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Study Shows How Video Games Effect Social Ties

September 16, 2008

A new national survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project illustrates just how ingrained games have become in youth culture.

The survey noted that while young Americans don’t necessarily play the same thing, nearly all of them – girls included – play video games of one kind or another.

The study found that 52% of the teenagers played games that involved thinking about moral and ethical issues, 43% played games in which they made decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run, and 40% played games where they learned about a social issue.

Nearly two-thirds play video games to socialize face-to-face with friends and family, while just over a quarter said they play with Internet friends.

Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at Pew who led the report on the survey, said the data shows that gamers are social people. “They communicate just as much. They spend time face-to-face, just as much as other kids. They e-mail and text.”

Released Tuesday, the survey combined the telephone responses from a nationally representative sample of 1,102 young people, ages 12 to 17, and their parents. Performed from November 2007 through February of this year, and partly funded by the MacArthur Foundation, it had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Joseph Kahne, a study co-author and dean of the education school at Mills College in California, said that even games with violent content, such as “Halo,” provided “more than average opportunities for players to help one another.”

He also looked at games’ effect on civic engagement, anything from political involvement to raising money for charity. He found that those who spent the most time playing video games weren’t any less likely to be involved in their communities.

He noted, however, that those who played games in face-to-face social settings were more likely to say they were committed to civic participation.

Mimi Ito, an anthropologist who studies the use of new media, speculates the ties that gamers make with “real-life local friends” stimulate civic engagement.

“Gaming is the reason to get together – but they’re probably talking about other things,” says Ito, who’s based at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center of Communication.

Ito now cautioned parents against negative stereotypes about video games. She says how young people play a game is as important as what they play.

Jesse Schell, a professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, hoped the report would encourage parents to learn more about the video games their children play.

“If more parents would take the time to play the same things their children are playing – or even better, play with them – it would benefit both parents and children,” says Schell, who teaches video game design.

Amongst the parents who were surveyed, about a third said they play video games with their children some or all of the time. Most of those parents are younger than 40, part of a generation that grew up playing video games themselves.

Kimberly Coleman, a 35-year-old mom and blogger in New York City, was a fan of “Pac-Man” and “Donkey Kong” as a kid. She now plays video games with her 4-year-old son, but only those with physical activity, such as Wii Sports, or an educational component.

“Growing up with video games made me more hesitant to have a gaming system in our home,” says Coleman, who doesn’t want her kids to become “couch potatoes.”

Based on the findings, Lenhart recommended that parents monitor the games their kids were playing.

“What we say to parents is pay attention to the games that your child is playing, see what they do in the games, and look for games that offer your child opportunities to have more civically-minded experiences,” she said.

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