PaxSims isn’t really a gaming blog, despite the overlaps between gaming and simulation, and despite the game geek backgrounds of its primary authors. Nonetheless, some of the findings from a recent study of The Civic Potential of Video Games by Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Chris Evans may have implications for some of our prior discussion of human-moderated versus computer-moderated simulation, as well as the conversation we’ve been having on using MMOs as a model for multi-player, distributed simulation.
The study as a whole focuses on a range of research questions:
The Quantity of Game Play Do teens who play games every day or for many hours at a time demonstrate less or more commitment and engagement in civic and political activity? Do they spend less or more time volunteering, following politics, protesting?
The Civic Characteristics of Game Play Do teens who have civic experiences while gaming—such as playing games that simulate civic activities, helping or guiding other players, organizing or managing guilds (an opportunity to develop social networks), learning about social issues, and grappling with ethical issues— demonstrate greater commitment to and engagement in civic and political activity than those with limited exposure to civic gaming experiences?
The Social Context of Game Play Do teens who play games with others in person have higher levels of civic and political engagement than those who play alone? Does playing games with others online have the same relationship to civic engagement as playing games with others in person? How often do youth have social interactions around the games they play, for example participating in online discussions about a game? How do these interactions relate to civic and political engagement?
The Demographic Distribution of Civic Gaming Experiences Do factors such as gender, family income, race, and ethnicity influence the frequency of civic gaming experiences that members of these groups have? Do certain games provide more of these experiences than others?
The finding that I found most interesting, and which relates to the issues that I mentioned above, was this one:
Teens who play games socially (a majority of teens) are more likely to be civically and politically engaged than teens who play games primarily alone. Among teens who play alongside others in the same room….
Interestingly, this relationship only holds when teens play alongside others in the same room [emphasis added]. Teens who play games with others online are not statistically different in their civic and political engagement from teens who play games alone
We were curious as to whether the lack of relationship between civic engagement and playing with others online was due to the depth of interactions that occur online. Playing with others online can be a fairly weak form of social interaction, where two players never speak or interact and play only for a short time. It may also include longer and more sustained networks where players join a guild and play games in an ongoing and coordinated fashion. Researchers suggest that the more intensive form of online socializing, for example, in a guild can offer many of the benefits of offline civic spaces that less-intensive online social play may not. To shed light on this issue, we compared those who participate in guilds with those who play alone only. We find no difference between the two groups’ level of civic and political engagement. The relationship between guild membership and two civic outcomes (volunteering and raising money for charity) are marginally significant (p < .10).
Now, there are all sorts of ways in which the relationship between playing together in person and civic engagement could be a spurious relationship. Both, for example, could be a function of a particular personality type. At the same time, however, they might also suggest that the socialization experience is in some ways fundamentally different if it occurs online or in person. If so, it has obvious implications for efforts to design educational and training simulations which attempt to use online communication as a proxy for face-to-face interaction.
It should also be noted that certain types of cooperative online play were associated with greater civil engagement, in particular “organizing and managing game groups and guilds.” Again, the causality here is difficult to entangle, but there could be interesting implications for the way online experiences are constructed (in MMOs, for example), and the socialization that results from this.
Hat-tip: Megan Fitzgibbons, McGill University’s frighteningly-efficient political science liaison librarian.