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Young Donors: Not Just Playing Around

(Oct. 14, 2008) When you look at teenagers these days you may only see the reflection of a video game in their eyes as they stare slack-jawed in concentration clicking a controller and manipulating a virtual world. But that doesn’t mean they are withdrawn from the outside world, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and many of their online experiences may drive offline interests in philanthropy.

A survey of about 1,100 youth ages 12-17 found that 97 percent of Americans in that age group play some kind of video game, whether it is an XBOX console, a computer game or a portable game on a cell phone. They play a variety of games, including violent games recommended for higher age levels, but teens also report frequently playing games where the objective is to help others and learn about and solve problems.

In fact, around half of teen “gamers” report playing games where they think about moral and ethical issues (52 percent), help make decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run (43 percent) and learn about a social issue (40 percent). These sorts of experiences are referred to by the study as “civic gaming experiences” and can be predictors of interest in being involved civically or charitably.

“The survey indicates that youth who have these kinds of civic gaming experiences are more likely to be civically engaged in the offline world,” notes the Pew report. “They are more likely than others are to go online to get information about current events, to try to persuade others how to vote in an election, to say they are committed to civic participation and to raise money for charity.”

Online Worlds, Offline Activity

Teens were categorized into three groups—those with the least civic gaming experiences, those with average civic gaming experiences, and those with the most civic gaming experiences. Teens with the most (top 25 percent) civic gaming experiences were more likely to report interest and engagement in civic and political activities than teens with the fewest (bottom 25 percent).

“The report may reveal a key reason why some charities are reporting success by having a presence in online virtual worlds such as SecondLife,” said Michael Nilsen, senior director, public affairs. “Younger generations are very much dialed into and enjoy these sorts of online experiences, so if you can reach them while they are in this environment, you have a better chance of getting a positive response.”

Nilsen added that he’s seen a slight, but increasing number of stories recently about charities either creating their own videogames or adding charitable elements to videogames. “Charities are slowly but surely realizing that they need to meet younger donors on their own ground where they are most comfortable, and that means a video game or online.” 

The study also found that these civic gaming experiences occurred equally among all kinds of game players regardless of family income, race and ethnicity.

“We need to focus less on how much time kids spend playing video games and pay more attention to the kinds of experiences they have while playing them,” noted Professor Joseph Kahne, director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College and co-author of the report.

Parents are advised to pay close attention to the adult content their child may be hearing or seeing in video games, the report notes. But with games that involve the creation of complex virtual communities, there is certainly a parallel for teens’ ability to be drawn into real-world community building.

This is good news for fundraisers looking for the next generation of enthusiastic volunteers, supporters and donors. It may be easier than once thought to motivate teens to do good outside in the world and dare we say it? Face to face.

The Pew report and a detailed press release can be found here.

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