By Tim Barker
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Ultraviolent games such as “Grand Theft Auto” get the attention. But for video-game playing teens, including a growing number of girls, it’s about more than explosions and car chases.
They use video games to stay in touch with friends. They play a wide range of titles featuring puzzles, music, sports and role playing. And the right games may even encourage teens to be more involved in their communities, according to a study released Tuesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
“Gaming isn’t taking kids out of the social mix. It is a part of their social lives,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist with Pew.
Teens liking video games is no surprise — though the fact that 97 percent of them said they played one kind or another surprised the researchers. And while shoot’em-up games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo” are popular, there’s a lot of diversity in gaming.
The top three genres named by survey participants were nonviolent: racing, puzzles and sports. Action games, including the controversial “Grand Theft Auto” series, came in at number four.
To some degree, this reflects the impact of gamers like Stacy Ross, 17, of Columbia, Ill., who favors titles such as “Super Mario Brothers.” “I’m not really into sword fighting and killing things,” he said.
There was a time not long ago when video game discussions centered around male gamers in their teens and early 20s, and their preference for action and adventure. But the ranks of gamers have been swelled by girls, who often go for puzzles — the classics “Solitaire” and “Tetris”, for example — and simulations — like “The Sims.”
The survey found that 94 percent of girls play video games, on computers, portable players, gaming consoles or cell phones. Boys still play more often, with nearly twice as many boys as girls considering themselves daily gamers.
The Pew study, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” is based on a national telephone survey of 1,102 teens, ages 12 to 17, and their parents, conducted from November 2007 to February 2008.
While there is no historical data with which to compare the Pew numbers, some experts see the high percentage of female players as a sign that gaming has evolved into a widely accepted form of entertainment.
Gary Rudman, a California-based teen market researcher, credits the 2006 launching of Nintendo’s Wii with making games more accessible.
“It’s opened up a world of gaming to nongamers,” said Rudman, who tells the story of a frustrated teen, unable to play his Wii because his grandmother won’t stop playing. “The Wii sort of mainstreamed it. You don’t have to have any particular video game skills.”
Another piece of that evolution is the way an increasing number of game systems allow users to play with others — something three of four gamers in the survey said they do at least part of the time, in person or online.
In a world where parents tend to keep kids on a shorter leash, it makes sense that kids connect through technology, said Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University and author of “Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation.”
“Parents are happier when their kids are at home so they don’t have to worry so much,” Rosen said. “We’re looking at a generation of kids who are growing up groping for ways to socialize.”
Games provide ways to do that, whether it’s getting together with friends, playing online or joining in discussions about game play.
Game systems like Xbox Live, with a robust online component, encourage players to test their prowess through Internet matches. That ‘attracts gamers like Logan Harris, 17, of St. Clair County.
He spends about an hour each day with his Xbox playing with and against far-flung friends and enemies. “It’s boring by yourself,” Harris said. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I’d play.”
A subset of gaming, generally referred to as massive multiplayer online games, is built around the idea of socialization. Players are often forced to work together to accomplish specific feats, forming quick friendships.
“It’s superficial, but in a good way,” said Bonnie Nardi, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Irvine, who has done extensive research on the popular “World of Warcraft.” “People feel engaged and connected.”
Another aspect of game play is harder to quantify. Researchers wanted to know whether active teen players were more or less inclined to be involved in civic activities — things like voting, raising money for charity or volunteering. The survey shows no real difference between active and less active players.
“If people are concerned that their kids might be anti-civic or anti-social, we didn’t see that in this data,” said Joseph Kahne, dean of the school of education at Mills College.
The study did find that teens who take part in social activities related to games — online forums, for example — said they are more likely to vote, follow current events and raise money for charity.
It’s unclear whether game-related social activities encourage teens to be more civic minded, or whether civic-minded teens are more likely to take part in game-related social activities.
Still, the results illustrate a factor of game play often disregarded by parents: educational opportunities. In some, players deal with moral and ethical decisions, learn to work with large groups of players and make decisions about how virtual cities and worlds should be run.
That suggests parents need to worry less about the time spent on games, and more about the types of games being played, Kahne said.
The idea that games could be beneficial is difficult for parents like Loretta Schnurbusch of west St. Louis County to accept.
Schnurbusch, who stopped by Slackers CDs and Games at South County Center on Monday, monitors the gaming of her twin 12-year-old boys. She bans games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and limits gaming through other activities.
Does she see anything positive in those little Nintendo DS units? “I don’t,” said Schnurbusch, 46. “But I think that’s just me and my age.”