Interesting College Essay Topics: Video Games & Esports Part 3
Updated: Jul 12
Welcome to part 3 of our blog series about video games and esports in the college application process. If you've already read part 1, feel free to skip to the new material focusing on competitive multiplayer games. If you haven't read part 1, I highly recommend reading that post first, as I tackle some foundational ideas about how a single piece of culture can affect a person's values.
I'm a nerd, let's get that out of the way. I grew up immersed sci-fi, fantasy, movies, television shows, anime, video games, board games, tabletop games, and even read certain textbooks for fun (still do, looking at you A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to The Present). My childhood pre-dated critically and commercially acclaimed comic book movies, the ability to make a living by streaming video games online, and the widespread adoption of video games for everyday audiences (think mobile phone games, or the Nintendo Wii in the mid-2000s). To put it simply, it's a lot easier to openly embrace nerdy culture now than it was during my childhood.
The social stigma and ostracization of being a "nerd" led me to hide many of my hobbies and interests from friends and family for most of my life. Sadly, I still hear echoes of these feelings in students I work with today. It's not uncommon to hear a student say, "It's easier to just say nothing than try to explain my interests, hobbies, or passions." This breaks my heart, and for this reason I've become more open about my nerdy side and encourage students to do the same.
So what does all this have to do with the college search and application process? As an admission officer and a college counselor, I've read too many essays and applications focusing on students telling me what they think I want to hear. What they don't realize is that the thing I want to read about is an authentic, introspective, and self-aware portrait of who they are as a person. Families tend to reinforce this censorship of a students personality, often both knowingly and unknowingly. We all see the stories of the 4.0 GPA, 1550 SAT, honor society student and that's what has become the standard of success. What most families don't see, but I have, is the student with an average GPA and test score that can successfully articulate why they actually participate in extracurriculars; explain their values; describe what problems they want to solve in the world; and write a unique essay that reflects who they are as a person, not just what they've accomplished. I've read thousands of essays by this point in my relatively young career, and the handful that have stuck with me had nothing to do with the students' grades, test scores, or accomplishments.
So, over the next few blog posts, I want to write about a topic that seems to grow more common each year I work with students and families: video games. It's a tale as old as the ~1980s: a parent is concerned because their student is spending too much time playing video games and not engaging with the world. I'll be the first to concede that not all students who play video games should be writing a college essay about them, and sometimes video games are just a temporary escape from the stress of life (same as movies, television, books, and any number of other hobbies). However, I'm going to posit the idea that there are a lot of students out there who have a true passion for video games and, with a little introspection, can turn that passion into a powerful asset for their college application.
During this multi-part college essay blog series, I'm going to review a few different ways to tackle the topics of video games:
The Personal Impact of Video Games
Impact of a Social or Cooperative Multiplayer Game (You Are Here)
The Impact of Video Games on a Student's Professional or Academic Path
As a reader, I want you to keep in mind two more universally understood concepts into which we can distill these essays:
An introspective look into how a form of culture has shaped a student's ideas, beliefs, values, and personality.
An introspective look into how a student began a journey to help shape others through the act of creation or innovation.
Impact of a Social or Cooperative Multiplayer Game
Let's think of a student who is interested in community-building and decides to spend a month in the wilderness with a group of friends. While in the wilderness, they have to find food, cultivate crops, build shelter, create tools, and divvy up responsibilities with no authority to hold them accountable. Everyone shares resources and is responsible for the success of their community.
Is this an Eagle Scout project, summer camp tradition, or an independent project to create an intentional living community? Nope, none of the above. This is a description of Minecraft, the wildly popular farming, exploring, and physics-based building video game developed by Mojang and bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Since 2016, the Minecraft active playerbase has increased from an already impressive 40 million, to a mindboggling 126 million active users worldwide.
An essay focusing on the social aspects of an online multiplayer game will highlight the student's ability to create, grow, develop, lead, and contribute to a community. This kind of essay is particularly relevant given the COVID19-state of the world as I write this blog. For a world that has become increasingly interconnected through technology, many people were caught unprepared for the social isolation that COVID19 brought. Even if COVID19 is completely removed from the world, the social and developmental impacts on individuals and communities will be felt for a very long time. Participating in online communities can not only show a student's ability to develop, manage, and contribute to a community, but it can also demonstrate how a student has adapted their social needs to a newly socially distant world. Now, let's dive into an example of this kind of essay with Minecraft:
A student is playing Minecraft. They're having fun designing their home, cultivating their land for farming, domesticating livestock, creating a mine to harvest metals for tools, and generally exploring their world. Eventually the student realizes that this experience could be so much better if they get a friend to play with them in their world. The friend joins, then a second friend joins, and while they play, they meet two more Minecraft players with whom they enjoy playing. Before the student realizes it, they have a bustling village of approximately 9-10 players living, building, and cooperating in the same Minecraft world. Strangers become friends, and the student begins to assume a leadership role for this small community they have formed. Many of these players share other interests like watching movies or playing other video games. The student works to formalize this gaming group by making a website with forums, where active members of the community are assigned roles and responsibilities. The content that is created during gaming nights is uploaded to YouTube or Twitch.tv, and a calendar is created for organized group gaming events, competitions, or having movie watch parties on Amazon Prime. Before the student even realizes it, they are leading and organizing a community of nearly two dozen other people. From this experience, a student can highlight any number of talents, skills, and experiences that demonstrate their ability to create, lead, develop, and foster a community of authentic relationships based on shared values and passions.
You might think this scenario sounds a little farfetched, but I can personally attest that this is more common than you might think. When I was a senior in high school, a close friend and I created a website, forum, and YouTube channel; assigned leadership roles and responsibilities to others in our community; organized competitive gaming teams; and implemented a shared community calendar for 28 other people (only 3 of whom we knew personally). All of this work stemmed from meeting a random person while playing the popular first-person shooter game Halo Reach. With the power of hindsight, I realize how impressive this is for a teenager, who put in minimal effort and believed that 90% or 100%, "an A is an A." As a 17 and 18-year-old, I had built, managed, and promoted a small community of strangers in a time when social media was just beginning to grow into its modern form. I did not mention a single word about this meaningful and time-consuming experience in my college application.
Maybe instead of venturing into the wilderness, a student decides to pick up a part-time job working in a local restaurant. The restaurant is small, maybe only 3-4 employees at any given time, meaning it's all-hands-on-deck when the lunch rush arrives. Orders are piling up, workers are cooking fresh food for hungry customers, dishes need to be cleaned, and tables need to be cleared for the next hungry customer. A restaurant with a skeleton crew is a high-stress environment that requires teamwork, communication, professionalism, and a level head. One mistake could derail the entire process, delay food to hungry customers, cause a backlog of orders, hurt the reputation of the restaurant, and unfortunately impact the tips the student and their co-workers might receive.
Working in this kind of situation can be stressful and rarely fun, but what if I told you that a student could hone important skills gained through this experience without ever stepping foot in a kitchen. Enter Overcooked and Overcooked 2, co-operative cooking simulation games developed by Ghost Town and published by Team17. In Overcooked, one to four players engage as line cooks for a litany fast-paced fictional restaurants with increasingly challenging scenarios.
Players must collect ingredients, prepare them, combine them, plate them, serve them based on a growing list of timed orders, and clean the dirty dishes for re-use. As if the challenge of being a line cook wasn't enough, players must also battle rats, beware of fire from burning food, and manage increasingly complex kitchens. The example in the photo above is a kitchen built on a fault line. Every so often half of the kitchen will rise up, but both sides of the kitchen are needed to properly prep, plate, and serve food. Make no mistake, I have worked in bars, restaurants, and professional offices where I've led teamwork exercises, and I have yet to find a better exercise than having team members play Overcooked. A cooperative game like Overcooked is fun and helps build friendships/camaraderie (although some would replace the word "build" with "test"). Beyond providing entertainment, Overcooked will push students to think critically, build on their strengths, discover opportunities for growth, manage stressful situations, prioritize tasks, create workflows, and help them uncover their role in a team.
I hope that after reading this students feel a little more empowered to be vocal about their passions, and families feel a little more comfortable with the prospect of their student writing about the impact a cooperative or social video game might have had on them. In part 4, we'll take a look at a common narrative: how video games often plant the seed for pursuing academic or professional studies in STEM fields.
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With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors