger, richer, and contains a greater diversity of subjects than any single classroom. What if there are social and cultural learning factors which classrooms do not currently leverage, but that could enhance outcomes of learning? Our research already has found some evidence of these outside factors. Caring parents, older friends, and siblings could all equip youth with life skills that schools alone may find hard to provide. In our ongoing analyses, we will continue to explore how youth can leverage such outside supports to scaffold their learning with digital media.



Danielle Herro, 2010. Web 2.0 in the classroom: Student practices, teacher perspectives. In D. Gibson & B. Dodge (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 2737–2742). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Gerry Stahl, 2002. Rediscovering CSCL. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reed Stevens, Tom Satwicz, and Laurie McCarthy. 2008. “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives (pp. 41-66).” In Katie Salen (Ed.) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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