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Video Games and Civic Engagement

If you think teenagers who play video games are insular or antisocial and that video games will draw them away from civic participation, consider a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The study, released Sept. 16, finds that teenagers’ gaming experiences are often social and have earmarks of civic engagement.

The large-scale study adds a new dimension to the research on teenagers and video games, which generally has focused on the impact on academic achievement and negative social effects, especially aggression.

More understanding of video game activity is a good thing, because 97 percent of teens ages 12-17 play video games, according to the study, which looked at a wide spectrum of interactive entertainment software that is played on computers, television-attached consoles, online, or handheld devices. The data was collected by a national phone survey of 1,102 teens, and their parents or guardians, from November 2007 to Feb. 5, 2008, by Princeton Survey Research Associates.

Teenagers’ time and frequency playing video games is not clearly related to most civic outcomes, the study found, but “some particular qualities of game play have a strong and consistent positive relationship to a range of civic outcomes.”

Gamers who play video games with others in the room, for example, more often go online to get information about politics, have raised money for charity, say they are committed to civic participation, and have tried to persuade others how to vote in an election, compared with teenagers who play video games without others in the room.

And teenagers who take part in social features related to the games, such as commenting on Web sites or contributing to discussion boards, are also more engaged civically and politically than those who do not.

Of course, young people get civics opportunities at school, but other studies have found that those experiences tend to be unequally distributed--with wealthier, higher-achieving, and white students having more opportunities than other students.

“Civic gaming experiences are more equally distributed than many other civic learning opportunities,” the study found, with teenagers equally likely to report having civic gaming experience regardless of race, age, or income. That finding was not true, however, of girls, who spend less time gaming and play a narrower range of games.

The researchers underscored that their work shows correlations between game playing and civic engagement—not causal links. Future researchers should look at whether, and how, games encourage teenagers to get involved in their communities, whether online or in the real world.

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