I’m not a gamer. My friends know this about me. The game system that I was most into was the SNES — I still have Final Fantasy 2 (IV), Final Fantasy 3 (VI), Chrono Trigger, and A Link to the Past sitting on my shelf — and my favourite post-90s game is Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii (though the WiiU sequel is coming out this year in English, and I am super psyched). What you might notice about these games is that they’re all “JRPGs,” Japanese Role-Playing Games. They tell a story as they go, and, unlike many of their open-world shared “MMORPGs” (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), they aren’t games you play with other people — unless like me you sit around with your partner alternately strategizing and taking turns as navigator. As one of the oldest Millennials, I realize that this is one respect in which I’m a bit of a Gen X holdover. But it also gives me a little bit of insight into how the older generations might view video game playing as a solitary experience.
But it’s just not. Not anymore.
Even if you’re not sitting around with four friends, four controllers, (hopefully weak) bottles of beer, and whatever version of MarioKart or Smash Brothers is your favourite, these days gaming is a social event for most people, and it’s only Gen-Xers (and not all of them, thankfully) and older generations who fail to see this point.
Thus it comes as no surprise at all to me to see that the Pew Research Center has released data this week that demonstrate how important gaming is to the social lives of today’s youth.
The headline is that “Video Games Are Key Elements in Friendships for Many Boys,” but it’s not just boys by any stretch of the imagination.
The study, which looked at around a thousand teens aged 13-17 in the US, reported that boys were both more likely to be gamers than girls (84% vs 59%), and were more likely to be “social” gamers either in person (45% at least weekly vs. 20%) or over the internet (67% at least weekly vs. 18%). But that means that even roughly one in five girls 13-17 was playing games online, and roughly the same were playing games in person, if more frequently the latter).
The data are broken down by frequency, age, gender*, and more. They also report on the number of online gamers who play with friends only versus with anyone online, and the number who use voice chat while playing online.
It’s also unsurprising to me that girls use online voice chat less often than boys — even accounting for the fewer online gamers among the girls. Among just those populations who do play online games socially, 71% of the boys were using microphones to talk with other players, while only 28% of the girls were doing the same. While not terribly scientific, I’ve known women who weren’t interested in letting others online know they were female for fear of (sexist) repercussions.
Even so — and even though for boys it’s more often a pleasant experience than girls — for everyone gaming appears to be (in general) a positive experience, with 86% of the boys and 72% of the girls reporting that online gaming made them “more relaxed and happy.”
I strongly encourage anyone who’ll listen to go take a look at the Pew report, definitely if you know a teenager, and especially if you have a negative stereotype of what a gamer is in your head. Because chances are that teen you know is a gamer, and they probably do a lot of their socializing that way. Especially (but not exclusively) if they’re a boy.
You can find the whole thing, complete with commentary and graphs, at the Pew Research Center’s report on Teens, Technology, and Friendships.
*well, male and female, anyway.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer, as well as a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s studying remix culture and the processes that generate texts. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and the changing nature of socialization in an increasingly technological world) here at This Week In Tomorrow.