Bryan Caplan  

Socialization Via Videogames

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When people argue that school is great for teaching socialization, I've often casually remarked, "Compared to what?  School is a lot better for socialization than staying home alone playing videogames, but that's a really low bar."  But EconLog reader Joe Munson interestingly argues that I'm underrating videogames.  Reprinted with his permission:

Hey Bryan,

As a long time reader of your blog, and fellow strange person, I really enjoyed your book, though I can't help but notice that you often say in interviews school might help socialization more than video games, but I must respectfully disagree, especially now with the new online cooperation intensive games. Overwatch and StarCraft 2 are the most prominent examples, but there are more. I've always thought video games were under-respected, and as someone who couldn't get off high school to attend video games tournaments, and was prevented (or at least unnecessarily hampered) from transitioning from semi-pro to pro player.  

I now happily sell various financial products for a fortune 500 company, and will soon be happily teaching English as a foreign language, but I'll always be a bit annoyed at the school system that prevented me from practicing for the job I really wanted: gaming.

Since these types of jobs are highly competitive and short-lived, I suppose its possible school saved me from disappointment, but it certainly didn't improve my social skills, as I communicated (via speaking and typing) more during my video game sessions than during school! 

I don't even recall one high school group project that didn't turn into the guy who cares most does all the work project. 

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
JFA writes:

Sample the transcript of most online gaming sessions and you'll probably realize that most online gaming doesn't lead to the types of socialization you want for kids. That would be like saying that the comment section of internet articles is a good substitute for socialization at school. You want your kids to have face-to-face interaction. Does bad behavior happen at school? Absolutely. Is it better than the typical anonymous interaction (gaming or not) online? Definitely.

Jeff B writes:

As someone who was both a nerd/smartypants and "the new kid" at my public school in the mid 90s, the then-blossoming world of online computer games was a bit of a haven for me outside the sometimes hostile school environment (reminding me a bit of David Henderson's recent story).

Things got better over time, but I certainly agree video games are under-appreciated as a social mechanism. I even still keep in contact with many of the players I ran into over the years.

Tom DeMeo writes:

Bryan, isn't the "Compared to what?" question something you should be answering? You are the one proposing a different approach.

BZ writes:

I wonder what the twin studies had to say about socialization and isolation. It's anecdotal, but as a self-isolating son of two gregarious parents, I'm often mildly surprised how much better off I am than some others I meet.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

A marginal hour spent playing SC2 is better spent than a marginal hour wasted in high school, for sure.

I suppose it does socialize you somewhat. The game has manners, it has an ethos. You say "good luck, have fun" when the game starts, and you say "good game" when you lose. If you lose to something cheesy, it's not their fault for exploiting it, it's your fault for being exploitable. You don't whine about the game being imbalanced or players being cheesy on the ladder. You figure out what you did wrong, and you fix it.

But I don't think getting socialized is the primary benefit of playing SC2. The benefit is it's just a beautiful game and you get to participate in that. When you get better, it's not against a computer that was calibrated to be just hard enough that you could beat it, it's against the determined opposition of other humans that are also trying to win. It means something.

Roger writes:

"I don't even recall one high school group project that didn't turn into the guy who cares most does all the work project."

Truer words have never been spoken.

Rob42 writes:

Playing text-based MUDs taught me typing skills more than writing papers did in college

Max M writes:

I remember learning many of my personal values from shows like Star Trek TNG or DS9 growing up in the 90s. While video games like Myst, Simcity 2000, and MUDs kept my brain active and engaged - plus gave me a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. I would even say games like Buried In Time 2 were quite educational.

Meanwhile, in school I was a sub-par student and routinely bullied.

Keith writes:

A difference in favor of school:

Members of gaming community are self-selected. While this may have benefits, one drawback is that the socialization skills it teaches are honed only with people in one's same interest-bubble.

Of course, schools can be bubbles too. For example, private schools are opt-in, and even public schools will expose you only to people from your local community.

Perhaps socialization would be improved with more non-self-selecting exposure.

eMarkM writes:

World of Warcraft is another good example where socializing may be greater than the actual game play. While you can play solo, you're mostly encouraged to join a "guild", which is a group of like minded players that form to achieve collective goals. Most guilds are casual and act as virtual meeting places for folks to chat and organize things like 5-man dungeon runs.

But at the highest level of guild organization is "raiding". These are much more complicated "boss" encounters that require the coordination of 10-25 people, all working together in their specialized roles. To be successful you must run these at regular times, several times a week. You need a good pool of players to do 25 man raiding, so a typical core might be 30-40 people. You need to constantly recruit players from the server you're playing on, handle disputes between them, interact with the sophisticated WoW economy in order to gather the resources you need to compete and do a considerable amount of "theorycrafting" to come up with strategies in order to defeat the bosses.

To be competitive, you have to have some sort of attractive website or portal to advertise your guild to potential players and there is a great deal of discussion over the internet before, after and during your raids. The actual mashing of buttons playing the game is quite a small part of the total experience.

I quit raiding a number of years ago, but I can count several as my friends to this day from all over the world from the camaraderie built up from raiding several nights a week for the couple of years I participated in it.

Meets writes:

Growing up I made a lot of friends through video games. I rarely played alone, that gets boring.

We'd play a few hours then do something else.

Dave Smith writes:

JFA refers to the transcripts of gaming sessions as evidence that gaming does not promote good socialization.

Has he been to High School?


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