Gaming parents, action videogames and civic engagement (Ferguson et al., 2010)

Christopher J. Ferguson (Texas A&M International University) sent a copy of his study to Kotaku Australia about the relationship between civic engagement and action video games. The article, as of this writing, is currently in press at Computers in Human Behavior.


The positive and negative influences of violent/action games, henceforth called “action games”, remains controversial in the scholarly literature. Although debate continues whether action games influence aggressive behavior, little research has examined the influence of action games on civic engagement. The current study addresses this gap by examining the correlation between exposure to action games on civic engagement and on-line prosocial behavior in a sample of 873 teenagers. Results indicated that girls as well as teens who had parents who were more technologically savvy tended to engage in more civic behaviors. Exposure to action games predicted more prosocial behavior on-line, but did not predict civic engagement either positively or negatively. However, exposure to action games and parental involvement interacted to promote youth civic engagement. Action-game-playing-youth whose parents were involved in game play and supervision were most civically involved, compared to youth who did not play action games, or whose parents were less involved. These results indicated little support for the belief that exposure to violence in video games decreases prosocial behavior and/or civic engagement. Conversely some support was found for the possibility that playing action games is associated with small increased prosocial behavior and civic engagement in the real world, possibly due to the team-oriented multiplayer options in many of these games.

I hate it when there’s an in press article because it hasn’t yet been assigned some bibliographical data, such as year of publication, volume number, and page number. It annoys me that I had to manually check back on these articles and update my database.

According to Wikipedia, civic engagement is defined as “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern”. Marina Bers wrote an article in that special issue of the Review of General Psychology about videogames and civic engagement. She argued that videogame is a social medium allowing people socializing with each other, an important element for civic engagement. She identified reactions to game updates, for example protests to class updates in World of Warcraft, is an example of civic behaviours and community participation. I find myself musing whether discussions of video game research among gamers is also an example of civic engagement. Maybe this can translate to the real world on other public policies, like health care. Second, she argued that certain videogame aspects, such as civic-contextualized game content and rules like in Civilization series and Simcity, are effective in promoting civic engagement. Third, games that have no connections to civics can promote civic engagement by encouraging skill and behaviours relevant to civic. For example, she cited MMORGPs players engagement in governance, team building, leadership and organization.

Ferguson and Garza spent a good half page discussing a study by Gentile et al. (2009) and the problems in disentangling violence and prosocial behaviours in action videogames, something about multicollinearity. The authors reasoned why prosocial and violent game play are highly correlated is because action videogames contain prosocial themes, such as helping others, defending a country, rescuing hostages, etc. Taking a different lens, these prosocial themes also justify violence and viewing and accepting justified violence is correlated with aggressive behaviours.


The data came from a national telephone survey conducted in 2008 by the Pew Internet and American Life project, full details of the survey is available online.

Participants: 873 children, average age is 14.6 (range 12 to 17, SD = 1.7). equal gender ratio.


Given the participants were surveyed through the telephone, it should be noted that participants can’t be interviewed for a long time nor asking them some detailed questions and their responses are self-reported (i.e. they might lie). Many of the measures asked general questions lacking specificity. I added some suggestions that may increase the validity of the measures for future studies.

Parent involvement: four items answered on a frequency scale (e.g. never, sometimes, etc.). I’m thinking more in line of specific parental behaviours in relation to videogames, such as talking about videogames (sharing strategies, story, opinions about characters, etc.), videogame play self-efficacy, playing with child’s friends.

Parental Tech savvy: four items answered on a yes/no basis. The questions basically ask whether they own a laptop and/or cellphone and whenever they go on the internet or email. Not exactly what I had in mind about tech savvy, I was thinking more in line of using social networking sites, blogging, shopping on the internet, online information seeking, internet self-efficacy, internet culture knowledge (derp),  blackberry/iphone/ipad ownership, computer self-efficacy, internet literacy, knowing how to use the v-chip…, etc.

Violence exposure in action games: children were asked to list their three favourite games they regularly played. The titles are then cross-referenced with their ESRB rating in order to rate their violence rating. The three games’ rating were summed and multiplied with the play time which makes up the violence exposure in action games measure.

Youth Civic engagement: 10 items, 5 items about their civic behaviours and the other 5 about their civic attitudes. Go ask an expert on civic engagement.

On-line prosocial behaviour: six items answered on a frequency scale. The items’ interrelatedness is at an alpha of .66, which means there are some weak connections between the items and perhaps to the concept of on-line prosocial behaviour. Actually, I think two items “help or guide other players” and  “Organize or manage game groups or guilds” seem to have face value as prosocial behaviour, but the others like “play a game that explores a social issue you care about” seem to relate a different concept, more like civic attitude, although I can see how it relates to prosocial behaviours, I’m not sure how strongly they relate. Taking a chapter from Paul D. Hastings’ Handbook of Socialization, prosocial behaviours would include empathy, sympathy, compassion, concern, comforting, helping, sharing, cooperating, volunteering, and donating.


An interesting correlation is that parental involvement is positively correlated with higher exposure to videogame violence, the authors argued that more parents become comfortable are thus are less concerned about action videogames. Gender effects are noted, girls tend to play less action videogames.

Multiple regression analyses were conducted and the authors took care of minimizing multicollinearity. So, civic engagement was

Konata Izumi (Lucky Star) plays with her tech savvy and gamer father

higher among girls, among older children and among technologically savvy parents. Violent exposure in action videogames was not significantly related to civic engagement. However, an interaction effect was found that civic engagement is positively related with parental involvement and violence exposure to action games. So, if you have parents involved in gaming with you and play a good amount of violent action games, you are more likely to be  civically engaged. On a related note, perhaps parents who can communicate well with their children, including learning some gamespeak, may raise their children more easily than those who don`t.

The authors conducted a second regression to disentangle violent exposure from general videogame play or maybe because gamers who play a lot of action games are also playing on-line a lot too. So, they included total time spent of video games as a control variable. They found that exposure to violent action games is still significantly related to on-line prosocial behaviours. I would’ve asked if they would distinguish offline play versus online play, or solitary play versus social play, perhaps it would give a clearer idea than play time. It’s not included in the question set, but that’s just a suggestion for further study.

The authors listed some limitations due to the correlation nature of the study. The effect size is small, i.e. don’t be surprised if you are not wholesomely more civically engaged than others. Causation is not established. The need for more control variables, although I wish I knew what to control for. The survey had asked parents’ civic engagement, but its reliability was weak and was not included in the analyses.

On a related subject, the article reminded me of a blog post about Peter Mantello who was critical of war videogames, such as the Call of Duty series and in particular America’s Army, in how they perpetuate stereotypes of America’s enemies. Such critique would lead to concerns about the impact of military videogames on beliefs and attitudes towards international politics and specifically attitudes towards foreigners.

On another separate note, this study has shown directly that action videogames is positively correlated with civic engagement, perhaps taking a bigger picture would be interesting. I’ve taken a liking in examining the layers of gamer culture as important factors in media effects research, from the dyadic interaction between player and videogames to videogame journalism to the policy decisions of videogame companies. The survey included questions about internet activity related to videogames, however the wording was specifically about participants’ videogames and not videogaming in general. This create some confounds that perhaps youth do regularly visit videogaming websites, like kotaku, gamespot or webcomics like Penny Arcade or Nerf Now! As I recall, reading the news is positively related to civic engagement, when it comes to videogame news, readers are probably engaged in videogame civics and perhaps by extension to civic engagement.

Ferguson, C. J., & Garza, A. (2010). Call of (civic) duty: Action games and civic behavior in a large sample of youth. Computers in Human Behavior . Doi:  10.1016/j.chb.2010.10.026


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