How good are computer games at teaching social-justice lessons? Serious games are so new that there's very little definitive research -- only a few tantalizing clues.
Joseph Kahne, dean of the School of Education at Mills College, in Oakland, California, and director of the school's Civic Engagement Research Group, just completed a survey for the Pew Internet and American Life Project that analyzes the link between teens' gaming behavior and their civic engagement offline.
The study found that the teens with the most civic-gaming experiences are the most likely to be involved in real-world activities such as giving or raising money for charity, participating in a demonstration, or going online to get political information. (Examples of civic gaming include those that explore social or ethical issues, ask the player to make decisions about running a community, or allow players to help or organize other players.)
According to the study, 70 percent of the teens who are frequent civic gamers say they donate to charity, while only 51 percent of teens with little civic-gaming experience donate. Likewise, 61 percent of civic gamers say they are interested in politics, compared to 41 percent for infrequent civic gamers. And 34 percent of civic gamers say they have persuaded someone to vote a certain way in an election, compared to only 17 percent of those with less civic-gaming experience.
Interestingly, Kahne's study found that even mainstream online role-playing games (such as World of Warcraft) that don't contain explicit social messages can still have a civic dimension because they encourage players to work collaboratively, hone negotiating skills, and provide opportunities for more experienced players to guide the newbies.
However, the survey presents a classic chicken-or-egg dilemma: Are civic-minded teens drawn to games with a social message, or do the games inspire civic action? Kahne suspects it's a little of both, and he compares game participation with club membership: "A kid who is more interested in civics is more likely to join a club, but it's also true that joining the club makes the student more interested in the thing the club focuses on," he explains.
"Young people who take part in those social spaces learn things and practice skills that make them more likely to be involved civically and politically," Kahne notes. "You learn how to be a leader and how to work with others. And, through those interactions, you hear about things that make you more concerned."
A few game developers seeking to gauge the effectiveness of their own materials have also launched studies. For example, the nonprofit organization behind ICED, a game addressing U.S immigration policies, commissioned the Education Development Center to survey ICED players. The EDC found that 56 percent of players said the game changed their attitude about U.S. immigration. It also found that players improved their knowledge of immigration and deportation policies, going from an average of 6 out of 12 questions answered correctly in a pregame test to 9 of 12 in a postgame test.
Kara Platoni is a freelance science writer in Oakland, California.