‘Loner’ image out: For teens, video games often social

Those who played games with a civic component to them were actually more likely to engage in such activities, a new report finds.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    At play: Jacob Lynch (left) jokes with his friend Brett Oppido after beating him at a video game, which they play every day after school in Santa Clara, Calif.
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Breaking news: Teens play video games. A lot.

But it might not always be so bad for them.

That’s one conclusion of a new report examining teens’ gaming habits, socializing, and civic engagement.

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While the study found that 99 percent of teenage boys and 94 percent of teenage girls play video games, it didn’t find that those who very frequently played games were more socially isolated or less likely to participate in civic activities.

Those who played games with a civic component to them were actually more likely to engage in such activities.

“It matters what kind of game you play more than how long you play it,” says Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and a coauthor of the report, which was released Tuesday. “There’s a debate about gaming ... that is quite polarized.... The intention behind this report is to open up and put some numbers behind some of these questions about games.”

To start, those numbers make it clear that video and computer games have become a standard part of most adolescents’ lives. Not only do nearly all teens play them, but nearly one-third of teens play games every day, and an additional 21 percent play games three to five days a week.

While boys reported playing slightly more often and for longer periods of time than girls, there was little difference of any kind when it came to ethnicity or income.

And the researchers found no basis for one of the frequent criticisms of gaming, that kids who play video games are loners who are socially isolated. In fact, they discovered, three-quarters of all teens play games with others at least some of the time, and about half play with friends they know from their offline lives. Daily gamers were just as likely to communicate with their friends and spend time with them face to face as their peers who don’t play games often.

Parker Seagren, a sophomore in Barrington, Ill., says that about 80 percent of the time he plays games – usually Xbox games like “Halo 3,” “Gears of War,” or sports simulations – he plays with friends from school, either in person or connected virtually. “I don’t think playing video games really affects kids that much,” he says, though he notes that his own game-playing goes down during the school year when he’s busy with school and sports.

Still, critics have been quick to target video games, in particular, as related to a variety of teenage problems, from obesity and reduced attention spans to antisocial behavior and violence.

Some parents say it was hard for them to accept gaming as an acceptable activity, especially since it’s not a medium they used much as kids.

“My first reaction was, ‘I don’t understand it,’ ” says Jeffrey Wiener, a father of 9- and 12-year old boys in New York and director of a company that helps develop educational games. But at a certain point, he says, he realized that what his sons were doing wasn’t all that different from the time he spent with friends running around in the yard with their hands in the air shooting at each other and taking on various roles.

“They’re doing virtually exactly what I did as a boy,” he says. “The gaming world is now a natural part of their playtime.”

In particular, Mr. Wiener says, he’s come to appreciate the social-networking nature of some of the games his sons play. He began noticing that his 12-year-old son, Zach, was playing with his cousin, whom he rarely got to see in real life. In “Halo” and other games, “there’s this collaborative teaming that takes place,” Wiener says. “The games now are ones where teamwork and narrative are more a part of them.”

Still, Wiener sets limits. Games like “Grand Theft Auto,” which he sees as celebrating the killing of people just for the sake of chaos, are out. And he questions the value of something like “Guitar Hero,” where kids spend a lot of time simulating playing the guitar, rather than learning an actual musical instrument.

Games’ content, in fact, may make a difference, say the authors of the Pew report. One goal of the study was to find out what correlation, if any, there was between frequent game-playing and civic behavior.

While the study found that the quantity of gaming seemed to have no effect on kids’ civic involvement, they did identify certain “civic gaming experiences.” Some games encourage mentorship and teamwork between players, have players learn about a social issue like famine or the environment, or force them to make moral and ethical decisions. In others – like “SimCity” or “Civilization” – players have to make decisions about how a community or nation should be run.

The kids who frequently have these sort of experiences are much more engaged civically and politically than their peers, reporting greater interest and involvement in politics, volunteer activities, and raising money for charity.

The researchers emphasize that the correlation doesn’t demonstrate causality: Kids naturally inclined to be civically involved, for instance, might seek out more civic-minded gaming experiences. But the correlation, researchers say, does raise interesting questions about the ways parents, educators, and game developers can tap into the variety of games and encourage more positive experiences.

“The incredible diversity of gaming opportunities out there means we need to think in more nuanced ways about what kids are doing and what the effects of those experiences might be,” says Joseph Kahne, dean of Mills College’s School of Education in Oakland, Calif., and a coauthor of the report. “To the extent we get locked into a ‘games are good’ or ‘games are bad’ framework, we’re not going to be able to offer useful advice or guidance to parents. We’re going to be shutting everything down or opening everything up.”

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