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How Video Games Can Combat Chronic Absenteeism (Yes, Really)

A Virginia school district has enlisted two powerful allies in combatting chronic absenteeism: Mario and Luigi.

The iconic video game brothers star in Super Mario Kart, one of the most popular games in Henrico County’s middle school esports clubs. Those clubs are proving to be a game-changer in boosting attendance and reversing the student engagement slide that follows elementary school. They’re also building students’ sense of belonging at school, a feeling schools have struggled to create post-pandemic.

“If you have something that you’re really interested in in school, it doesn’t matter what it is, then your attendance is going to be better,” Jon Gregori, a secondary education innovation specialist in the suburban Richmond district, said in an interview at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference last month. “Your grades are going to be better. Your behavior is going to be better. Your sense of well-being is gonna be better.”

With the help of a $10,000 grant from a community foundation, the 50,000-student district created esports clubs at three middle schools that had made tackling chronic absenteeism a goal. Initially, the clubs prioritized students who had both expressed an interest in video games and were at risk of becoming chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent of school days or more.

Those kids weren’t hard to find, partly because gaming is so popular, Gregori said. In fact, 94 percent of students in 8th grade and younger identify themselves as gaming enthusiasts, according to a 2023 report by Newzoo’s Global Gamer.

“If I was going to make any sort of investment, financial or time, why would I not go for something that we know the highest percentage of our students have an interest in?” Gregori said. “The chance of finding a student who’s on or nearing the chronically absent list and is interested in esports is better than finding a student who is nearing chronically absent [and is interested in] almost any other topic.”

It’s advice districts nationwide could use, as schools continue to struggle with attendance.

National rates of chronic absenteeism doubled during the pandemic, reaching nearly 30 percent in the 2021-22 school year, according to Attendance Works, an organization that advocates for tracking and addressing student attendance. State data show schools made some progress reversing that trend during the 2022-23 school year, but chronic absenteeism remains well above pre-pandemic levels in most places.

Esports can help students feel a sense of belonging at school

In part because of the mission to reduce chronic absenteeism, the clubs, each of which has dozens of members, meet during the roughly 30-minute advisory period that kicks off the school day.

That period is not “essential curriculum time, but it’s still part of the school day,” Gregori said. “We’re driving students to be at school during school hours. It’s part of the fabric of the day, rather than something that happens after hours.”

With the startup grants of about $2,500 per school, the district bought controllers, games, and jerseys, just like students would wear for any sport. The swag helped students build an “identity” as members of a club, Gregori explained.

Henrico is picky about the games students play, sticking to those with no more than a “cartoon level” of violence. That means no realistic weapons, blood, or gore—nothing that looks worse than what befalls Wile E. Coyote as he chases Road Runner. In addition to Mario Kart, Henrico students often play Smash Bros., where the object is to deplete, not kill, your opponent.

Students find these less brutal games plenty engaging, according to Gregori. “The popularity of these games is pretty universal,” he said.

The district hosted events in which clubs from different schools competed in person, complete with large screens and cheering crowds. High schoolers were enlisted to help with shout-casting—the esports term for real-time color commentary.

The events “created a heightened experience for [students], something that’s really memorable,” Gregori said. That in turn, “just perpetuates engagement and connection to school.”

School leaders can also participate in esports to engage with students

The schools’ principals even got in on the fun.

In one video of the competition, students audibly root for their school leader. It’s a great way to “build that principal-student relationship,” Gregori said.

Another principal practiced with her club for weeks and still put on a poor performance at the competition. But students told her they were proud of her effort. For kids to see their “principal in a vulnerable state, that is really cool,” Gregori said.

The clubs didn’t take long to show results. Just a half year into the program, chronic absenteeism dipped at all three participating schools, compared to two years earlier.

At two of the schools, no student who was part of the esports club was considered chronically absent—even though kids were encouraged to join based in part on their spotty attendance records.

Overall, while the schools’ combined chronic absenteeism rate—defined as students missing 10 percent of days or more—is 18.74 percent, just 3.5 percent of students in the clubs are chronically absent.

And three-quarters of club members have no attendance problems, compared to about 54 percent of students overall at these schools.

What’s more, fewer students in the clubs are struggling in academic courses, data show. While about 13.9 percent of students overall have a D or F in math at the participating schools, just 7.7 percent of club members do.

The results are similar in language arts, where 11.4 percent of the students in the middle schools have low grades, compared to 5.7 percent of club members.

Esports may help prepare students for STEM occupations

Another benefit of esports: Gaming may help prepare students for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math—which are growing at twice the rate of other jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Students learn IT and problemsolving skills as they troubleshoot the games’ technology, and playing can improve hand-eye coordination and collaboration, Gregori said.

In fact, all branches of the military have esports teams for service members, Gregori found.

Students—as well as school leaders and families—became enthusiastic supporters of the program. That convinced the district to extend it to all 15 of its middle schools, with help from a grant from Meta, as well as district funds.

Though he acknowledges Henrico was fortunate to tap outside grant funding, Gregori doesn’t think other schools would need to spend much to set up their own esports programs. They can ask families or the local community to donate games and consoles, for instance.

In exchange for relatively little funding, a district or school may find an effective strategy against the apathy and disconnection that can cause students to act out, disengage, or drop out, Gregori said.

Or in sports lingo: “The best defense is a good offense.”

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