Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 17:22 UK

Computer games drive social ties

Guitar Hero screenshot, Activision
Guitar Hero has proved a big hit with teenagers

Far from turning teenagers into anti-social loners, video games help them engage with friends and community, says a report.

The Pew Internet study of US teenagers found that few play alone and most join up with friends when gaming.

It found that many used educational games to learn about world issues and to begin to engage with politics.

The report also found that gaming had become an almost universal pastime among young Americans.

Community chance

The survey of 1,102 teenagers aged 12-17 revealed that 99% of boys and 94% of girls across the socio-economic spectrum play some kind of computer or video game.

The most popular title was Guitar Hero, followed by Halo 3, Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolution.

Most teenagers played a variety of different titles, said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, who wrote the report.

"They range in terms of their content from things that are about solving problems to things that are about going out and shooting things, or driving things, or racing things, or playing a sport," Ms Lenhart said.

But, she said, being a player did not mean being a loner.

"Three quarters of teens actually play these games with other people, whether online or in person."

Even playing games every day does not appear to impact teenagers' social lives.

What we say to parents is pay attention to the games that your child is playing..., and look for games that offer your child opportunities to have more civically-minded experiences

Amanda Lenhart

"People who game on a daily basis are just as likely to talk on the phone, to email, to spend time with a friend face to face outside of school as kids who play games less," she said.

Mature rating

It was also a mistake to think that video and computer games were divorced from real life, she added.

The study found that 52% of the teenagers played games that involved thinking about moral and ethical issues, 43% played games in which they made decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run, and 40% played games where they learned about a social issue.

This included specifically educational titles such as the "Food force" and "Darfur is dying", but also more mainstream games such as Civilization.

Teenagers who were forced to confront problems in virtual communities were more likely to raise money for charity, volunteer, stay informed about political issues, persuade others to vote or march in a protest or demonstration.

Screenshot of Darfur is Dying,
Many young people are playing games with a serious message

Ms Lenhart said the report revealed that the amount of time spent playing computer games didn't dent the amount of community engagement the teenagers took part in, but that teenagers who played with other people in person did tend to be more engaged with their communities.

It remains an open question whether community-orientated games were responsible for these behaviours or whether more socially-conscious teens were more likely to play these sorts of games in the first place.

Those at Pew, Ms Lenhart said, "suspect that actually the interaction goes both ways." Although the study did not answer the question, she noted that previous research has suggested that similar exercises can directly influence social interaction and community engagement.

The report also revealed that games rated "Mature" and "Adults Only" were also popular among teenagers, with one third of game-playing teenagers claiming to play games aimed at adults.

"These games that are rated 'Mature' and 'Adults Only' generally have intense violence, blood and gore, they'll have mature humour and language, nudity or sexual situations or scenes," said Ms Lenhart.

On the basis of their findings, Ms Lenhart recommended that parents monitor the games their kids were playing.

"What we say to parents is pay attention to the games that your child is playing, see what they do in the games, and look for games that offer your child opportunities to have more civically-minded experiences," she said.

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