Virtual world, real world 

As young people increasingly find a sense of community online, what are the effects on their participation in civic life? Education professor Joseph Kahne explores the question.

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By Rachel Leibrock, MFA ’04 

Facebook. Twitter. World of Warcraft. 

These interactive Internet communities and games aren’t just ways for kids to pass time online, says Professor of Education Joseph Kahne, they may also be helping to transform the ways youth learn about and participate in civic and political life. 

Kahne has long studied the connection between youth and civic engagement in the traditional classroom setting, and his insights have been cited in publications from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times. His research examines what courses and experiences best encourage young people to take action such as voting, volunteering, working with others on community issues, or contributing to charity—actions that many thinkers argue are necessary for a healthy, democratic society. 

In recent years, some of his focus has moved from the classroom to the computer. “A great deal of young people’s civic engagement is going online, but what we don’t know is how that will change the overall quality of participation,” he says. “Do people become better informed online? Do they hear more divergent perspectives?” 

Kahne—who is also director of the campus’s Civic Engagement Research Group, which investigates civic learning opportunities both in and out of school—has already logged considerable time contemplating such questions. (See more about CERG at In a 2008 survey of 1,000 teenagers, conducted with the Pew Internet and American Life Project and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, he studied the quantity and quality of their civic engagement and their time spent playing video games of all sorts. 

Study results exploded a persistent myth: “We examined the image of video games being socially isolating—that the kids who are most into them are loners and a little strange,” he says. “But in fact, we found that kids who play video games tend to be more socially engaged than those who don’t.”  

Some games, such as the complex role-playing game Civilization, offer what Kahne calls “civic gaming experiences,” such as creating a virtual nation, helping or guiding other players, exploring a social problem or ethical issue, or organizing game groups or guilds. Teens who had these experiences were “more likely to report interest and engagement in civic and political activities.” Kahne’s most recent studies further suggest that such interest-based online communities often expose members to people who differ widely in other regards.  

Now, as chair of the nationwide Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) research network, Kahne plans to expand upon his previous work. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, the YPP network ( will investigate how the Internet and digital media influence political engagement. Kahne and his colleagues will explore such topics as the intersection of social networking and activism or the effects of digital literacy training. 

“So much civic and political life is online. We’ve got to pay attention to new media when we think about civic learning,” says Kahne. The crux of his research, he adds, highlights a striking and fundamental contrast. “For some adults, the online world is new and not fully accepted,” he says, “but for youth, it’s just a part of their lives.”