Video games and civics

I wonder if Barack Obama and John McCain have a campaign presence on Second Life. If not, maybe they should.

A new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and co-authored by the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group, estimates that that 97 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 play some kind of video game.

More than half of the young gamers surveyed said they considered moral and ethical issues while playing, while 43 percent made decisions about how a community, a city, or a nation should be run.

It also found that civic engagement in gaming was spread equally across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.


A Mills College white paper delved into more detail about how games like SimCity and World of Warcraft have the potential to involve young people in American democracy. (That this is a real need has been well documented: The Center for Research on Civic Learning and Engagement recently found that 58 percent of youth were “disengaged” from electoral or civic activities, such as voting or volunteering.)

Kids who play SimCity, for example, are cast as mayor and are responsible for setting taxes and investing in infrastructure. Here’s one exchange, which was included in the Mills paper:

sedimenjerry (Traveler)5/192:26 pm
I used to have a large city with a population of
about 670,000
Now it is about half of that.
Why is the population decreasing so much?

Maxis92(Dweller) 3:38 pm
Well, your situation is pretty vague and it could
be a number of reasons.
Could you give us a brief idea of how your city
develop when it was at 670,000 to now (crime
rates, education, jobs, commute time, pollution,
taxes, etc.)

Hahayoudied (Loyalist) 5:59 pm
We can’t shoot your problems in the dark, why
not give us some information about your city,
and if you have changed it.

sedimenjerry (Traveler) 5/20 1:05 pm
oh sorry that would help
it is on a large city tile and within a half a year
(simcty time) it declined sharply. demand is still
high for commercial res. and industrial. crime
has gone down health is fine garbage has gone
down. there are no power or water outages.

What lessons can be taken from this study? Do you see the potential for schools to tap into this technology to make civics and democracy more relevant to youth? Are some teachers doing it already?

image from taka_aka_T’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Sue

    It wouldn’t work with my sons – they think Sims are “booooring”. They have to buy their own video games, and have gone for other titles but not WoW, either.

    OTOH, they liked to tag along when DH and I went to vote (until they got old enough to be left at home alone, anyway) and they semi- pay attention when we’re talking politics, elections, candidates, city measures, state propositions, etc. If they throw out a comment in those conversations, we’ll respond reasonably even if their ideas are sometimes naive. I’ve been pleasantly surprised more often than not by their insights and lack of naivete.

    I think they’re getting it, and will be part of the 42% engaged instead of the 58% disengaged – it’s the same civic-minded child-rearing that my parents and DH’s practiced, and it seems to have worked pretty well.

  • Katy Murphy


    Sue, you are way beyond me with your online acronym-speak. It took me a few minutes, but I finally figured out what that meant.

  • Nextset

    I suppose the Sims games might force the kids out of their magical fantasies that people behave in ways we want them to behave. People do as they damn well please – with survival being high among the motivators (followed by food, fun, sex, family or whatever). A Sims game might be one way to introduce the concept of free minds and free markets, until the kids learned to rewrite the code of the game so that the people would behave and take orders from God.

    When I speak of Civics I’m thinking of structure of government and government operations – not volunteering. I tend to follow Ayn Rand on Alturism. I’m no longer a Rotary member.

  • Sue

    I’m sorry, Katy. I didn’t intend to be unclear.

  • Katy Murphy

    No need to apologize, Sue! I was actually making fun of myself.