There is a lot of discussion in the United States about how to help people come together to solve the complex problems facing the nation and the world.
As a scholar of games, I see opportunities for that popular medium to contribute to this effort.
Games and the gaming community, especially online, are not always models of civility or civic life. Harassment and toxicity, not to mention the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, are problems in some games, and in how some people play them.
But in addition to the cruelty in some games, there is compassion too, just as in other kinds of communities, whether school classrooms, town hall meetings or Facebook groups. For instance, a 2020 study by the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, surveyed people who play online multiplayer games and found that 81 percent of players experienced harassment, but 95 percent of those surveyed also had positive experiences, like finding friends and mentors and feeling like part of a community.
In fact, many people of all ages may be participating in civic life without even realizing it – through play. Gamers engage in debates and political discussions, take on others' perspectives, and even protest issues about both physical and virtual worlds.
As I explain in my book "We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics," games can help players practice important skills related to civics and public life, like communication, empathy and compassion, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Here are some examples.
In the most popular mode of Fortnite, 100 players' characters get air-dropped onto an island, where they battle until just one survivor remains. To win, players need to collect items, build shelters, find weapons and avoid bad weather.
The in-game goal is to kill the other players' characters, but these other tasks help players develop strategic thinking skills like managing limited resources. These are also useful in civic problem-solving. A Fortnite player needs to think about the best places to build a shelter, when to take health potions, or how much wood and stone to stockpile, just as a community has to think about how to secure structures or store first aid supplies before a coming storm.
In addition, Fortnite held a series of conversations on race and politics through the game, hosted by political commentator Van Jones and featuring speakers like journalists Jemele Hill and Elaine Welteroth.
Dream SMP: The Complete Story - Part 1 youtu.be
Minecraft players can find and break apart bricks that yield materials they can use to craft items like tools, buildings and food.
There are different modes of play, like survival mode, where players need to maintain their health by finding resources, or creative mode, where players can modify the game to develop new items or activities within the game.
For instance, players in Minecraft may need to think about where to build or which materials to use to create a home or building, just like planners and builders in a real-world community.
In addition, players have used the game to engage in civic-related stories. Last year, thousands of YouTube and Twitch viewers watched Minecraft livestreamers on one particular shared virtual world. While they played Minecraft, they performed a dramatic narrative related to a fictional election for the president of a world they created, called L'Manberg. In this election, four imaginary political parties competed. The finale in January 2021 brought in over 650,000 viewers across YouTube and Twitch and dealt with such issues as voter fraud.
The Best of AOC's Among Us Stream youtu.be
In Among Us, 10 people play together online as crewmates on a spaceship. But one or two of them are imposters who pretend to perform simulated crew duties but really sneak around and eliminate the other players from the game.
Players need to use communication and deliberation skills to try to figure out who the imposters are. Players mount arguments about who they think is the imposter and provide such persuasive evidence as "I saw the yellow character running from the cafeteria." The need to share evidence and use reasoning skills and persuasive techniques provides practice at collaborating to solve group problems.
This game has also been used by real-world politicians to engage people: In 2020, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar played Among Us and streamed it live on Twitch, where more than 400,000 people watched.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players create their own island, visit others' islands and collect bugs, fish and other digital critters.
Players can design and clothe their own digital avatars, give items to other players and purchase upgrades for their homes. They need to express their identity in the game; my daughter's in-game house has an aquatic-themed living room, while mine looks like a library. Giving gifts that fit the desires of other players requires learning their interests and perspectives.
Learning to express themselves and understand the needs of neighbors helps players feel part of the wider conversation about how society improves the world.
During their election campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris created their own islands in the game, which featured virtual versions of the political figures, and encouraged players to vote. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals even staged a protest as part of the game, against a digital museum that is a destination in the game, asking for the virtual tanks and exhibitions to be emptied and the digital critters to be freed.
Plague, Inc.: The Cure
Some games even help players more directly solve civic problems. In the Plague, Inc. series, gamers play as a virus, bacteria or other germ and try to spread it as much as possible. They can evolve the pathogen to spread through insects or to cause symptoms like coughing.
But a recent version, Plague, Inc.: The Cure, puts players in the role of fighting the outbreak, much as the world has been working to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Players try to develop a vaccine or make policies around masking or social distancing and observe the economic and social fallout.
Playing games like these helps people understand complex systems and how the intersection of dynamic factors can play out in a society.
Learning skills for group problem-solving, understanding world crises, observing elected officials – those all sound like civic engagement, social action and activism, even when they're happening in a digital game.
Of course, just like all public spaces and civic communities, it is important to consider whether everyone is able to participate equally. Obstacles to joining include the need to have computers or smartphones, internet access and spare time to play. The biases that shape the world also unfortunately affect games and whether people feel that they belong and can express themselves in game worlds. For instance, designers may limit the types of hair textures – such as Type 4, a tightly coiled texture rare in games – or body types players can apply to their avatars. More inclusive and equitable games may help even more people learn about and participate in civics.
Games may even be useful ways to explore potential changes in social, political and economic systems. Letting millions of people experiment in a digital world could provide insights identifying productive – and destructive – policies that might be adopted in the physical world. For instance, through the game EterRNA, players are already helping to design new mRNA vaccines that can defend against variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Games may reveal flaws, opportunities and even solutions to troubling problems.
As Americans consider how to become more civically engaged and encourage each other to do so, digital games provide opportunities to learn, grow, explore and change – not just individually, but in terms of humanity and society as well.
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Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday filed class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube arguing his suspension from those platforms violates the First Amendment.
However, legal experts say that argument has little chance of succeeding in court since the First Amendment constrains only the government, and not private entities.
The First Amendment specifically says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and the Supreme Court has extended that protection against all government agencies and officials — executive, legislative and judicial, as well as federal, state and local, per the National Constitution Center.
This protection does not include private individuals or organizations, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube. But Trump is arguing that certain private businesses have become "state actors" and therefore are required to abide by the First Amendment. Trump claims:
Defendant Facebook has increasingly engaged in impermissible censorship resulting from threatened legislative action, a misguided reliance upon Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ... and willful participation in joint activity with federal actors. Defendant Facebook's status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor, and as such, Defendant is constrained by the First Amendment right to free speech in the censorship decisions it makes regarding its Users.
But the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, declared in 2019 that media platforms are not state actors.
Trump and his supporters have long lambasted social media companies for so-called "cancel culture" and their disparate treatment of conservative voices. The former president's removal from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol fueled this outcry.
"We're demanding an end to the shadowbanning, a stop to the silencing, and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well," Trump said at a press conference Wednesday.
In addition to arguing a First Amendment violation, Trump's lawsuits are also seeking a ruling that declares unconstitutional the so-called Section 230, a decades-old federal law that protects online platforms from lawsuits regarding content moderation decisions.
Evan Greer, director of Fight For the Future, whose organization advocates for Internet freedom and privacy, said that from a legal perspective this lawsuit is likely to go nowhere.
"While it's silly to pretend that the moderation decisions of Big Tech don't have a significant impact on free expression, the First Amendment enables private platforms to make exactly the kind of moderation decisions they wish to make as non-government entities," she said.
Greer and other critics of the lawsuits also pointed out the legal action was likely a fundraising tactic for Trump, who is considering another presidential run in 2024.
Shortly after announcing the lawsuits, Trump's joint fundraising committee sent a text saying, "Pres Trump: I am SUING Facebook & Twitter for UNCONSTITUTIONAL CENSORSHIP. For a short time, 5x-IMPACT on all gifts! Donate NOW."
At the press conference, Trump also encouraged his supporters to go to a website where they could join the class-action lawsuits. However, that site redirects users to one for the America First Policy Institution that only includes a promotional video and links to donate.
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Having civil conversations about politics can feel like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be that way.
To foster better discussions the focus should be on finding common ground, rather than concentrating on divisions. That's the aim of the National Week of Conversation, which concluded on Sunday.
While the event series is now over, democracy reform organizations are already looking to the future on how to continue these types of conversations, both on a larger scale and in everyday life.
The fourth annual National Week of Conversation kicked off on June 12 with America Talks, an event in which people were matched in one-on-one virtual conversations or small group discussions with individuals of differing political views. This led into a week of events hosted by democracy reform organizations to spur further dialogue and build connections on important issues.
When this initiative first launched in 2017, the Listen First Project and its member coalition hosted hundreds of conversations. But now, that reach has soared to more than 30 million people, said Graham Bodie, COO of the Listen First Project and a member of the America Talks team.
Part of that boost in participation is thanks to America Talks and the National Week of Conversation's inaugural partnership with USA Today and its network of 250 local news outlets. Leading up to the event series, USA Today invited readers to learn more and take part in the conversations.
"By several measures I do think we succeeded in lifting the general spirit of the Listen First coalition and turning people's attention to a different way of being," Bodie said. "When we engage in those conversations we realize we have a lot more in common than the politicians would have us believe."
Moving forward, the Listen First coalition will be working on growing its base even more, especially when it comes to diversity. Overall, the participants in this year's events leaned white and progressive, Bodie said. For instance, during the one-on-one conversations for America Talks, there weren't enough Republicans to match up with Democrats.
John Gable, CEO of AllSides and a member of the America Talks team, said having political balance and diversity at these events and in conversations is critical to the outcome.
"Getting a bunch of progressives together at Berkeley to talk with each other does no one any good in the same way that getting a bunch of conservatives together in Texas doesn't," Gable said. "So it's not like the conversations weren't good if there's no political balance, they just didn't have any impact on the core mission we have."
Tying conversations to a specific issue area can help foster better diversity in a variety of ways, including political affiliation, Gable said. For future events, the Listen First coalition is looking to host discussions about current hot-button topics and issues in the news.
To have more productive conversations in everyday life, both Gable and Bodie agree that the focus should not be on what the other person thinks, but why they think that way.
"If you take the point of view of being truly curious about why they feel a certain way — not just what they feel — and ask questions to really understand, that completely changes the entire conversation," Gable said. "And usually if one person does it, the other person follows."
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Meyers is executive editor of The Fulcrum.
The ever-growing democracy reform movement is built around the idea that the American democracy is in trouble because the system is broken. Those with money have an outsized influence on politics. Ballot access is far from equal. Politicians get to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
That's why, in 2019, I helped launch The Fulcrum, a nonprofit news platform dedicated to coverage of efforts to fix the system. As my then boss, Issue One's Nick Penniman, preaches, government's policy dysfunction cannot be addressed until the political dysfunction is first resolved.
While I remain committed to the mission of informing more Americans about efforts to fix the system, there's a parallel and equally important issue to be addressed: the lack of civility in our collective discourse.
Anyone scrolling through Twitter or Facebook is bound to repeatedly land upon nasty exchanges about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unfortunately, the dialogue is rarely a debate over ideas, but rather is full of nasty name-calling, sexism, bigotry and other forms of hate.
And it's not just on social media. Americans have a profound lack of trust in one another. Last summer, the nonprofit More in Common asked Americans whether "most people can be trusted." Only 39 percent said yes while a horrifying 61 percent said "you can't be too careful in dealing with people."
In fact, we can't even blame social media for making distrust more prevalent — just louder. The More in Common report cites data from the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, which found this lack of trust to be a long-term problem. NORC's historic data shows the last time more than 40 percent of Americans said most people can be trusted was ... the mid-1980s.
And while the Pew Research Center has found that Americans generally trust one another to do the right thing in many situations, that trust does not extend to political decisions. At the end of 2018, just as the United States was gearing up for a second Trump campaign, Pew learned that only 43 percent of Americans were confident that others would cast informed votes and 42 percent were confident people could have a civil conversation with someone who has different political beliefs.
And that's why I'm supporting America Talks, a much-needed effort to foster civil dialogue — not by regulating social media or limiting speech, but by encouraging individual Americans to engage in one-on-one conversations. It's important we all recognize that just because someone has different beliefs, they aren't evil or unpatriotic.
Not only do we need to get people talking, we need to create some optimism that things can get better. That same More in Common study found that only 51 percent of Americans believe it's possible "for the country to come together in 2021" and just 39 percent say it's likely. While Democrats are more positive (68 percent possible, 52 percent likely), independents and Republicans are far more pessimistic (43 percent and 37 percent, respectively, said it's possible).
(Interestingly, racial minorities are more optimistic than white Americans: 63 percent of Black respondents said unity is possible in 2021, along with 58 percent of Hispanic people and 55 percent of Asian people. But only 47 percent of white people said so.)
We need to apply Isaac Newtons' first law of motion: An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by a stronger force. Our citizenry is only going to become more divided, more untrusting unless something stops that trend. America Talks could be that something.
There's no institutional fix to the pervasive lack of trust in the United States. But America Talks can help us start fixing things, one conversation at a time.
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