What's Your Game Plan?

Implementing a program to bring video games into instruction requires thoughtful preparation. Success hinges on appealing to game-savvy students, fretful teachers, and dubious parents and administrators.

For the Garland Independent School District, a tournament was the tipping point. With too many of its students failing the math portion of state-mandated exams and in danger of being held back, the suburban Dallas district was determined to raise scores. The students lacked motivation, and Garland was seeking a better method of engaging them. Jaime Arizaleta, the district’s facilitator for online education, believed educational video games were the way to go. He already had a title in mind: Tabula Digita’s DimensionM algebra and pre-algebra game, which Arizaleta had recently observed at a conference. He was impressed by what he saw as an ideal mix of gaming and instruction. It took him a year to negotiate the purchase, but by fall 2008 DimensionM had arrived in Garland classrooms.


A list of links to sites/companies mention in this artcle can be found at the end of the article.

The district bought 1,000 licenses from Tabula Digita and divided them among the three middle schools where the need was greatest. “It was important to choose the lowest-performing students at these schools,” Arizaleta explains. “If DimensionM was going to help us change the way kids understood math, we wanted to evaluate the game with students who were most in need of the change.”

But before Arizaleta could make that effort, he first had to clear a hurdle just as formidable as students’ algebra troubles: faculty resistance. Even as video games continue to become more accepted as a K-12 instructional tool, they are still often met with apprehension. Garland ISD was no exception.

Teachers worried about how they would integrate the game into the curriculum and whether it could motivate students who often fell asleep in class. The IT staff wondered whether DimensionM would overwhelm the district’s computer network. Administrators were concerned the benefits would fall short of the costs.


“Best Practices for Using Games and Simulations in the Classroom,” a report published by the education division of the Software & Information Industry Association ( in January 2009. It can be found by entering “games” into the search engine on the organization’s home page.

But the students were eager to play, and Garland educators spotted an opportunity: Put the kids’ competitiveness to work by staging a year-end tournament for the top gamers.

It wasn’t long before the academic environment began to change. Students started showing up for school early and staying late to practice DimensionM. They asked more questions in class and completed their homework more often in order to master the math concepts required to advance in the game. They downloaded DimensionM at home and spent hours playing on the weekends, trying to secure a spot on their school’s tournament team.

Making a Checklist


To ensure a successful gaming implementation, before introducing the program make certain you have identified each of the following:

  • Who the gaming solution’s intended users are
  • Who will guide the students’ play—classroom teachers or expert students
  • Who will fix technical problems—IT staffers or game-vendor representatives
  • What objectives the gaming solution will address—such as increasing test scores, or reducing absenteeism and dropout rates
  • What methods will be used to judge the game’s effectiveness
  • Where the game will be played—in the classroom, computer lab, home, or library
  • When the game will be played—during class, before or after school, or on the weekends

On the day of the event last May, 120 people crowded into the district’s Technology Center. Parents and grandparents took the day off to watch their kids compete. Teachers, tech staffers, and administrators turned out to cheer the students on. “I’m just glad I ordered extra pizza,” Arizaleta jokes. Each school’s 20-player squad divided into smaller teams. The top teams won medals; the school with the most total points got a trophy.

For the district as a whole, the event was a winner as well. “As soon as we decided to hold a tournament, the whole dynamic of our game implementation changed,” Arizaleta says. “The students, teachers, and parents all got on board, and I knew then that we were going to be successful.”

According to Karen Billings, vice president of the education division of the Software& Information Industry Association (SIIA),districts wishing to duplicate that success are clamoring to launch gaming initiatives of their own, in hopes of igniting the same excitement for core subject matter among their students. Billings says sessions on how to successfully employ games in the classroom have been standing-room-only at recent education conferences hosted by SIIA, which last year published best-practices guidelines for using games and simulations in the classroom (see “Recommended,” above). But the idea to hold a tournament was an inspired stroke that other districts may not have the means to carry off. And hounded by rising scrutinyof failing campuses and shrinking school budgets, districts are under pressure toapproach new resources cautiously, making it especially important that gamingsolutions are implementedefficiently and effectively.

Educators, game developers, and industry professionals say districts looking to get it right need a game plan that promotes benefits to students, prepares teachers and infrastructure, and provides opportunities for meaningful feedback. “The typical plan will answer who, what, when, and where,” Arizaleta says. “Very simple.” (See “Who...What...Where...When,” page 36.)

There is general agreement that the initial rollout should be kept to a few campuses rather than deployed districtwide, making the project easier to manage and tweak.

“My personal experience is that a pilot is always a good way to go,” says Billings, a former teacher. “If you try to do something large-scale, more people might be successful but more people might not.”

The length and extent of a gaming pilot program varies from district to district. Garland ISD’s DimensionM pilot ran the length of the 2008-2009 school year and involved three of its 13 middle schools. Austin Independent School District in Texas tried out DimensionM during a 10-day summer program in 2009 for 350 struggling eighth-graders. And some initial rollouts are large enough that they don’t really qualify as pilots: Broward County Public Schools in Florida introduced DimensionM to 24 of its 40 middle schools in fall 2008.

Before a game rollout can get going, reluctant administrators, teachers, and parents must get behind the idea. Garland’s tournament won over converts in a single day, but there is also plenty of persuasive power in outcomes that demonstrate the efficacy of educational video games.

Geoffrey Aronsky uses the Stock Market Game, an online investment simulation from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s Foundation for Investor Education, to help teach math at La Mesa Junior High in Santa Clarita, CA. As Aronsky’s students calculate a company’s profit-loss ratio, for instance, they’re practicing fractions and decimals.

“I’ve seen kids get a 25- to 30-point increase on the [state] STAR test after playing the Stock Market Game,” Aronsky says, adding that he introduced the game into his district. “That’s all people need to hear. Now I’ve got administrators and parents in here all the time wanting to play along with the kids.”

Mass Appeal

Even if holdouts eventually buy into the concept of educational video games, the selection of a bad one—or really, the wrong one—will doom any implementation.The right game is one that reinforces the curriculum and adheres to state standards.

“Every company says its product is aligned, but sometimes it’s just a surface alignment,” says Norma Jost, administrative supervisor for secondary mathematics at Austin ISD.

And, of course, the game must not just work for the educators, but also for the students, so credible levels of sophistication, timeliness, and authenticity are necessary.

“Kids can smell hokey from a mile away,” says Sharon Sloane, president and CEO of Will Interactive, which makes video simulations for teens that address social issues such as violence in schools and drug abuse.

Detective Frank Dannahey, an investigator in the youth division of the Rocky Hill, CT, police department, helped provide real-life content for the company’s It’s Your Call, a game designed to teach cell phone safety. Dannahey tried out a beta version with half a dozen middle schoolers. He says districts should take the time to get students’ feedback. “If they like a game, they will get their friends to play it. We shouldn’t leave them out of the process.”

That goes for anyone who has a stake in a gaming solution’s implementation. Administrators, IT staff, teachers, and students all have roles to play. “Keeping all members of the implementation team in the loop from the beginning is a necessity,” says Jeanine Gendron, Broward County Public Schools’ director of instructional technology.

Parental buy-in is also important, and that can require some sensitivity and accommodation. Sending letters home to inform parents what games their child will be playing and how they enhance education is a good first step. Any who are suspicious of the games’ worth can be welcomed into the classroom for a demonstration. Providing related content on school websites and newsletters, such as links to downloadable games or updates on students’ progress, is also a good touch and can help avert opposition.

“Nobody likes to be blindsided,” Billings says. “What you don’t want is a kid to come home from school and the parent says, ‘What did you do today?’ and the kid replies, ‘We just played games.’”

Of all the pertinent parties, teachers are the ones who hold the key to a gaming initiative’s success or failure. If they don’t feel comfortable introducing a game or see no benefit to playing it, the game will go unused. Smart districts ensure that doesn’t happen.

“It’s all about professional development and making sure teachers have plenty of training,” says Jerry Weissbuch, who uses the Stock Market Game with his sixth-grade students at the K-8 A.N. Pritzker School in Chicago. Teachers from school districts throughout Illinois come to observe Weissbuch’s middle school classes and learn how he weaves the game into his economics lessons while also adhering to state curriculum standards.

Proper professional development can help alleviate teachers’ fears that they need to be expert players to implement a gaming solution successfully. The bar is in fact much lower. “I expect teachers to know just enough to get the kids started,” says Elissa Seto, Tabula Digita’s manager of school engagement and a former middle school science teacher. “The kids will take over from there.”

SIIA’s gaming and simulations guidelines say that providing a safe place for teachers to ask peer-to-peer questions is also important in keeping the support and building the confidence of more apprehensive faculty members, whether it’s a school meeting, through the educator portal on game makers’ websites, or in online communities for educators who use gaming as an instructional tool, such as RezEd.

Sloane says Will Interactive tries to offer that environment. “We encourage teachers to e-mail us their feedback and suggestions,” she says. “We’re in the process of building more of a blog or forum for that sharing of ideas and collaboration. We try to be a conduit for best practices.”

One way districts can galvanize teachers is to get them caught up in the force of students’ enthusiasm for gaming. In Broward, the students and teachers watched demonstrations of DimensionM at assemblies together. “Getting everyone together at first was a great strategy,” Gendron says. “We got immediate reaction from the learners themselves. It was very motivating.”

Billings says that districts can reduce teachers’ unease by likening the use of educational video games to something familiar, such as lab work—the hands-on opportunity to test what was learned in the classroom. “Treating games like labs helps teachers get a handle on them,” she says. “They understand the necessity of setting up the environment correctly and making sure there is follow-through.”

And don’t forget to take advantage of the influence that tech-savvy teachers can have in rallying their colleagues. Arizaleta says that element has been instrumental inGarland ISD’s successful implementation. The district trains teachers to become Title I technology specialists who work for the instructional technology department but are out in the field helping teachers incorporate software.

In the search for qualified teacher champions, Arizaleta rates knowledge about instruction over technical prowess. “Don’t pick a technical person who cannot make an academic decision,” he advises. “Get an academic you can geek out.”

Districts also need to impress upon teachers the need to give up some control in the classroom when employing a gaming solution, according to Steven Hoy, vice president of sales and strategic initiatives at Tabula Digita. “Video games create an environment where the teacher becomes much more of a facilitator of a student’s process of education versus being that sage on a stage,” Hoy says. “Teachers who understand that dynamic are very successful with gaming.”

Healthy Competition

As teachers give up some control, students turn to one another for help. Grouping two to four kids to play a video game has practical benefits if computers are scarce, and can deepen students’ engagement and understanding as they bounce ideas around.

“It turns what could potentially be an isolating experience into a collaborative one instead,” says Dave McCool, president and CEO of Muzzy Lane Software, which produces the social studies games American Dynasties and Making History. “We build multiplayer into everything we do, because we want to encourage that interaction.”

With collaboration often comes competition, and gaming tournaments of the kind Arizaleta held can be a healthy way to channel that energy—if they’re handled appropriately. Focusing too much attention on individual winners will leave most participants out in the cold. Billings suggests recognizing students whose point totals increase the most during the tournament, as well as those who help their teammates improve. “The more winners you can put up there the better,” she says.

“We try to ensure there’s something in it for everybody, whether it’s a T-shirt or a ribbon,” Hoy says of the tournaments Tabula Digita helps put on for districts. “We want to acknowledge their participation.”

Aronsky taps his corporate contacts for Burger King and McDonald’s meal coupons and gives them to his students. He says a colleague with a hat-company connection awards baseball caps to her class. Prizes don’t have to be restricted to year-end tournaments. Seminole County Public Schools in Florida gave iPod Nanos to its top monthly DimensionM scorers in the first year of its gaming program.

Successful initiatives find broad support, so tournaments should appeal to more than hard-core gamers. Welcome the participation of special needs students and English language learners. “Tournaments are a great way to reach kids who may fall off the grid or get overlooked,” Tabula Digita’s Seto says. “Make the qualifying round as inclusive as possible.”

But David Martz, Muzzy Lane’s vice president of sales and marketing, cautions districts against allowing competition to become the center of their implementation strategy. “That element of competition certainly helps engagement, but we don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all,” he says, adding that whether the game design on its own can hold students’ interest is more important than who gets the highest score.

Perhaps the be-all and end-all of a gaming program is regular self-assessment, so districts can spot where the project may have gone off track. Feedback can come from various sources—performance data generated by the games themselves, test scores, teachers’ observations. Thoseassessments can then be turned around and used to improve instruction.

“The data is really a primer on what students are getting and what they’re missing,” Hoy says. “It’s a great way for districts to see that algebra students are getting good scores on computing slope, for instance, but maybe not doing so well on quadratic formulas.”

McCool thinks that game data should be treated like any other student-performance results and, as such, be linked to a school’s learning management system. “[It] needs to go back into the same system used for data generated from quizzes and flash activities and the other things schools are doing,” he says.

While ongoing assessment is key, districts shouldn’t place weighty expectations on their gaming programs. “The first year of an implementation, people are still getting used to a new instructional strategy,” Gendron says. “At first, our goal was student engagement and motivation for learning math. The second year is when we started drilling down to some achievement goals.”

Perhaps the most important factor in a successful game implementation is the simple courage to give something new a try. “Educators sit in meetings and talk things to death,” Aronsky says. “Real-world America doesn’t work that way. Educators shouldn’t be afraid to take the step. If you make a mistake, just revise and keep going.”


Muzzy Lane Software:


Software & Information Industry:

Stock Market Game:

Tabula Digita:

Will Interactive:

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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