As Fred noted, there is a new, excellent-as-always report out from the Pew Internet & American Life Project – “Teens, Video Games, and Civics.” [PDF] To get it out of the way up top – no, not really, there’s not much positive correlation in terms of civics and game-playing. Nor negative. This is in part because being a teen means playing games today – 97% play some games, 99% of boys and 94% of girls. But also (and as the report points out), a single data point often isn’t enough to really draw out relationships between categories of behavior – you need longitudinal data for that, to see if, e.g., long-term people substitute civic activism for game-playing, vice versa, there’s a positive correlation between the two, etc. As of now, a first study is a good place to start.
There’s a lot to pull out here, but a few points bear mentioning especially. Teens today continue to follow the general pattern of all Internet users for as long as there’s been an Internet in one key way: a very small minority of them are involved in virtual worlds/IVEs/MOOs. For as long as there’ve been stats on this, somewhere between 5-10% of those online have participated in these worlds – for teens today, it’s 10%. That makes it by far the least popular genre of games, no contest – by contrast, 74% play racing games, 72% puzzle games, 68% sports games. MMORPGs are the next-least-popular genre of games, with only 21% of teens playing one.
I have a hard time not saying again and again, “I told you so,” here, and won’t resist the urge with this data. As fascinating as IVEs and MMORPGs might be, it is beyond a doubt at this point that they represent intensely exceptional behavior in terms of any possible population. The future keeps not being MOOs, MUDs, the Metaverse or Second Life. Because more or less everyone is online, now [87% of teens in the last Pew study], it’s not for lack of opportunity – they just want to do other things. And what they want to do is play all sorts of other games with their friends – 65% of teens play games with friends in the room with them, 27% with friends online, and only 24% play games only alone.
All of this adds up to a number of conclusions, but chief among them is that the portrait of Internet users and/or gamers as reclusive loners is more or less a total figment. Games are social, because people are social. Some people aren’t social, but most are – and in a population who all play games, and almost all of whom are online, those who play games or are online non-socially are the exceptions, not the rule.
Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting things to ask and find out about those people who are exceptions – from other data Pew collected here, it’s clear that users of IVEs and especially players of MMORPGs are different and different in interesting ways from other teens, generally. What this data calls for is more thorough ethnographic investigation of the communities of practice within the group “gamers” which is at this point synonymous with the group “teens” and, increasingly “people.” And I want that research to happen! But it shouldn’t be generalized – it should be contextualized.