Forget differences in race, income or ethnicity--virtually all American teens play video games.
That's the verdict of a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that renders the digital divide almost nonexistent when it comes to video games, including computer, console and mobile games.
In one of the first nationally representative studies of its kind, Pew's research also asked whether teens are being spoiled for community engagement and politics with video game play, something educators have feared as gaming's popularity has skyrocketed. The short answer: not anymore than they already were.
"Young people who play every day or for a long time are just as civically or politically engaged--volunteering in the community, expressing interest in politics, or by trying to convince someone to vote in an election," said Joseph Kahne, dean of the school of Education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif, and a co-author of the Pew report.
Some culture in game play, such as when experienced players mentor less experienced ones, can actually help promote civic engagement, he added.
Pew examined the popularity of video games among 12- to 17-year-olds by interviewing 1,105 sets of parents and teens from November 2007 to February 2008. The findings won't likely surprise parents: 99 percent of teen boys and 94 percent of teen girls play video games regularly--whether it's a casual online game, a video game console like the Wii, or a massively multiplayer game on the Xbox.
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As for a small gender divide, older girls, age 15 to 17, play video games slightly less. Ninety-two percent of older teen girls reported playing video games. "Everyone else plays at the same rate. Older girls are pulling the numbers down," said Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at Pew who worked on the study.
"What's remarkable is the near universality of video game play among teens. These kids span economic and racial groups, locations, family education," she said.
Bucking the stereotype that games aren't social, three-quarters of teens play games regularly with other people, either online or in person.
On the flip side, parents have long worried that video game play can encourage violent behavior. John Palfrey, faculty co-director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Born Digital, said there's no conclusive evidence to this effect, but there is cause for concern when a child or teen gets wrapped up in a game character that could promote violence.
"These are environments where people can explore who they are and how they want to act; and people can use them for good things and people use them for bad things," Palfrey said. "We are much too quick to blame video games."
He said one thing he finds exciting about gaming is that it's a wedge for reaching teens in positive ways. "We should think about the playfulness that games can bring to learning."