Updated: May 3
Welcome to part 4 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
The Impact of Video Games on a Student's Professional or Academic Path
Video Games as a Catalyst for Pursuing a STEM Education (You Are Here)
Video Games as an Interdisciplinary Collaborative (You Are Here)
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.
The Academic or Professional Impact of Video Games
Now, as we move away from the personal development side of video games, we need to restructure our approach to writing these essays. When we are talking about the academic or professional impact of video games, the video games are mainly a catalyst for showing a student's future goals or growth. Some students might have started playing video games, but became more interested in the technical side including the development of software, hardware, and new technologies.
Video Games as a Catalyst for STEM Learning
The story of video games leading to a professional or academic interest is mostly dominated by the STEM fields, specifically computer science. This shouldn't be terribly shocking since people who play video games are more likely to be interested in how they are created and the connection between the gaming experience and technological advancements. Along the same lines, people invested into video games are more likely to have hands-on experience with hardware or troubleshooting technical problems they might encounter. This is a fairly common narrative and I'll provide an example below:
As a child, a student finds joy in playing video games. The more they play, the more they begin to recognize technical tricks used by video game designers to make these kind of experience possible. There's a good chance that sooner or later they will begin to have ideas for their own game or how to improve one of their favorite games. This student is fortunate enough to have access to free online videos, tutorials, and classes on pretty much every aspect of video game design. Many students will begin exploring the foundations of STEM subjects through puzzle solving, coding, or physics-based video games, such as Minecraft or Kerbal Space Program.
The student starts middle school and begins learning programming languages, solving coding puzzles, and ultimately attempting to make rudimentary video games. At this point, with their basic knowledge, they can seek out software to create games (ex: Unity), or they may begin modifying (modding) existing game by adding their own characters, maps, color schemes, digital models, or sound effects (ex: the video game distribution service Steam has their own community-driven mod workshop).
The student reaches high school and hopefully they are fortunate enough to have a school with a robust selection of STEM or computer science courses (if not, they can still learn via the internet). Throughout this process, the student will run into roadblock after head-scratching roadblock. Each roadblock offers an opportunity for growth and allows students to hone their skills and discover new solutions to previous problems. All of these experiences help to develop core STEM competencies, such as problem-solving and critical thinking skills. If a student has remained interested in gaming, coding, and STEM for this long, there's a good chance that they are on the path to pursuing those studies in college.
What started out as a love of video games has developed into a powerful academic/professional toolkit, and their journey has nurtured several important soft skills that will help them in the future: researching, experimentation, critical thinking, problem solving, iterative thinking, creativity, and resilience. With this combination of hard skills and soft skills, the student can set their eyes on any number of high-demand jobs within the STEM field: software developer, web developer, database administrator, computer systems analyst, network system administrator, and dozens of other compelling and well-paying jobs.
Video Games as a Catalyst for Non-STEM Learning
Well, funny enough, when I was a kid, the first musical influences that I can remember actually came from video game scores, believe it or not. It's kind of like the thing around me that - everyone across the world reveres, you know, New Orleans music and culture and all these things. I kind of had that as a backdrop that I almost took for granted as being normal everywhere else. But the stuff that really caught my ear when I was 8, 9 years old was Sonic the Hedgehog and, you know, Final Fantasy VII... Visual sources are really important for me, and narratives are always inspiring to me. So I think the combination of having music that was tied to a narrative with characters and themes was something that really stuck with me. - Jon Batiste (4/4/21, NPR, Weekend Edition Sunday Host: Lulu Garcia-Navarro, LINK)
I mentioned earlier that the story of gaming leading to a career in STEM is not uncommon, but what about the connection to arts, humanities, and social science? Similarly to the aforementioned scenario, a student might have a passion for video games, but it becomes an avenue to develop other non-STEM career interests such as voice acting, marketing, community management, script-writing, art, or any other talents needed for the creation of video games. In both scenarios, the topic of video games is the catalyst, the foundation, and the diving board into the real topic, which is how video games inspired a student to pursue an academic or professional journey.
In line with Jon Batiste, the cultural impact of video games and anime served as the foundation to much of my academic and professional career trajectory. I was born in the early 1990s and my childhood happened to coincide with an enormous influx of Japanese animation and video games into American popular culture (Cartoon Network's Toonami broadcast is a particularly famous example of this [some promos and PSAs below]).
I enjoyed these Japanese exports as forms of entertainment, but the historical, cultural, and linguistic references were lost on me. I began to read and research to better understand my hobbies, and in doing so discovered an authentic love of history, culture, politics, and several other disciplines focusing on East Asia. When I started college, for the first time in my life, I had access to actual academic classes and extracurricular organizations focusing on the study of East Asia. My studies opened the door for two separate trips to China: one summer in Shanghai for an international internship and one semester in Nanjing for language studies. After college, my academic pursuits and personal passion for international cultural exchange led to an opportunity to work with international students in college admissions. I took the time to understand the growth and development of my hobbies, and it has been invaluable in opening doors to amazing opportunities.
Here are some other examples of how video games can inspire careers and academic paths in non-STEM fields:
Using Jon Batiste's quote, we're treated to a brief glimpse of where a love of video game music might take a student. It's harder to think of a more ideal scenario than starting your journey inspired by video game music and rising to be an Oscar winner, Music Director of The Atlantic, Creative Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and Bandleader/Musical Director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Let's say another student begins playing video games when they are young, and the student is really enamored by the creative art styles. At a young age they aspire to create art in a similar style to what they see in their favorite video games. What starts as imitation leads to the development of their own style. They proceed through middle school and high school honing their craft and creating an impressive portfolio. While this student's love of art began with a video game, as a capable artist they can pursue an education or career in illustration, interior design, user experience design, product design, graphic design, gallery management, education, etc.
Our third student played video games like the other two, but their passion didn't center around music or art. This student found themselves enamored by the story, characters, and dialogue of video games. For this student, video games nurtured a love of storytelling and how those stories could be brought to life through language. Path A for this student might involve a focus on writing, which could lead to careers in script-writing, playwriting, creative writing, journalism, editing, blogging, copywriting, or even publishing their own works. Path B might focus less on the writing and more on how they can bring a story to life with their voice, by becoming a theater performer, actor, motion-capture specialist, or voice-over artist.
Video Games as an Interdisciplinary Collaborative
Tragically, most people overlook the fact that a video game is a herculean triumph of interdisciplinary collaboration. We often hear about programmers, developers, and coders working on a video game but ignore the other talents that go into creating, such an immersive and creative entertainment experience. Think about all the different disciplines, talents, and careers that go into making a video game: 3D artists, concept artists, project managers, sound engineers, sound designers, voice actors, motion-capture actors, marketers, writers, community managers, composers, musicians, public relations managers, communication managers, accountants, animators, programmers, brand managers, legal representation, HR workers, playtesters, software engineers, directors, historians, linguists, anthropologists, and recruiters. This isn't even taking into account the slew of esports-related professional opportunities in the video game industry, such as being a broadcaster, host, relationship manager, team manager, event planner, professional gamer, and professional streamer. Let's look at a few ways in which different disciplines, talents, or academic majors can contribute to the creation of a video game:
Animator, 3-D Modeler, Concept Artist, Storyboard Artist, User Experience Designer
Voice Actor, Motion Capture Technician, Esports Announcer/Host
Musician, Sound Designer, Sound Editor, Foley Artist, Audio Engineer
Script-Writer, Content Creator, Marketing Copywriter, Editor
History, Politics, Anthropology, Sociology
Worldbuilder, Expert Consultant
Accounting, Public Relations, Marketing Managers, Media Management, Marker Research Analysts, Sales Representatives, Project Managers
This marks the end of our four-part blog series about how to turn a student's passion for video games or esports into a powerful, meaningful, and authentic part of their college application. If I had to take a step back and summarize this blog series, I would say this:
To Students: Don't be ashamed or afraid to talk about your passions and interests. Your journey through life is important, and every aspect of you deserves an opportunity to shine. Take some time to reflect on what you are passionate about, how that passion developed, and how you have changed as a person because of it. Writing about video games in your college application is not easy, but it's also not impossible. Consider the impacts video games and/or esports have had in your life. If that impact is important, meaningful, or led to significant personal growth, then it is likely worth sharing.
To Families: The most helpful thing you can do is support your student and take the time to actually learn about their passions. Many students are afraid of the social pushback that accompanies their hobbies, or worry that opening up to their parents will lead to judgement. It is important to push and challenge students, but it is equally important to support them and show genuine interest in their hobbies. This blog series is not meant to imply that students should be allowed to let video games to become an unhealthy form of escapism (although there are certainly worse forms of escapism out there), nor should video game be an excuse to shirk their duties as a high school student (completing homework on time is important!). Use these blogs as guides to help understand and encourage discourse around the interests and passions of your student.
I hope that after reading this blog series, students feel more empowered to be vocal about their passions, and families feel more comfortable with the prospect of their student talking about the impact of video games or esports in their life.
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With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors