Study Addresses Positive Aspects of Video Games

September 22, 2008 10:41 AM
by Denis Cummings
A comprehensive new study finds that many video games promote civic-mindedness and other positive social behavior, defying common stereotypes about video games.

Gamers Are Not Loners

The Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey of more than 1,100 kids ages 12-17 and found that 97 percent of respondents play video or computer games. It refutes many common conceptions about video game players, finding that avid gamers are just as likely to be civically and socially active as occasional gamers.

“Traditionally, the image of a gamer is that of a loner who prefers spending his or her time playing video games over spending time with friends,” the study says. “Our survey refutes this stereotype, revealing that the most avid, frequent gamers are just as communicative and socially engaged as less-active gamers.”

According to the study, the amount of time spent playing is not indicative of how socially and civically active a gamer is; instead, what games are played and how they are played are indicative. Kids who play with others in the room—65 percent of them regularly do—are more likely to be socially active than those who play alone, regardless of how often they play.

The study also found that certain types of video games can have a positive effect on a player’s participation in civic activities. Most kids who were civically or politically active played games that involved social, moral or ethical issues, or played games that involve helping others or forming groups.
MSNBC’s Kristin Kalning explains how these types of games can have a positive effect on kids. “Video games can provide hands-on learning opportunities for kids that can be much more meaningful than reading a textbook,” she writes. “For instance, you can play a mayor in “SimCity,” and get a close-up look at what it takes to build and maintain a community. Helping a newbie get his sea legs in a game simulates the real-world experience of volunteering. And playing games online can expose kids to people with worldviews that differ from their own—in positive and negative ways.”

The study emphasizes, however, that there is little evidence for a causal link between video games and increased civil and social activity; many kids may be naturally drawn to play positive video games or play with friends if they are already civically and socially active.

Co-author Joseph Kahne says that the study should illustrate to parents, educators and public officials that all video games cannot be lumped together as having a positive or negative effect on gamers.

“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,” he says. “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.”

Background: Criticisms of video games

Video games have long been criticized for encouraging violence, promoting a sedentary lifestyle and isolating kids from social contact. Violence is perhaps the most criticized aspect of video games, as games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto have been blamed for inspiring violent acts.

The study does not address whether violent games promote violent behavior, but it did find that nearly a third of kids regularly played a game rated Mature or Adults-only, which often feature a great deal of violence. It also found that few parents play video games with their kids, even though they may be able to “explain and contextualize the violent or negative messages that children might pick up.”

Some video games feature negative images besides violence, including unhealthy body images for girls. A 2000 study found that video games painted a “very distorted picture” of women, with most characters featuring small waists and large breasts. A recently-released game called “Fat Princess” encouraged players to fatten up a princess, which a feminist blog said would “reinforce nasty stereotypes about women and the obese.”

Video games have been blamed for creating an unhealthy lifestyle for kids who spend hours sitting on the couch while playing video games. However, there have been some video games designed to promote exercise, such as Dance Dance Revolution and the recently released Wii Fit. The Pew study found that “rhythm” games, which include DDR, Wii Fit and Guitar Hero, were played by 61 percent of teens.

Though there is a common conception that video games are played alone in darkened rooms, most studies have found that video games are usually played with friends. A 2003 Pew study of college students found that video games enhance social life.

“What we saw was that gaming is a very social activity,” said author Steve Jones. “There might be one person at the controls, but there are five or six people looking at the screen, talking and giving advice to ‘go there’ or ‘push this button.’”

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