If you play video games, are you a terrible democratic citizen?
By The Darian of Harrington
In 2018, a political science professor at Fordham University, Nicholas Tampio, wrote a provocative article entitled ‘Fortnite teaches the wrong lessons’. In this article, Tampio made the claim that individuals who play the single-player mode of the popular video game Fortnite have a greater chance of becoming “bad” democratic citizens. Tampio makes this claim because the thing that destroys democracies is also the thing that is promoted by Fortnite’s single-player mode: individualism.
In single-player mode, one works by themselves to defeat the other online players in a shrinking arena whilst gathering items that can help advance the standing of the individual. Tampio claims that the shrinking arena is a metaphor regarding the focus that the individual places upon survival, effectively degrading the value of collaboration and cooperation.
This made me want to pursue quantitative research regarding potential correlations between the types of games and game modes that individuals partake in against how well that individual represents democratic values. In order to test this, we distributed a survey to students in the late October of 2018; 537 responded
The salient questions that I will need to test video game preferences and democratic traits included asking the types of video games Denison students prefer, how many hours per week they play, and the game modes they prefer. I operationally defined ‘game modes’ into three categories: single-player mode, multiplayer with individuals that the player knows (a.k.a friends), and multiplayer with individuals that the player doesn’t know (a.k.a strangers). Additionally, the survey included multiple questions to determine the embrace of democratic norms — agreeing with statements, such as: “You really can’t be sure whether an opinion is correct or not unless people are free to argue against it.” and, “Political competition should occur without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.”
If Tampio has a legitimate claim, then those who prefer single-player mode games should be bad democrats. Furthermore, we can advance Tampio’s claim and test the data regarding multiplayer modes. In other words, if individualism in gaming impedes democratic norms, could gaming in multiplayer modes, either with friends or strangers, promote democratic norms?
Before these questions can be answered, we should consider some basic stats to show how representative Denison’s campus is regarding game preferences and time spent playing. The average student plays around 45 minutes per day; however, this number includes the whole sample, many of whom answered that they play 0 hours. For gamers, including myself, that seems like a rather small number. For those in the sample who play, the average is 2.1 hours. Moreover, according to the sample, 7% of Denison’s population plays video games 3 or more hours per day; that is around 150 students.
In terms of the types of games played, FPS (first-person shooter) and Open World games are the preferred genre for Denisonians, followed by Sports, Adventure, and Battle Royale games. Although the exponential growth regarding the popularity of Fortnite has certainly caught the attention of video games players (as well as political theorists), it has not caught the attention of Denison students quite as well.
Now that we have a sense of the gaming community on Denison’s campus, we can test the relationship between the game modes that students play and their potential affinity or lack thereof towards democratic norms. Based off of the correlations shown below, there are not any statistically significant results regarding whether a student prefers single-player mode, multiplayer with their friends, or multiplayer with strangers, and their affinity towards democratic norms. Playing individually all the time versus seldomly does not shift democratic norm commitment at all.
However, in order to test Tampio’s claim, we should look at those who spend a large portion of their day playing video games in single-player mode. Out of those who play video games for a large amount of time, those who consistently play and prefer single-player modes do not value democratic norms as much as those who do not play single-player modes as frequently.
According to these results, Tampio was correct in his claim…kind of. In extreme cases, games like Fortnite can lead players down a path that leads to the rejection of democratic norms, but it would take an unusually large amount of social isolation on the player’s part in order for that to occur and that description applies to only a handful of students in our sample (5, so literally a handful). It should also be noted that Fortnite isn’t an anomaly that is slowly depleting the value that future generations hold regarding democratic norms, rather it is the type of game mode (in this case, single-player modes) that could potentially eat away at democratic norms. So while it is possible that gaming is a democratic problem, it is highly unlikely to affect the electorate in anything approaching large numbers.
The next steps in studying potential relationships between video games and democratic norms would be to dig deeper into the discrepancies of the gaming world. Since we live in a world that constantly ingrains technology into our everyday lives, this worry of social isolation and potential rejection of cooperation with our fellow citizens could be a potential threat to future democracies.
Darian Harrington is an amateur misanthrope who is simultaneously trying to save the world with his Political Science education. When he isn’t hermiting in his room, you can find him procrastinating in Knapp.