Joe Kahne: The Civic Potential of Video Games
9.16.08 | If the stereotype of the lone gamer is accurate, we would expect video game play to undermine participation. Our analysis of the gaming and civics survey, however, found no evidence to support the stereotype of gamers as socially isolated and distracted from the broader society. Teens who frequently play video games are just as likely as those who play infrequently to be civically and politically engaged - to volunteer, give money to charity, try and convince someone to vote, express interest in politics, commit to improving their communities, and to take part in protests and demonstrations. Moreover, when we asked teens whether they had “civic gaming experiences” such as helping or guiding other players, thinking about moral and ethical issues, and learning about social issues, we found that teens who frequently had these experiences were much more likely to be civically and politically engaged - to raise money for charity, to be interested in politics, etc.
Similarly, we found some forms of social interactions around video games (e.g. playing with others in the room, contributing to web sites, organizing and managing guilds) were related to civic and political activity, while others were not. This finding raises important questions for future research about when and why the social life around a game may support civic life.
Finally, we found that exposure to civic gaming experiences is equitably distributed across most demographic groups. This finding is encouraging given current inequities in school-based civic learning opportunities.
Clearly, there is much more work in this area to do. Our study, for example, identifies relationships between experiences playing video games and civic engagement. It does not make causal claims. We suspect causality flows in both directions - youth who are already civically engaged are probably drawn to games that provide civic gaming experiences. At the same time, we suspect that having civic gaming experiences reinforce players’ civic commitments and skills. We know that when youth have these kinds of experiences in classrooms, that it fosters civic commitments even when controlling for students’ prior interests.
There’s also much to learn about school and after-school based efforts to promote civic gaming experiences. Can schools harness young people’s interest in video games to create engaging curriculum that fosters civic engagement? And to the extent that games foster such engagement - do they also affect the values and kinds of analysis that drive that engagement? If so, in what ways?
In an effort to more fully discuss these findings, my colleagues at Mills (Ellen Middaugh and Chris Evans) and I drafted a white paper, The Civic Potential of Video Games that compliments the broader Pew report Teens, Games, and Civics. The white paper discusses our findings and sketches out implications for parents, educators, youth, and game designers interested in tapping the civic potential of video games. It concludes by highlighting priorities for future research. We would, of course, be very interested in your thoughts in relation to any and all of this.
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