Back in May, I was invited to give a presentation to a group at the MacArthur Foundation about four opportunities for libraries. The fourth opportunity I discussed was gaming, highlighting the social interactions that we’re seeing happen in libraries and explaining how they provide a unique context for this type of activity. I noticed they had bemused smiles on their faces as I finished but didn’t realize why until they told me they’d just finished conducting a study with the Pew Internet folks and that the preliminary data supported my claims that videogames have become a very social activity for kids today. They were still processing the data so they couldn’t share specifics with me, but they promised everything would be available in a few months.
Luckily, that report, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, finally came out last week as a PDF you can download for free. The subheading on the main page gives you a general idea of what they found: “teens’ gaming experiences are diverse and include significant social interaction and civic engagement.” Gamasutra has a great summary of the report , so I’m just going to highlight a couple of the statistics I found most interesting.
- â€œ97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games. 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video gamesâ€¦. Understanding the nature of game play is vital to understanding how nearly every American teen spends at least part of many of their days.”
This is a great summary of why librarians need to understand gaming and offer programming around it.
- â€œThe 5 most popular games played by American teens are Guitar Hero, Halo 3, Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolutionâ€¦. The range of genres spanned by the most popular games played by teens indicates they are not simply playing violent first person shooters or action gamesâ€¦. The two most widely played game genres were racing and puzzle games, played by nearly three-quarters of teens in the sample.”
I could go on and on, and I was going to in this post, until I read the accompanying report, The Civic Potential of Video Games (PDF), from the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College. In fact, this second report literally *screamed* “LIBRARIES” as I was reading it, and I’ve written that word in many places in the margins. While the first report has the great statistics, the second one delves deeper into those numbers and takes some guesses at what it all means. It actually makes a very strong case for gaming in libraries, even though it doesn’t mention us at all anywhere in the text. Some highlights from the Mills College report, along with some commentary.
- â€œAlthough public debates often frame video games as either good or bad, research is making it clear that when it comes to the effects of video games it often depends. Context and content matter.â€
This is where libraries come in – we provide context and content, because traditionally these are two of our greatest strengths. We do this in so many of our existing services – reference, literacy, recreational reading, etc. – and we can do this for gaming, too.
- â€œFurthermore, interactions in video games can model [John] Dewey’s conception of democratic community – places where diverse groups of individuals with shared interests join together, where groups must negotiate norms, where novices are mentored by more experienced community members, where teamwork enables all to benefit from the different skills of group members, and where collective problem solving leads to collective intelligence.â€
- â€œCivic participation requires that young people develop confidence in their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a sense of agency) to act as leaders and to work productively for change. To the extent that youth have the opportunity to practice articulating their own point of view, debate issues, and help others in their own communities, they are likely to develop confidence in their ability to do so in the larger civic and political arenas. Finally, civic and political activity is largely a group activity. Youth organizational membership is believed to socialize young people to value and pursue social ties while exposing youth to organizational norms and relevant political and social skills that make maintaining those ties more likely.â€
Combined with the Thinkering Spaces model, offering more of these opportunities is one of the most powerful visions of the future of the public library for me, and it certainly creates the “transformational experience” referred to in the OCLC report that they believe causes taxpayers to vote yes in support of libraries.
- â€œThese results suggest that the frequent concerns in the media and elsewhere about the ennui and disconnection among those who play video games for long periods of time may be misplacedâ€¦. 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. Interestingly, this relationship only holds when teens play alongside others in the same room.â€
- â€œAmong teens who write or contribute to websites or discussion boards related to the games they play, 74% are committed to civic participation compared with 61% of those who play games but do not contribute to these online gaming communities. They are also more likely to raise money for charity, stay informed about political events, express interest in politics, try to persuade others to vote in a certain way, and attend protests or demonstrations.â€
What this says to me is that the combination of teens in a social gaming space, mentored by information guides (librarians) who provide scaffolding for a positive civic experience, combined with the availability of free internet access, is a constructive gaming experience for promoting civic engagement in today’s youth. Public libraries are uniquely qualified to provide that experience, and it’s almost “low-hanging fruit” for us, as we have fewer barriers to that experience than schools do.
- â€œApproximately one-half of teens, for example, have played games that led them to think about moral or ethical issues. However, relatively few teens (typically under ten percent) report â€˜oftenâ€™ having particular civic gaming experiences.â€
Realistically, it will be years before civic gaming experiences are fully integrated into the classroom, a process stunted by No Child Left Behind because it de-emphasizes civics and social studies. This is yet another digital divide libraries can help bridge by providing the types of civic experiences gaming in a social context promotes.
- â€œMost of the group-gamers (49%) play with friends in person, with 77 percent of group-gamers reporting playing games with others in the same roomâ€¦. Overall, 76 percent of youth play games with others at least some of the time.â€œ
So if there are benefits to playing games together, is it better for kids to play with a small circle of friends at home or to bring them together with a diverse group of peers from their community, surrounded by the knowledge of the world, with information guides standing at the ready to help them?
- â€œCivic education research leads us to suspect that parents, peers, teachers, and mentors can significantly increase the impact of civic gaming experiences by helping adolescents reflect on those experiences.â€
Note that the Pew gaming report doesn’t even mention the word “libraries” anywhere in it. Seriously. How can that be? In addition, MacArthur reports constantly refer to afterschool programs but donâ€™t specify libraries. If we want to sit at the table of this discussion, we need to assert our unique position to address the issues these reports raise.
- â€œCivic and political participation among youth is quite unequal. The voting rate of 18-29-year-olds who had attended college was fully three times greater than the voting rates of 18-29-year-olds who had notâ€¦. By equalizing civic learning opportunities, we may be able to help to equalize civic and political participation – a fundamentally important goal in a democracyâ€¦. Civic gaming experiences may be a means of more equitably developing teens’ civic skills and commitmentsâ€¦. Increasing the frequency of such experiences is likely necessary to effectively tap the civic potential of video games.â€
Again, I donâ€™t see schools being able to increase the frequency of such experiences across the board in the current environment. Libraries, on the other hand, are well-suited for this.
- â€œBoth within games and in their offline lives, it is clearly important that youth have space to develop their own ways of engaging civically and, along with such opportunities, that they receive guidance and support from those with more civic and political experience.â€
See what I mean about how this report has “libraries” stamped all over it? One of the things we need to consider is how we can create optimal spaces and experiences to encourage these types of interactions, because we provide a unique set of conditions that the structured, time-limits of the school day just can’t provide.
So in addition to the diverse range of social interactions that take place around gaming in libraries, the relationships it helps build between librarians and users, the literacies kids inherently learn playing many videogames, and the draw to the library so kids learn more about the services we have to offer them, we can now add civic engagement to the list of benefits. The ROI on offering gaming just keeps getting better and better.
If all of this feels foreign to you, it may be that you’re not a gamer or you don’t interact with kids who are gamers, because anecdotally, I hear what these numbers say all the time from librarians offering gaming. I hear it most loudly from Eli Neiburger at the Ann Arbor District Library, someone who has fostered an online and physical community of kids who are passionate about the Library because of its gaming programming. In his book Gamers…in the Library??, he talks about how you can level up the discourse by engaging kids around content they care about. In fact, back in May, he presciently submitted a proposal to talk about civic engagement at GLLS2008 (which he’ll be giving on November 3). In addition, I’m happy to say that Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist at Pew/Internet and the lead on the gaming and civics report, will be presenting a ssion on this data at the gaming symposium, so this is going to be a hot topic.
If you haven’t witnessed this type of behavior in person, I encourage you to attend a library gaming event and/or talk to librarians offering this service yourself. I hear the comments week in and week out, usually unprompted, but don’t take my word for it. Obviously I feel pretty strongly that there’s a big role here for libraries to play if we just recognize and grab it, but you should learn more so that you can decide if gaming is right for your library. There’s also a lot more in both of these reports, including information about parental education/ involvement and implications for school libraries, so I highly recommend them as food for thought.