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Gaming Is Part of Teen Life. These Districts Use It for Better Student Outcomes

Playing video games is a huge part of daily teen life, and more schools are using gaming to reach disengaged students.

The vast majority (85 percent) of teens in the United States play video games, with 4 in 10 saying they play them at least once a day, according to a nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 1,423 teens ages 13-17 conducted Sept. 26 to Oct. 23, 2023.

Meanwhile, esports, in which people play video games competitively on teams, is gaining a greater foothold in K-12 schools.

The Consortium for School Networking’s 2024 State of EdTech Leadership report mentioned esports for the first time in the 11 years the nonprofit has been conducting its survey. It found that 39 percent of districts have esports initiatives.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, which has been conducting its High School Athletics Participation Survey since 1971, captured esports participation data for the first time in its 2022-23 survey. It found that 20,001 boys and 3,921 girls participated in esports during that school year.

‘More than just playing a game’

The Grapevine-Colleyville district in Texas established its esports program in 2018 in response to the growing gaming industry and the rising popularity of collegiate esports, said Kyle Berger, the district’s chief technology officer.

The district wanted its esports program to be “more than just playing a game,” Berger said. So the district developed a curriculum to go along with the after-school esports clubs and teams.

The esports class is an elective for middle and high school students in the district that teaches them how digital sports work and what the industry looks like, Berger said. For instance, an esports team has many parts: players, technical support, marketing, those who broadcast the event, and those who do an analytical review of the gameplay. This means a student who enrolls in an esports class, or even participates after school, can take on any of these roles.

Students who participate on esports teams typically meet after school to practice and prepare for competitions statewide and even nationwide. And through esports, kids learn a lot of soft skills, such as communication and collaboration, Berger said.

After school building shutdowns in the early days of the pandemic, the Moreno Valley district in California turned to scholastic esports as a way to reengage students, not just for academics but also for social development. Moreno Valley students can also take an esports class and/or participate in after-school esports clubs or teams.

“Taking something that [students] love—video games—and putting them in a classroom with like-minded peers and a caring adult is a game changer when it comes to not just camaraderie and collaboration and teamwork, but also a reduction in toxicity,” said Peter Whitmore, the esports coordinator for the Moreno Valley district.

“It’s those soft skills that are not always measurable but certainly noticeable when seeing them in person,” Whitmore added.

Finding ‘a niche’ for students

When the Grapevine-Colleyville program launched, “it was probably the biggest thing that I underestimated in my career, regarding the amount of interest the students would have,” Berger said. “We had an overwhelming response.”

Survey data from the Grapevine-Colleyville district show that 70 percent of the students now participating in esports had not been involved in any other school activity.

“We know, in education, if a student is involved in something—clubs or any kind of event—that drastically will impact their academics,” Berger said. “We were excited to see that we found something, a niche, for kids who didn’t have [extracurricular activities].”

Laurie Lehman, the esports project manager for the Albuquerque schools in New Mexico, said she also found that esports was “a way to reach students that you couldn’t reach any other way.”

Albuquerque’s survey data show that 55 percent of students now involved in esports had not been involved in other extracurricular activities. For Moreno Valley, it’s 60 percent.

The big challenges to building a program

One of the biggest challenges is the cost of an esports program, according to district leaders.

For instance, gaming requires stronger computers and monitors; other parts of an esports program (such as marketing and live-streaming) also require more equipment; and districts’ networks will need to be reprogrammed to allow gaming.

Berger said one solution is to leverage the computers and other equipment that districts already provide for their career and technical education classes. Often, those tools are state-of-the-art because they are used to prepare students for future careers.

Another challenge is finding staff to coach the esports teams or to sponsor the after-school clubs, district leaders say. One coach recruiting solution that the Moreno Valley district is using is to provide stipends for coaches.

Districts also have to combat misconceptions about video games, district leaders said. There have been studies that link gaming to addictive and sometimes aggressive behaviors, but there are also studies that link gaming with better cognitive skills. In K-12 scholastic esports, students play age-appropriate multiplayer games, such as League of Legends, Rocket League, and Super Smash Bros that don’t feature violence. Coaches also train students to have good sportsmanship.

Districts that have esports programs say the benefits outweigh the costs.

In the two school years that Moreno Valley has had its esports program, it has seen positive student outcomes. District data show that students who participated in esports saw improvements in attendance and behavior. In the 2022-23 school year, district data also show correlations between esports participation and higher scores on the English/language arts and math state standardized tests.

“It’s not cheap up front, but it pays for itself” when you look at the student outcomes, Whitmore said.

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