My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Teens, Video Games, and Civics

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?
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3 comments to Teens, Video Games, and Civics

  • Steve

    danah,

    A few months back, when I was looking at your essay in “Rebooting America” , I also read and responded to Douglas Rushkoff’s article on gaming and government. His proposal is perhaps tangential to your own points above, but I think the discussion might illuminate some issues in the area of gaming as a feature of civic life.

    I’m going to reproduce a paragraph of his essay, together with my comment.

    ******* Begin Excerpt ********

    Gaming and government are actually one and the same. While we have to actually govern using the Constitution, we can�t let it become so set in stone that we lose the ability to game with it. Our nation is both a functioning nation and a model for a functioning nation. Imagine a discussion of urban planning conducted through a simulation like SimCity. Or a model for local currency developed in a community within Second Life. How about reconfiguring the Electoral College model based on a year of in-person collaborative processes practiced by groups using Meetup.com? Or consider a bottom-up editorial process for amending the Constitution itself, pairing traditional legislative processes with the mass participation offered by wikis and other collective authorship tools. Or, finally, how about engaging the next generation of citizens in all of these collaborative online processes as a way of instilling curiosity and civic practices that will surpass what currently passes for debate in the chambers of Congress?

    *******End Excerpt ********

    ******** My Comment *********

    “Not Sure I Trust Gamers to Rule”

    Douglas,

    I’m not sure your idea works. Here’s why.

    Admittedly, I am not an online gamer (except for a profound addiction to the “hexagons” board game) so maybe I’m full of stuff here. But my impression of the participants assembled around venues such as “Second Life” has not been a positive one. Do these people not have a life IRL? How can anyone possibly invest such effort in constructing a fantasy world when the real world stands in such dire need of constructive input? One is driven to suspect motives of which rank escapism is one of the less ignoble.

    Aside from the particulars of today’s participant base, which of course could be subject to change, there are more fundamental objections.

    One is that it makes a difference whether the world one participates in is seen as “real”. Surely you’ve had episodes of lucid dreaming where you’ve taken the opportunity to act out fantasies not advisable within the constraints of real life. Participants in multiplayer gaming environments must unavoidably act with the knowledge that at the end of the day (or the end of a weekend binge 🙂 they log out and are back in the only world we actually have – the world that remains when the computer is turned off.

    A similar concern with a slightly different focus is that the experience of interpersonal interactions in online venues cannot replicate the quality of interaction IRL. Eye contact alone becomes a profound issue (except for those of us who live with some variety of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and don’t do eye contact much anyway).

    This is hardly the venue to seriously take up the criticism that the online environment has been constructed disproportionately by ASD-affected individuals and hence gives an autistic flavor to the entire online culture – but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it – as I now have.

    Writing in 1933, Count Alfred Korzybski in his book “Science and Sanity” put forward the (profound and correct, IMO) aphorism “The word is not the thing for which it stands” aka “The map is not the territory.” Let’s apply his thought to this issue by saying that even the best constructed model is not the process it represents, and must always miss important features of that process at the edges of its domain.

    That being said, it might be good fun to do some governance experiments online for those who enjoy such things. Something useful might even be learned. But I’d recommend applying such results to real life with much caution and the proverbial grain of salt.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

    And, a final observation. Some years back some young friends and I were in the local arcade, and they drew me into a first person shooter multiplayer arcade game. It was a profound and interesting experience, and I could easily see “what all the fuss was about”. As we were leaving the arcade, I commented to one of my friends – “you know, the most dangerous drug in America isn’t alcohol, cocaine, or heroin – It’s adrenalin. Had I known as much about neurotransmitters then as I do today I probably would have said “adrenalin and dopamine”. Aside from that, the comment stands.

    -Steve

  • I’m not entirely sure I understand what your position is on this. Kids use gaming as an escape. I see it as being very destructive toward development of social skills – but not sure anything can be done about it either. Monitoring and Talking?

  • John

    @Stan Smith I don’t agree with you said about gaming as being “very destructive toward development of social skills” I would think that you haven’t played a video game before Mr. Smith. Most, if not all, of today’s video games incorporates a social interactive community that enables players to socialize with other players. I honestly have learned a lot of what’s good in people by playing video games than by interacting with people who I meet outside of the game. Yes, it becomes an escape. However, it becomes an escape to the harsh realities that we all encounter at some point or another in our lives and for us gamers , it’s one way of relieving ourselves of the pain , an outlet to breathe and a means of recuperation. People who doesn’t have full understanding of video games shouldn’t carelessly voice out personal opinions especially when not backed up by substantial facts let alone personal and real experience. You just have to experience it to understand it . That just how it is.