Esports transformed this Hong Kong teen with learning disabilities

Caritas Lok Jun School students play esports games at their multimedia lab in Tai Wai.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Fifteen-year-old Tam Kwong Kit, who has moderate learning disabilities, used to be unfocused in class, and refused to do homework or get dressed for school in the morning. When in a bad mood, he would throw tantrums in front of others.

But Tam’s teacher said taking part in esports has helped the Form Three student change his behaviour for the better.

Tam is one of 20 students with special education needs (SEN) involved in Caritas Lok Jun School’s extracurricular esports team. He has always enjoyed playing casual games on the iPad, but his foray into esports started when the team launched in September last year.

Esports, or electronic sports, refers to online games played in a competitive setting, individually or in teams.

Tam Kwong Kit (second from left) with fellow gamers and teacher Ken Li (rightmost).
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“I really like computer games and typing,” Tam said shyly while playing a quick round of Clash Royale on an iPad, a multiplayer online game. Users in opposing teams compete with the objective of defeating an enemy king in a limited time frame.

While Tam appeared reserved displaying his skills in front of journalists, teacher Ken Li Siu-ting shared that the teen could be jovial and lively when gaming with familiar individuals, deploying troops and casting spells at ease.

“He smiles a lot when gaming with his friends and can be quite talkative when discussing strategies,” Li said. “It’s quite obvious and we saw that his behaviour changed a lot this year. His mum actually encouraged him to continue to play more games, and teachers say he is more attentive in class.”

The trend of applying esports at school is developing in Hong Kong, but Caritas Lok Jun School in Sha Tin, a special school for children with moderate intellectual disability, is one of the pioneering SEN schools in using esports.

Being exposed to popular games such as Minecraft , Overwatch and Clash Royale during after-class training sessions has helped students like Tam gradually become more creative, self-disciplined, respectful to classmates and capable of fostering good team spirit, according to Li.

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A physical education teacher for over a decade, Li also believes video games can enhance hand-eye coordination. During esports sessions, students get to do simple relaxation exercises to prevent eye strain, while also stretching their arms, legs and hips.

Introducing esports to his students has also helped Li, who joins their gaming activities, foster greater bonds with them.

“Playing games with my students helps me communicate with them better. We feel like friends and learn together,” he said.

The school’s esports team used to conduct their weekly training with external coaches at a dedicated centre at a Sha Tin hotel, with a government grant of HK$47,500 (S$8,225).

Since the pandemic hit Hong Kong, the school has bought equipment, including monitors, special chairs and keyboards, and plan to continue the training in-house. When classes are suspended, students can also play games at home on an iPad and be coached through video calls.

Victor Cheng, executive director of Hong Kong Education City. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Victor Cheng, executive director of Hong Kong Education City, a company owned by the government to promote technology in learning, said SEN students could outperform their counterparts in terms of creativity.

“The traditional ways of learning often require literacy skills that SEN students may not master as well as other students,” he said. “This opens up a new area they can compete for in the same level playing field as normal students.”

The organisation is running an expo in December to showcase education strategies after Covid-19, including esports for SEN students.

Dr Victor Ching, an educational psychologist from Hong Kong Developmental Pediatrics Centre, said video games could stimulate creativity among SEN students and enhance greater cooperation with others.

“It depends on the games selected and how teachers follow up with SEN students [after the gaming sessions], it can be a good start,” he said.

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However, playing video games in an educational manner is still not as commonly accepted in Hong Kong, as excessive gaming can lead to negative effects such as addiction.

Dr Fanny Lam, a specialist in developmental-behavioural paediatrics, advised caution, saying there was still a lack of scientific research supporting the use of popular games to educate children.

“Children with special learning needs are prone to developing internet gaming addiction,” she said. “If we balance the pros and cons and limit screen time it should be OK, but we have to think of consequences if these activities are not controlled by adults.”

Li also recalled the initial challenges of convincing parents to adopt the idea, but emphasised the importance of avoiding excessive gaming, such as setting timetables to monitor children’s gaming time at home.

“Parents were initially worried but became quite supportive after making observations on how [their children] are learning life skills through gaming,” Li said. “It’s not just simply playing games as there are clear learning objectives in place.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.