For many years, video games were seen as nothing more than a niche hobby for children and teens.

But times have changed, and, in many ways, video games have leveled up.

Today, video games are a multi-billion dollar global industry, played by the majority of the U.S. population and can be found on practically any phone, computer or television.

The Entertainment Software Association found that about 75% of U.S. households include at least one person who plays video games. Despite their prevalence, video games still face the public perception of being a hobby mostly enjoyed by children and teenagers.

However, in the tri-state area, video games have evolved beyond that. From an educational tool to a college sport, the impact and reach of games in the area has expanded dramatically.

Today marks National Video Game Day in the U.S., and local officials and enthusiasts recently spoke with the Telegraph Herald on the ever-expanding role that video games play in modern society.

“I think the technology has improved so vastly,” said Julie Lange, director of digital literacy for the Dubuque Community School District. “We are finding that the gamification of education is helping to engage students with learning.”

The Dubuque Community School District is one of many throughout the country that is beginning to incorporate video games into its curriculum as a way of teaching young students who already are strongly connected to digital technology.

Lange said elementary and middle school students use a program called ST Math, which acts as a game to hone a student’s spatial reasoning and mathematics skills.

“They work with a little penguin to work through a series of problems,” Lange said. “It does provide an engaging experience with students when compared to just using a textbook.”

Lange said the gamification of education is quickly growing in popularity, especially as younger generations are becoming more closely connected to technology. In high school, students use video games as one of the ways to teach computer science and coding.

While the school district maintains a balanced approach of incorporating texts and hands-on lessons, Lange said she believes there is great potential for further gamification in schools.

“We know that when they engage with this and they are excited about it, then of course learning is happening as well,” Lange said. “You are going to see an increase in lots of digital engagement tools.”

On college campuses, video games aren’t seen in curriculum, but they are making significant headway as a sport.

Clarke University is one of several colleges that have formed a collegiate video game competition program. Called esports, these collegiate teams compete with other colleges across the country in popular online games, including titles like “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”

“We treat it the same way as any other sport,” said Henry Johnston, director of esports for Clarke. “We hold weekly practices. We compete in several different competitions and support collegiate leagues.”

The teams and leagues created for esports largely mimic those of other sports like football or baseball. Esports have gained rapid popularity to the point that professional esports leagues have formed. In 2018, professional esports leagues generated $776.4 million in revenues and some esports competitions have been broadcast on major sports networks, including ESPN.

Johnston said esports provide a wider variety of students the opportunity to compete in collegiate sporting programs who previously couldn’t. With the professional esports leagues growing in popularity, he added that experience in these collegiate teams can even open up potential career opportunities.

“There is curriculum in some colleges that is being developed for esports, and there are campuses that are investing in constructing esports arenas,” Johnston said. “You are seeing it all over the place.”

Johnston said the realization and acceptance of video games as a sport is indicative of the wider mainstream appeal and success of games, and colleges are simply capitalizing on this trend.

Other public institutions also are taking advantage of the ever increasing interest in gaming. Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque offers patrons the opportunity to check out video games and gaming consoles.

Library Director Nicholas Rossman said the library doesn’t purchase video games as part of its budget, instead relying on donations from residents, but he added that in the library’s attempts to expand its offerings to go beyond just books, games make up a major part of that effort.

“A lot of people play video games and collect them, which is why we get those donations,” Rossman said. “We haven’t put any effort into expanding the collection ourselves, but we are happy to offer it.”

Johnston said there is still immense potential for the future of video games and their influence on society. What that future might be is a mystery, but he and many others believe gaming is ready to reach a new high score.

“I would have never imagined this kind of growth,” Johnston said. “I think the potential is limitless.”

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