“Affirmations combined with deep breathing have been very effective because many of the players tend to be very negative toward themselves.” Coach Jenn
Games have long operated as spaces of refuge, comfort, and community connection for many youth. This role has only been amplified in the past year as pandemic restrictions have driven youth to play games online in record numbers. Yet despite the potentially positive outlet provided by games, research is also showing that “…after a year of lockdowns and remote schooling and the disruption of social norms, teens and young adults are reporting growing levels of depression, stress, and anxiety” (Rideout et al., 2021). We wondered if there were ways to tap into youth interest in competitive gaming as a platform to support player wellbeing.
While a lot of work has been done to understand the online game practices of youth—including research focused on learning and motivation, interest, identity, social development, and creative expression—there is a dearth of research on esports as a context for developing adolescent mental health and social emotional wellness. An innovative afterschool partnership between the non-profit Connected Camps, the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), Seattle Public Library, and the University of Washington Information School offered us a chance to engage in the online design, piloting, and formative evaluation of ways to support adolescent well-being, social adjustment, and emotional regulation within esports play. Leveraging Connected Camps’ esports online coaching program, which pairs college-age esports players with high school esports teams participating in NASEF, we worked to support youth at both an individual and team level.
In this case study we will examine ways the Esports for Wellbeing program sought to support mental health and wellbeing for a group of vulnerable teenage players. A set of guiding principles highlighted in the Spaces of Refuge series serve as our north star. They include:
- Meet Youth Where They Are: Too often, experts and adults have designed technologies and programs, only to struggle to have youth, and particularly minoritized youth, engage with them. Youth populations that innovators are seeking to serve should be involved from the start, with their interests, practices, and lived experience informing and driving the development and deployment of new efforts.
- Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages: Youth are often described as a monolithic group, even though we know that young people’s backgrounds and interests are just as diverse as we see in the adult world. Approaches must be tailored to and draw from the needs and assets of specific populations and communities in order to arrive at equitable solutions.
- Build Connections Between Existing Assets: Despite an explosion of apps and online content for mental health, wellbeing, and self-care, the evidence is clear that vulnerable youth are not connecting to these assets. The critical gap in the ecosystem is the connection, translation, and tailoring of expert content and wellbeing resources for vulnerable youth, where and when they need them.
- Tap Youth Agency and Peer-to-Peer Support: Youth leadership, knowledge, and lived experience in supporting each other in times of distress, amplifying positive practices, and working against toxicity online, are generally not considered in the design of wellbeing apps and interventions, even when they are intended for youth. Tapping youth agency and expertise is critical, particularly with technology-intensive interventions that require youth buy-in and engagement.
Esports Coaching for Wellbeing
We began our work by identifying specific behaviors and vulnerabilities of competitive gamers: disappointment in letting teammates down during a match, physical anxiety related to having to solve problems within a fast-paced, performance context, or “tilting” due to frustration, anger, or disappointment. In addition to recognizing that player anxiety was real, we made a decision early on to involve our teen players and coaches in a co-design process that we hoped might result in the creation of evidence-based tools and coaching strategies that would be likely to transfer outside of the esports context and support youth more broadly. Outputs of the project to date have included a specialized wellness training program for coaches, a curricular framework with lessons, tools, and coaching strategies for supporting player mental and physical wellbeing, and Tilted, an Apples to Apples-like game that players can play in advance of a practice session or match to anticipate sources of stress and anxiety and strategies for reducing them.
While the esports coaching model at Connected Camps wasn’t new—the organization has been leading virtual coaching for NASEF for the past four years—the focus on mental health and wellbeing for vulnerable youth was. Juan Rubio and Luis Gonsalez at Seattle Public Library helped us recruit a group of Black and Latinx high school students from the Rainier Vista Youth program, located in south Seattle. The youth were passionate about esports but had previously lacked both the technology required to participate and a local program in which to enroll.
Our team at Connected Camps, led by Bethany Pyles and Drake Everlove, developed an approach to the coaching for wellbeing work rooted in the organization’s approach to working with youth. “We knew it was important that the wellbeing work happen within the context of what we were already doing with our coaches and players,” said Bethany. “Rather than thinking about it as an add-on, we chose instead to integrate an emphasis on wellbeing into already established training, professional development, coaching, and practice structures.” The work with coaches and players was hands-on and apprentice-based (see it, do it, reflect on it, improve it), and connected to the goals, communities, and needs of participants. One additional tenet: all stakeholders would learn and consistently use a common wellness language, learn and consistently implement a set of wellness rituals, and learn and consistently implement a set of wellness activities customized to coach and team needs.
Developing the Program
Over the course of nine months, a specialized cohort of Connected Camps’ coaches were trained in a select group of evidence-based rituals and activities designed to help students focus, visualize, relieve stress, and express their emotions and feelings in a supportive setting. These included activities like goal setting, visualization, mindfulness exercises, affirmations, team check-ins, breathing, and stretching. Online team check-ins, for example, were meant to give students and staff an opportunity each practice to share how they were feeling and express their goals and intentions for that day’s match or practice session. Sharing feelings and goals helped coaches gauge the “climate” of their team. It also gave players a chance to express their feelings and build compassion for their teammates. Affirmations ended up being an equally important tool for both the teens and coaches. “Getting in the habit of expressing something positive helped the teens move beyond a constant focus on failure,” noted Drake. “Failure is a constant in games—not every team can win and no one plays great all the time.”
We then mapped the various evidence-based approaches to the structure of a typical online practice session or match, to help coaches and players make choices. During the pre-match period, for example, when players are preparing, coaches could lead players through a meditation or team bonding exercise. During the match, coaches could call on techniques to help players focus (attention control) and manage anxiety and energy. During breaks between rounds, when players need to release and refocus, coaches could have their players do deep breathing and stretching. “I tell the coaches to use rituals that fit the team best. Like, if they are nervous before a match, visualization for competition; if they are arguing with each other or have low self confidence, use affirmations,” said Cara Geho, the Wellness Lead on the project. Each stage of the match (pre- and post-match, play, breaks between rounds) offered a unique opportunity to engage youth in rituals and activities that not only supported their overall performance but their wellbeing, too.
“Tournaments and competitions are some of the most thrilling events for players but they can add tremendous pressure on individuals and teams,” said Geho. “At the top tier of play, mechanical skill and strategy aren’t the difference makers when it comes to securing a victory. However, a healthy well prepared mindset can be the ultimate game changer. The best preparation would come from developing habits and mental tools that help players perform at their peak at any given time.”
Meet Youth Where They Are
A shared interest in gaming, improving one’s performance, and succeeding as a team provided a space of opportunity to connect with teens online around issues of wellbeing. One important theme that emerged from both our coaching and codesign sessions is that players, when they “tilt” or lose control in a game, often try to just brush off their feelings, saying that they sometimes do get upset, but ‘they can just deal with it’. “Coaches shared with us that players do not always communicate about their feelings or the mental or relational challenges they face as players and teammates,” said Jason Yip, one of our partners at University of Washington. “It is only during 1-1 check-ins that players feel safe enough to open up.” Players also shared that not all strategies equally work well for them—for instance, taking deep breaths or taking a break may work well for some, but using humor to lighten the situation can work better for others. Physical activity was very helpful to some, but for others, working on changing their mindset was more effective in helping them refocus. Tapping into this personal expertise allowed us to work toward the development of a set of youth-focused resources that took into account individual differences in how players manage their stress and anxiety in game.
Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages
Libraries have an existing infrastructure that is already embedded widely in diverse communities, not only urban but also rural areas. Librarians have a deep understanding of the community they serve and can effectively connect with the community members, as they often have strong relationships they have nurtured over time. Librarians also often work with schools and other community organizations that serve populations of different race, gender, and other characteristics. Ty Edwards, our community partner at the Seattle Housing Authority and the Rainier Vista Youth program, had strong ties to the Black and Latinx youth in his community and brought expert knowledge in how to recruit and retain teens in the program. Juan and Luis from Seattle Public Library had similarly localized knowledge that helped understand the needs of the participating youth, including technology access, flexible scheduling, and culturally responsive coaching. As the librarians had previous connections with many of these teen players from various backgrounds, they could do targeted outreach and invite them into the project.
We knew we needed to move away from one-size fits all solutions and recognize the importance of cultural relevance and social connection, while also focusing on high need and underserved groups. Drawing on research that explores the cultural play patterns of Black and Latinx players, we strongly emphasized team and relationship building skills throughout the coaching program. Like many other Black and Latinx gamers the teens saw gaming as a real part of their lives, and we found that narratives that framed the wellness work they did during practice as having an impact on their lives and relationships as a whole were narratives that resonated strongly. While we initially tried to integrate resources showing professional esports players using various wellness techniques, we found that examples drawn from the youth’s own lives were more effective. Tilted, the card-based game mentioned above, emerged in part, from this recognition.
The choice of game titles became a second key area of customization. NASEF teams have historically competed in a single shared title, like Overwatch or League of Legends. League of Legends and other popular esports titles like Starcraft and Counter-Strike are PC-based esports. The teens at Rainier Vista hadn’t grown up with expensive gaming PCs in their homes; they instead preferred console-based titles like Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. As a result of this feedback we worked with NASEF to develop a tournament model that included console-based titles and allowed teams to choose the titles they wanted to be coached in.
Build Connections With Existing Assets and Strategies
During the online codesign sessions, which were led by Jin Ha Lee and Jason Yip, we learned that despite the abundance of digital content about strategies for supporting mental health and wellbeing, including apps like Headspace and What’s Up, or resources like Twitch Cares or the Crisis Text Hotline, youth indicated they rarely engaged with such resources. We wanted to think about opportunities to introduce our players to existing resources for self-care and also participate in some self-care exercises, which resulted in some change in how the codesign sessions were run.
“The codesign sessions typically start with a bonding question—we ask a question about some aspect related to the codesign activity for the day (e.g.,”what is that one game that makes you mad all the time?”) so that participants can share their answers with the group. This helps us build rapport and also sometimes inspires different ideas related to the codesign activity as well, explains Lee. “However, during our codesign sessions, we realized that many of the teen players hadn’t spent much time thinking about situations that are triggering or upsetting to them during play.”
Such observations prompted the inclusion of some wellness focused exercises at the beginning of the sessions. Cara Geho, who participated in the co-design sessions, led this activity as the wellness expert. She asked participants to turn off their camera and guided them to do breathing, stretching, and exercises for relaxation. These were techniques that the coaches used with their teams during coaching sessions, including the use of the Headspace app. Players and coaches were provided with Headspace accounts as part of the program, and were encouraged to use the app outside of practices as well. Integrating mindfulness rituals into the codesign sessions created continuity across the codesign and coaching programs and supported youth in building a deeper understanding of their benefits to both player wellbeing and game play performance. By the middle of the season players were requesting the use of Headspace and other rituals during practices and matches, without prompting from the coaches.
Tap Youth Expertise, Agency, and Peer to Peer Support
The design of our coaching and codesign work leverages the lived experience of our youth players and coaches, along with their capacity to support one another. Involving college-age coaches as near peer mentors helped to create connections with the teens that could be leveraged to support both the coaches’ and the teens’ wellbeing, in game and beyond. Further, a shared interest in competitive gaming created a context for helping teens with communication, conflict resolution, and relationship skills. Teams had to learn to work together if they wanted to succeed.
Research suggests that the ability to build positive and healthy interpersonal relationships and to resolve interpersonal conflicts are much more likely to develop, if at all, within communities where young people feel a sense of agency and belonging, have friends and mentors who share an interest, and have access to activities that sustain their involvement (Cohen & Kahn, 2011; Goldman et al., 2008; Ito et al., 2020). Each team had their own culture and ways of doing things—it was important that the coaches recognized each team as its own mini community. One way they did this was by working with players at the start of the season to create team charters, or sets of rules and norms that expressed their team’s values and goals. “When individuals collaborate and agree on common objectives it reminds everyone of their similarities and unites teams during conflict,“ explains Geho. “Developing a stronger sense of community and inclusion also makes conflict resolution a more streamlined and less emotional event.” Charters from the School of Extended Educational Options (SEEO) and Blaze Esports, a Boys & Girls Club of America team, express clear differences in team expectations and cultures. Giving players the agency to define and uphold their team norms provided a visible platform for their ideas and voices, while also serving to build community.
A Promising Context
Our goal was to bring health expertise and evidence-based practice into digital places where kids are learning and socially connected. Esports is an area where there is a significant interest and engagement from youth, not only locally, but worldwide. It is also an area where a lot of stressors exist, including the general toxicity in game culture, pressure to play well in teams, ranks and competition, and discrimination against players based on their identities, to name a few. Thus esports, and gaming in general, is a promising venue where we can connect with youths and have a conversation about their mental health and wellbeing.
When asked about her team’s progress, Coach Abby had this to say: “My team has taken to it super well. In fact we did visualization pre-match for the first time, and they loved it. We ended up winning that match, and in passing, one of my players mentioned ‘I know the play from this match…I’m going to visualize next time,” which made me smile.” For those of us engaged in helping the youth and young adults in our program find refuge in the games they love, this is a promising beginning.
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