With young people spending as much time online playing games as they do on homework, Brunel University academics Dr Simon Bradford and Nic Crowe explain how the findings of a three-year study show this is no bad thing.
Computer games are central to the lives of many young people. Online gaming, the ability to play against other gamers across the internet, has only added to the form's potency.
Millions worldwide immerse themselves in virtual worlds
A recent UK survey highlighted that 82% of nine to 19-year-olds have at least one games console and 70% play computer games online.
The stark fact is that many young people spend as much time playing video games as they do doing their homework.
Concerned parents reading these statistics may have a sharp intake of breath. To them, this is proof that their children spend too much time being "anti-social" in front of a screen.
It is not that simple. Having researched gamers for three years, we have found that it is far from an anti-social activity.
The complexity and structure of most games means that teenage gamers are actually learning vital skills, which will stand them in excellent stead as they prepare for the labour market.
The focus of our study at Brunel University has been an online java-based gaming world called RuneScape operated by a small UK developer Jagex.
On the surface, RuneScape is similar to its more well-known American cousins, Warcraft, and Everquest, with its Tolkienesque environment and role-play in which the emphasis is on character development rather than special progression.
What makes RuneScape different and particularly interesting as a site of research, is that is not only instantly accessible (you can be playing in under five minutes from login) but it is also free.
This makes it extremely attractive to young people.
We noticed was that, rather than forfeiting existing friendships, teenagers logging into the game environment are actually adding to their group of friends.
This was because they meet different groups in different, virtual, meeting spaces.
"I like to come here and enjoy the scenery," said a 14-year-old player called Katspaw.
"We just come here to meet and chat, it's nice up on the cliffs looking over the ocean. I meet my sisters and we just hang out."
Some players in Runescape relax by admiring the view
It was surprising to see to the extent to which this idea was taken by the players.
Downtime places in the virtual world were treated similarly to material meeting places - players escape from real life into a fantasy environment where one can simply enjoy the sights and chat to friends.
In RuneScape, however, this is taken to extraordinary extremes.
"One of my favourite places on Rune is the Braxton Waterfall," said a 16-year-old player using the name Axegrrl.
"You can just sit back by the river and relax. I could watch the water for hours it's so pretty. Not that many people come here so it's a great place just to be, you know."
Axegrrl wants a place where she can escape from the everyday world and have time to herself and she treats the virtual world as though it was real.
RuneScape characters are avatars. They cannot really sit and the waterfall is little more than a photo with a few pixels that suggest movement, but for Axegrrl this represents a real location that induces peace, tranquillity and a palpable sense of relaxation.
Axegrrl admits she has never seen a real waterfall or sat by a real river, but she uses the virtual experience to imagine how an event in real life might actually feel.
Hard at work
The most interesting factor we found among the gamers involved the other aspect of their online lives - work.
We noticed how they divided their time between work and play - an activity that is largely managed for schoolchildren and is often first learned with the independence of university education.
Axegrrl describes how she spends the first part of her gaming session at work, smithing and mining.
This is how she generates income with which to buy the things she needs in the RuneScape world: armour, food, clothes and so on.
These work locations, particularly mining areas, often attract many users so she seeks quieter places to chat or wind down from the stresses of work, in the same way she might do after school or work in the material world.
The study showed that players use the virtual world not only to recreate the real world, but to explore all sorts of experiences that would otherwise be closed to them.
For example gender, race or class, can be less or more important than they might be in the material world.
We found young men whose online identities are female, young women who control online clans in Runescape and young people who regard their main in-game activity as work.
RuneScape provides some young people with an arena in which they can play with identity and act out experiences that may be impossible in the material world.
All of these findings have implications for educational work with young people.
They show that, as well as being enjoyable, the gaming worlds offer young people the chance to develop important social and cultural skills which carry significance for real life.
The act of gaming is a very complex one. Those who view teenage gamers with disdain and concern might find themselves surprised to see youngsters who are actually very socially accomplished.