Teens, Video Games, and Civics

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by: danah boyd

Last week, Pew released a report on "Teens, Video Games, and Civics" that made its way around the web (see posts by Mimi Ito, Amanda Lenhart, Cathy Davidson). Briefly, some findings:

  • Almost all (97%) of teens play games. They play many different kinds of games and gender is a salient factor.
  • Gaming is often social and teens often game with people they know.
  • Parental monitoring of game play varies.
  • Teens encounter both pro-social and anti-social behavior while gaming.
  • There are civic dimensions to video game play.

I want to follow-up on that last finding and the connected findings because it’s important. Games are regularly referenced as proof that the world is ending. The stereotypical image of a gamer is an oily-haired, pimply-faced geeky boy with no social skills or interest in human interaction. The prevalence of gaming amongst youth dispels that notion, but there is still a myth that those who game are anti-social. As such, it is often assumed that gaming makes people anti-social, anti-community, anti-civic.

Pew’s findings show that there is no correlation between civic/political activity and gaming. In other words, high participation in gaming does not decrease civic participation. That said, gaming characteristics and in-person social gaming are correlated with civic engagement. Likewise, in-depth participation that involves social interaction related to the game (like participating in forums) is also correlated with civic engagement. Most importantly, "civic gaming experiences are more equally distributed than many other civic learning opportunities" because teens can get access to civic gaming experiences even when they can’t get access to other forms of civic life.

In other words, participation in gaming does not cause a decrease in civic participation and, if anything, certain forms of gaming activity are correlated with civic engagement (although causality cannot be determined).

All too often, we blame technology for the downfall of society. Gaming has long been the super demon, the crux of media effects panics. It’s fantastic to have a study to point to that conclusively shows that our fears make no sense. Yet, this also raises important questions:

  • If there are correlations between civic engagement and gaming practices, can we engender certain forms of civic participation through gaming? In other words, is the link connected to other factors or is there an element of causality at play?
  • If we understand that teens with certain practices are more likely to be civically minded, can we tap them there for other forms of civic engagement?
  • Are there ways to design games that encourage civically minded participation?
  • What will it take for people to stop fearing games and realize that learning takes place beyond the classroom.

Original Post: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/09/27/teens_video_gam.html