New research shows gamers make better citizens

New research claims that, far from being mind-numbing escapist entertainment, video games help prepare young people for productive, socially balanced lives.

Dr. Kathy Sanford at University of Victoria in British Columbia spent the last five years studying kids ages 13-17 and their relationship with games, creating qualitative insights into behavior. This week she presented her findings to thousands of delegates attending a university conference on humanities. Though unfamiliar with games at the outset of her research, she found that the kids who play them take away a lot more than is often understood by their parents.

"I found that the participants were very concerned about ethical and moral decisions, about the nature of what they are doing in the game," she told Polygon. "This wasn't something I had expected to find. They are very concerned about the consequences of their actions so they think about their decisions and the different consequences."

Sanford says that parents, often unfamiliar with video games, worry that these adventures take their children further away from the demands and realities of real-life. But her research suggests the opposite. "They make choices and they note consequences," she said. "They think about what it all means. In a lot of instances these are transferable thinking and skills as they move into secondary learning or the workforce."

She noted examples, such as the boy who played Guild Wars 2 and became a clan leader, growing in confidence and using new-found inter-personal skills in classroom group projects. Or the child who became engrossed in historical details of a fictional game, and bought a book to learn more about the real history involved. She also said that games today are often gateways to broader communities through social media, that offer different opportunities for human interaction and creativity.

Players have to do a lot of problem-solving and strategizing

Shooting games, often held up by gaming's critics as a negative influence over young minds, have their benefits, she said. "Those games are much more than just running around and shooting people. Players have to do a lot of problem-solving and strategizing in order to advance in the game. They have to negotiate with team-members and understand strengths and weaknesses and working with others. Players report a lot more happening than randomly going around shooting people."

Dr. Sanford said that games are better at teaching children than more passive, linears forms of entertainment and media. "They are more powerful and more impactful. Players talk about how it makes them feel when they do something that has negative consequences for people. It makes them feel bad and they don't like feeling bad. I suspect that is not the same for everyone but certainly with the youth that we have been dealing with, after they have played around with a game they choose to not do things that have negative consequences to the people they connect with."

Games give people an opportunity to make mistakes, to try out theories

Emily Treat is a senior producer at Games For Change, which seeks to promote gaming as a positive agency in life and education. She said, "As opposed to it being a passive experience, people are active within games, you can immerse people into scenarios and situations that they may not otherwise be immersed with in real life. This gives them an opportunity to put themselves in other people's shoes and empathize and understand what it's like to be somebody else."

She added, "Games give people an opportunity to make mistakes, to try out theories. They can learn how to evaluate information, to make decisions based on what's presented to them."

Sanford said, "It's important for parents to talk to kids about the games they play and begin understanding the nature of the experiences and of the stories, of what is going in in these fantasies, rather than lumping all games together."

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