Video Games Myths Revisited: New Pew Study Tells Us About Games and Youth

Some years ago, I published an essay, “Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked” in conjuncton with the PBS Documentary, The Video Game Revolution. At least once a month, I see the article has been discovered by another blogger who is bringing it to the attention of his or her community, so I know that there continues to be interest and uncertainty about many of the issues that it sought to address. A recent report released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project offers some valuable new data about the place video games play in the lives of American young people. T

At the most basic level, game playing has become more or less universal. Fully 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games. 50% of teens played games “yesterday.” I’m thinking about all of the moral reformers who note, whenever there is a school shooting, that they knew the suspects would turn out to be a gamer. I’d say the current statistics suggest that the odds are very much in favor of them being right but the claim is now meaningless. Indeed, many are suggesting that in such a context, the term, “gamer,” may be obsolete — at least as a description seperating those who play games from those who don’t. It may, however, still work much like the term, “reader,” to distinguish those who gain some kind of social identity through their relations with games from those for whom game playing is simply one activity among many.

The Pew research may also force us to rethink once again the assumption that there is a gender gap in terms of who plays games: “99% of boys and 94% of girls report playing video games. Younger teen boys are the most likely to play games, followed by younger girls and older boys. Older girls are the least “enthusiastic” players of video games, though more than half of them play. Some 65% of daily gamers are male; 35% are female. Girls play an average of 6 different game genres; boys average 8 different types.”

A decade ago, when Justine Cassell and I edited From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games the picture was dramatically different: many were worrying that girls were being left out of this particular version of the digital revolution and that there would be social and educational consequences of this “gender gap.” The new statistics show that this gap has significantly closed and that even other patterns people have observed (that boys play games more often, that boys play more different kinds of games, and that boys play games over a longer period of their lives) are starting to shift, though we can still see traces of these earlier patterns in their data. If you are interested in the gender-specific nature of game playing, you should check out Beyond Barbie® and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner and Jennifer Y. Sun) and due out from MIT Press any day now. This book updates our earlier collection with cutting edge perspectives from a new generation of games scholars who grew up with this medium. Justine and I wrote a new piece for the book reflecting back on the context of gender and games in the mid-1990s and looking forward to new challenges confronting the industry today.

The Pew Data complicates easy generalizations about the place of violent entertainment in the lives of American teens. For example, the five most popular among young Americans are Guitar Hero, Halo 3, Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolution. Of these, only Halo 3 would qualify as a violent game. Over all, non-violent genres were the most popular. But, 50% of boys name a game with an M or A/O rating as one of their current top three favorites, compared with 14% of girls. (0ne of those places where gender really does make a difference in how people relate to games.) 32% of gaming teens report that at least one of their three favorite games is rated Mature or Adults Only. 12- to 14-year-olds are equally as likely to play M- or AO-rated games as their 15- to 17-year-old counterparts.

The Pew Data further challenges the idea that game playing is a socially isolating activity. The researchers found “65% of game-playing teens play with other people who are in the room with them. 27% play games with people who they connect with through the internet. 82% play games alone, although 71% of this group also plays with others. And nearly 3 in 5 teens (59%) play games in multiple ways — with others in the same room, with others online, or alone.” As someone who has watched games over the past two decades, I would argue that game play has always been more social than many non-gamers expect. I recall my son and his friends going to each other’s houses as a kind of victory house when they beat a level in a challenging game, showing the others how to do it and helping them over the hump. Indeed, playing a game alone is often seen as a rehearsal mode, getting ready for more social forms of play, much like a kid bouncing a ball against a house and catching it, because there aren’t people around to play ball with. The Pew data suggests that for many kids, games is sometimes social, sometimes solitary, but most have a healthy range of different ways of engaging with the games medium.

The Pew Research does indicate some areas where parents should be concerned about the gaming lives of their sons and daughters. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of teens who play games report seeing or hearing “people being mean and overly aggressive while playing,” and 49% report seeing or hearing “people being hateful, racist, or sexist” while playing. However, among these teens, nearly three-quarters report that another player responded by asking the aggressor to stop at least some of the time. Furthermore, 85% of teens who report seeing these behaviors also report seeing other players being generous or helpful while playing. Many of us believe that cyberbullying is a much more real concern than the worry that playing violent games might somehow make young people more aggressive in the real world. A decade ago, the digital world felt like a safe space for many young geeks, especially when compared with school hallways or gyms, but now that everyone is playing games and going on line, the bullies are showing up there too and young people are having to confront in cyberspace those problems which haven’t been resolved in the real world. It isn’t that games make kids more aggressive; it may be that real world aggression and conflict is spilling over into games.

The Pew Research also challenges the prevailing myth that most parents are worried or alarmed about their young people’s relations to games. 62% of parents of gamers say video games have no effect on their child one way or the other. 19% of parents of gamers say video games have a positive influence on their child. 13% of parents of gamers say video games have a negative influence on their child. 5% of parents of gamers say gaming has some negative influence/some positive influence, but it depends on the game. I see this data less as an indication of the “actual effects” of game play on children but rather as an indication that most parents have come to accept games as a normal part of American childhood and that more of them now see positive benefits than negative harms. After all, a significant number of contemporary American parents were part of that first Nintendo generation, grew up playing Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog, and are thus less likely to be panicked by an unfamiliar technology in their living rooms. Many discussions about games and parenting fail to reflect this generational shift in who these parents are and how they think about this medium.

There’s lots more to chew on in the Pew report, including some interesting suggestions about the civic impact of games and whether online play has the same social value as face to face play. I am hoping that this new data will further sharpen the conversations around games.

For more interesting insights on these questions, check out the podcast of a recent CMS colloquium, “The Myths and Politics of Video Games Violence Research,” featuring Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, authors of the recent book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. If you don’t know this book, you should since like the Pew research, it challenges many common assumptions about this issue, daring to ask and find answers to basic questions about the place of violent games in young people’s lives.