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The Game of Politics
What do video games do to political attitudes?
One of the purposes of this newsletter is to promote awareness of political science and research into politics. In this edition, then, I’d like to talk about some recent research into videogames and politics I found interesting.
Videogames are enormously, even alarmingly, popular. On average, Americans spend as much time playing video games as they do socializing (only 34 minutes/day), and young Americans spend a tremendous amount of time on games: about an hour and 38 minutes per day on average. That figure in itself conceals substantial variation, as some young Americans spend no time and others spend much more time on gaming.
So what does that mean for how gamers engage with politics? That may not seem like a natural question. That reflects some common if implicit prejudices. Although gaming is a major phenomenon, it’s also not a high-status one, associated as it is with leisure, pop culture, and comparatively low-status individuals. (That is changing as factors like streaming and generational turnover brings more attention and money.) Researchers who have done work on popular culture know that there’s a certain set of scholars who will turn up their nose at anyone who does work on popular things. After all, popular’s just another word for vulgar. And yet—when you have a large chunk of the population turning away from unmediated reality and toward immersive games, that certainly has to have some effects.
Enter Pavel Bačovsky, a scholar at Bates College, who investigated this question in a pair of articles published in peer-reviewed journals (“Gaming alone: Videogaming and sociopolitical attitudes”, in New Media & Society, and “From xbox to the ballot box? The influence of leisure activities on political engagement and vote choice”, in Journal of Information Technology and Politics). Bačovsky used Swedish panel data (the Swedish Political Socialization Panel) to explore associations between gamers’ habits and their political interests.
His findings are interesting, and a little worrisome. In “From xbox to the ballot box?”, Bačovsky found that gamers constitute a distinct “issue public”, a group of people specifically interested in a set of controversies and outcomes. Gamers are much more likely to support parties outside of the mainstream, especially (and remember these are Swedes) the Swedish Pirate Party. By contrast, the more avid a gamer, the more likely they were to hold ambivalent or negative attitudes toward mainstream parties (the Liberal Party, the Moderate Party, and the Christian Democrats). This, Bačovsky identifies, stem from gamers’ greater interest in “specific policy preferences that involve protecting Internet privacy and freedom of expression online.” In other words, “even seemingly nonpolitical hobby activities can significantly affect the political preferences of the partakers.”
“Gaming alone” explores how participation in gaming correlates with political and social attitudes. Bačovsky finds that, over time, intense gaming become less interested and less prosocial (that is, interested in other people) than non-gamers. The decline in prosocial values is particularly alarming given that the index to measure this was built from items asking about the importance of equality, helping other people, social justice, caring about others, and working together with others for a better society. Bačovsky describes these findings as “a cautionary tale about the adverse effects of extensive gaming on the development of democratic attitudes among adolescents.” Gaming alone, in other words, isn’t a symptom of withdrawal from the world. In politics, substantial involvement in gaming predicts withdrawing itself.
As someone who grew up during recurrent moral panics over whether video games (and, not, say, widespread access to machine guns) would make my generation more violent, I’m interested and slightly annoyed by these findings. Damn, maybe video games are bad. Bačovsky is careful to note that it might not be gaming itself but rather activities around gaming, like trolling and (although he doesn’t mention it) the batshit nature of videogame chat and (much of) gamer culture, that produce these outcomes. As a political scientist, though, I’m fascinated by the finding that our hobbies influence political behavior. This is something that deserves quite a lot more study.
I also think these findings should be taken more seriously. From college costs to housing costs to (in the United States) the absence of political representation for the young, there’s no shortage of macro, “serious” reasons why the young are increasingly dissatisfied with democracy. But maybe some part of this—some—could derive from the changing nature of youth participation in leisure. At the very least, Bačovsky’s findings suggest we need much more attention paid to gaming and gaming politics.
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