Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Teens, Video Games and Civics


Exploring the relationship between gaming and civics

Video games are immensely popular, particularly among teens and young adults. Yet there is much to learn about the content and context of teens’ gaming experiences, the mechanics of their play, and the relationships between playing games and a range of academic, social, and civic outcomes.

To date, the main areas of research have considered how video games relate to children’s aggression and to academic learning. There has also been limited research on how video games contribute to (or, perhaps, undermine) the civic development of young people. To date, no large-scale national survey has examined the civic dimensions of video games.

The goal of the Gaming and Civics Survey is to provide the first nationally representative study of teen video game play and of teen gaming and civic engagement. To achieve a portrait of teen gaming, the survey looks at which teens are playing games, the games and equipment they are using, the social context of their play, and the role of parental monitoring. To explore the relationship between gaming and civics, the study examines how particular civic gaming experiences and contexts relate to teens’ civic activities and commitments. Though arguments have been advanced regarding the civic potential of video games, this is the first large-scale study to examine the relationship between specific gaming experiences and civic outcomes.

Video games: any type of interactive entertainment software; here we use the term “video game” to mean any type of computer, console, online or mobile game.

When Steve Russell wrote the world’s first video game in 1961—the two-player spaceship fighter Spacewar—he likely had no idea that more than 40 years later, the gaming industry would be an economic juggernaut and entertainment staple for the majority of the U.S. population. By some estimates, industry sales that include consoles, hardware, software, and accessories generated nearly $19 billion in revenue domestically in 2007.28 Popular video games can gross more than popular film releases: the highly anticipated April 2008 release Grand Theft Auto IV grossed $500 million in its first week of release,29 more than twice the largest domestic movie premiere to date, Batman: The Dark Knight.30

Moving beyond the polarized video game debate reveals a variety of gaming experiences and contexts.

Since their inception, there has been multi-faceted controversy about whether video games are good, bad or benign in their impact on young people. Media watchdogs like the National Institute on Media and the Family warn that video games can foster social isolation, aggressive behavior, and gender bias.31 Research by psychologists Craig Anderson, Doug Gentile, and Katherine Buckley finds that that violent video games and violent media can normalize violent, aggressive, and otherwise anti-social behavior32 Researchers at the University of Maryland express concerns that video games may promote gender stereotypes.33

Others, like Mark Bauerlein argue that video game culture distracts youth from such disciplined activities as reading that ultimately pay greater dividends.34 Kaiser Family Foundation data suggests that without counting games played on a computer, online or not, that the average teens spends 49 minutes a day playing console or handheld games and 43 minutes a day reading magazines, books or newspapers.35 In addition, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and author of Bowling Alone, notes that traditional social leisure activities like card games have been replaced by electronic versions that lack social interaction.36 The concern is that youth are spending an increasing amount of their time alone, leaving less time for the social group interactions that develop the civic skills. Not only may youth have less time for civic life, but less inclination to participate.

On the other side of the argument, many scholars dispute the strength of findings regarding the negative impact of video games. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, for example, argue that evidence showing video games promote aggression and violence is often exaggerated by those with strong ideological leanings.37 James Gee adds that “video games are neither good nor bad all by themselves, they neither lead to violence or peace. They can be and do one thing in one family, social, or cultural context, quite another in other such contexts.”38

Highlighting another facet of the discussion around games, scholars call attention to the “tremendous educative power” games have to integrate thinking, social interaction, and technology into the learning experience.39 Responding, in part, to those who argue that games isolate individuals, Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams find that games are not necessarily isolating, and can open up new game-based social networks.40 New media scholars, such as MIT’s Henry Jenkins, argue that video games and other forms of digital media have “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.”41

These debates raise important considerations. They highlight the importance of varied youth gaming experiences and contexts. At the same time, these discussions are often polarized and public consideration of video games’ is often framed in terms of video games being “good” or “bad.” Lost is attention to the diversity of gaming experiences and the significantly different social contexts that surround game play. Hence, this study explores that diversity of gaming experience and context.

Educational games

Educational games are part of this diversity and now comprise a significant sector of the video game market. These games combine a traditional game’s entertainment features with learning objectives. The game franchise Carmen Sandiego, for example, began with a focus on teaching history and geography, later expanding into other subjects, while another game, Lemonade Stand, teaches economic principles through player operation of a lemonade stand. This is an increasingly lucrative part of the gaming market. For example, LeapFrog, a designer of technology-based educational games, reported net sales of $442 million for 2007.42

In addition, new media scholars have pointed out the educational potential of a broader group of video games through which players develop valuable social and learning practices. Games scholar David Williamson Shaffer and his colleagues write, “…games bring players together—competitively and cooperatively—in the virtual world of the game and in the social community of its players.”43 Indeed, many games require that youth work together as a team to a far greater degree than when they are working on most classroom assignments. The interactive components of many video games encourage students to take part in the learning process, which turns passive learners into active ones. Furthermore, visual learning through games can help simplify otherwise complex topics, as seen in the success of Kurt Squire’s simulation game Supercharged! in helping teach students physics.44

Civics and Game Play

In addition to detailing the form, content, and context of teen video game play, this report examines the relationship between video game play and civic participation. This focus stems in part from concerns voiced by many regarding the civic health of the nation.45 As a panel of experts convened by the American Political Science Association reported in 2006, “Citizens participate in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge and enthusiasm, in fewer venues, and less equitably than is healthy for a vibrant democratic polity.46 And these problems are particularly significant when it comes to youth.47

As discussed below, some believe that youth video game play can help respond to these concerns by fostering desired civic outcomes, while others believe that video games may be making matters worse. Prior to this survey, no large-scale quantitative study has examined the relationship between video game play and civic outcomes. Although a nationally representative large-scale correlational study such as this one will not fully resolve the debate regarding the relationship between video game play and civic outcomes, it can inform the dialog around this issue. Specifically, it can provide evidence regarding characteristics of the gaming experience and context that are positively or negatively related to varied civic outcomes. In addition, it can provide indicators of how frequently (or infrequently) young people have these civic gaming experiences and assess the degree to which factors such as race, social class, and gender are related to whether youth have these experiences.

Traditionally, democratic communities have been characterized by face-to-face encounters that bring diverse individuals together in physical places to address shared concerns. Participants negotiate differences and identify common priorities, novices are mentored by more experienced community members, teamwork enables effective coordination of members’ varied skills, and collective action addresses shared goals.48 Some political scientists argue that the growing use of the internet (though not necessarily of video games) is replacing time spent in these types of communities and that the isolating qualities of the internet may undermine the social connections that make such communities possible.49 Some digital media scholars, on the other hand, argue that video games and the contexts of video game play provide young people with experiences of democratic community. The “new participatory culture,” according to Henry Jenkins, “Offers many opportunities for kids to engage in civic debates, to participate in community life, to become political leaders—even if only through the ‘second lives’ offered by massively multiplayer games or online fan communities…. Expanding opportunities for participation may change their self-perceptions and strengthen their ties with other citizens. Empowerment comes from making meaningful decisions with a real civic context.”50

Currently, the research that explicitly examines the civic and political outcomes related to video game play is in its infancy. Professors Sasha Barab and Kurt Squire have examined the use of entertainment video games like Civilization III for educational purposes in social studies classrooms and found that it boosted student interest in historical topics while deepening students’ appreciation for the ways varied factors such as geography and economics were related to particular historical outcomes.51 However, most video game play does not happen in the classroom, and there is limited evidence regarding whether games, as they are typically played, provide experiences that translate into participation in a democratic community or promote real-world civic and political participation. Digital media scholars such as Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams argue that some types of games, like massive multiplayer online games (MMOG), can and often do promote social capital and, in particular, expose players to a diverse range of worldviews.52

Gaming and Civics Research Topics

This study explores three key topics with respect to teens’ civic lives. First, it looks at the quantity of game play. Political scientists have raised the concern that technology and other forms of entertainment are replacing time people used to spend involved in community activity.53 Given this possibility, the project investigated whether the total amount of video game play has any relationship to teens’ level of civic and political engagement. The Gaming and Civics Survey also asks whether teens who play games every day spend more or less time involved in such civic and political activities as volunteering, following politics, protesting, etc. The project also examines whether teens who spend a large amount of time playing games are more or less likely to be interested in and committed to civic and political participation.

Second, the survey explores the civic characteristics of game play by looking at the qualities of these experiences. Research finds that certain classroom-based civic learning opportunities—e.g., simulations of civic processes, volunteerism, discussion of controversial issues, youth voice, membership in extracurricular groups, and opportunities to learn about history, government, law, and economics — appear to foster desired civic outcomes even after controlling for prior civic commitments and demographics. Many experiences in game play are similar to these classroom-based civic learning opportunities. Those playing games often simulate civic action, help or guide other players, participate in guilds or other groups associated with the game, learn about social issues, and grapple with ethical issues. In this report, these activities are defined as civic gaming experiences. This survey assesses how often teens have civic gaming experiences, which youth have these experiences, and whether these experiences are related to more (or less) real-life civic and political engagement.

Third, the project looks at the social context of game play. Political scientists and sociologists have found that social interaction around shared interests can build social networks and social skills that foster civic and political engagement.54 Digital media scholars note that game play can vary considerably both in how much it promotes social contact between players and in the different ways it connects people (both online and in person).55 This survey also considers the social activities around game play—both online and in person—and how they relate to civic and political engagement. Finally, the study looks at how often youth have social interactions around the games they play (e.g., online discussions about a game) and how these interactions relate to civic and political outcomes.

The goal of this research is to provide the public—from parents to policymakers—with a broad understanding of teen gaming today and how variations in that play relate to an individual’s level of civic and political engagement. Further, the survey expands our collective knowledge about the kind of civic gaming experiences teens have and how those experiences relate to political and civic engagement.

Before presenting the findings, a caveat is necessary. While this study can identify relationships between civic gaming experiences and civic outcomes, the cross-sectional data collected in this survey cannot tell us if these experiences caused civic and political engagement. Experimental and longitudinal data are needed to establish causal relationships between civic gaming experiences and civic outcomes. It may be that gaming experiences promote civic engagement. Many civically oriented gaming experiences parallel classroom based civic learning opportunities that have been shown to foster desired civic outcomes. But, in this case, causality may flow the other way as well. Youth who are more civically interested and engaged may well seek out games that provided civically oriented experiences. Thus, while analysis of this data can inform the burgeoning conversation regarding video games and civic development, more work in this area is needed to understand many of the relationships described in the report that follows. For more in-depth analysis of the civic engagement questions covered in this report, please see the white paper titled “The Civic Potential of Video Games” at

  1. NPD Group, Inc.
  2. Feldman, Curt, “Grand Theft Auto IV steals sales records.”
  4. National Institute on Media and the Family, “Fact Sheet—Effects of Video Game Playing on Children,” (accessed July 8, 2008).
  5. Anderson, C., D. Gentile, and K. Buckley, K. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  6. A. Brenick et al., “Social Evaluations of Stereotypic Images in Video Games,” Youth and Society 38:4 (2007), pp. 395-419.
  7. Bauerlein, Mark, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) (New York: Penguin Group, 2008).
  8. Rideout, V., D.F. Roberts, and U.G. Foehr, U. G., Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8—18 Year-Olds (Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005), p. 7.
  9. Putnam, R., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2000), p. 104.
  10. Kutner, L., and C. Olson C., Grand Theft Childhood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).
  11. Gee, James, Why Video Games Are Good for your Soul (Vancouver: Common Ground Publishing, 2005), p. 5.
  12. Shaffer, D.W., et al., “Video games and the Future of Learning,” Phi Delta Kappan 87:2 (2005), pp. 104-11.
  13. Steinkuehler, C., and D. Williams, “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11 (2006), pp. 885-909.
  14. Jenkins, H., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, White Paper (Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2006).
  15. LeapFrog Announces Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2007 Financial Results. Retrieved June 2, 2008
  16. Shaffer et al., “Video Games and the Future of Learning.”
  17. Squire, K., et al., Electromagnetism Supercharged! Learning Physics with Digital Simulation Games. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Learning Sciences, 2004, Santa Monica, CA.
  18. Lopez, M.H., et al., The 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Detailed Look at How Youth Participate in Politics and Communities (Washington, DC: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2006).
  19. Macedo, Stephen, et al., Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation, and What We Can Do about It (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2005), p. 1.
  20. Galston, William A., “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education,” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001), pp. 217-34; Putnam, Bowling Alone.
  21. Dewey, J., The Public and Its Problems (Athens: Swallow Press, 1927/1954); Dewey, J., Democracy and Education (New York: Free Press, 1916).
  22. Putnam, Bowling Alone; Nie, N., “Sociability, Interpersonal Relations, and the Internet: Reconciling Conflicting Findings,” American Behavioral Scientist 45 (2001), p. 420.
  23. Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.
  24. Squire, K., and S. Barab, “Replaying History: Engaging Urban Underserved Students in Learning World History through Computer Simulation Games,” International Society of the Learning Sciences (2004), pp. 505-12.
  25. Steinkuehler and Williams, “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name.”
  26. Putnam, Bowling Alone; Nie, “Sociability, Interpersonal Relations, and the Internet.”
  27. Putnam, Bowling Alone; Smith, E.S., “The Effects of Investment in the Social Capital of Youth on Political and Civic Behavior in Young Adulthood: A Longitudinal Analysis,” Political Psychology 20 (1999), pp. 553-80; McFarland, D. A., and R.J. Thomas, “Bowling Young: How Youth Voluntary Associations Influence Adult Political Participation, American Sociological Review 71 (2006), pp. 401-25.
  28. Steinkuehler and Williams, “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name.”
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