Video Games. They have been the subject of controversy almost since the first pixellated bounce of a virtual ball in the very first game of Pong. The allure of the interactive screen to both kids and many adults has been the subject of many studies, articles, and conversations among parents and educators, but the opinions as to the value or danger of video games remain divergent. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a household where my mom encouraged the playing of video games (and also playing outside, making things, and a healthy balance of other activities). She always said that she didn’t know if they were all good or bad, but at least they seemed to promote good hand-eye coordination.
In his book, Everything Bad is Good For You (2004), Steven Johnson talks through some of the ways that games benefit us from a cognitive point of view. He says,
“To non-players, games bear a superficial resemblance to music videos: flashy graphics; the layered mix of image, music, and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences. But what you actually do in playing a game – the way your mind has to work – is radically different. It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order. “
Johnson’s book shouldn’t be taken wholesale as rules for living, but he does make a good point. The interactivity and complexity found in many modern video games is great exercise for our brain.
There are two major arguments that we commonly hear when video games come up as a topic of conversation among parents and teachers:
- Video games are addictive.
- Video games are full of objectionable content, and affect attitudes and behavior.
Let’s talk about these two objections for just a moment, and then we can cover some practical ideas for introducing (or maybe re-introducing) video games to your kids.
Video Games are Addictive
Can someone truly be addicted to games? Sure. There is no limit to the number of things that can be addictive, given the right situations, personalities, and social constructs. Addiction happens when someone develops an unhealthy dependency on any thing, at the expense of normal, healthy behavior and relationships.
I can hear it now: But so many kids are addicted to games these days! They always have their faces pressed against a screen. Video games, Facebook, texting… ADDICTION!
Whoa! Let’s take a moment, before we start talking about the “good old days”… Can we? If you are reading this, and you are over the age of 40 or so, you probably remember long hours spent wandering the house, phone to your ear, with the extra long spiral phone cord stretching behind you, tethering you to the kitchen wall. Maybe you are a little younger, and had the freedom to roam the house with a cordless phone (mine had a giant telescoping metal antenna) – Remember how half the time, you could hear your neighbors’ conversations? The point is, times change. Ways of communicating and relating change. It doesn’t have to be good or bad. It’s just different. One big mistake we make is in saying that “screen time is screen time”, regardless of the activity. Are we really saying that texting a friend is the same as editing a YouTube video, and that is the same as playing a game, which also is the same as reading a blog? It’s just one of the reasons I don’t like the term “screen time” as a construct.
If you have a kid, and on a Saturday that kid wakes up and spends an hour reading a book, and then they draw for another hour, and then they do some origami for a bit, are you going to say, “Hey! That’s enough paper time for you.” ? It’s not paper that’s the problem here. The problem, in this specific scenario, is the lack of variety and balance. Limiting one activity isn’t the best technique for teaching someone to be healthy. In fact, some would claim that simply limiting an activity of interest intensifies the focus on that activity. If you are worried about addiction, or overdoing “screen time”, I’d suggest the following:
- Talk to your kids with the goal of understanding their screen-related activities.
- Rather than focusing on limiting one thing, turn the conversation to balance and variety of activity.
- Give your kids as much agency as you can tolerate in determining how to spend their time and how variety should look for them.
- Encourage a variety of physical, mental and emotional states in your kids’ lives. This is what healthy looks like.
One more thing on this topic: We need to seriously think about the role of “mastery” as it relates to perceived video game addiction. What if what we see as “addiction” is actually just our kid trying over and over to master some aspect of the game? Few people realize this, but part of the allure of video games is that they are designed to be progressively challenging, such that every skill that is mastered leads to some other thing that you can’t quite do… It’s an awesome case study of design. But to an outsider, it can present like some very unhealthy behavior. I’m encouraging you to take the time to sit with your kids, watch them play, and understand what is driving them. That’s never a bad thing, but in this case it might really change your perceptions…
The Content Issue
Video games are no different than any other kind of media in terms of content. There are scary games, violent games, and games that are quite clearly in the adult category. Like movies and the MPAA, video games are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. If you are interested in these ratings, you can check out their site here. The tools are available to you as a parent or teacher to make wise decisions related to the games your kids are buying. The mistake that many adults make is in assuming that games are primarily marketed to kids, and therefore any game with content that is not kid-appropriate is therefore somehow abhorrent. This just isn’t the case. The vast majority of games are marketed to adult males. Just like you (should be) involved with any other media, you should be involved with your kids’ video game choices. Like most aspects of parenting and education, it is your job to be involved, and this takes some knowledge and investment on your part.
Let me just tell you this, though — There have been a few times when I’ve been sitting down to play a game with my kids, and some situation in the game catches me off guard (in a bad way). In these situations, I take a moment to gather my thoughts, and then my kids and I sit down and talk it through. What’s this about? What does it mean? Is it good for us to be doing something (mostly for entertainment) that is putting this bad stuff in front of us? A few times, we’ve decided to be done with that game. Sometimes, with that in context, we keep playing (although you can guarantee I’m more attuned to the rest of the game). A little research beforehand should tell you most of what you want to know about virtually any game your kids want to play. It’s a good process to go through – thinking about not just what rating you are comfortable with, but also what specific sort of content you are ok with and what you are not. Maybe you are ok with cartoon violence, but not realistic violence. Maybe violence is ok, but not nudity? How about language? (I’m constantly annoyed by the superfluous use of foul language in games. 99% pointless, and feels like we are just using language for the sake of using it.) Are there specific situations you want to avoid? While we are at it – this is a GREAT conversation to have with your kids.
Bottom Line: Games aren’t just for kids, just like books, movies and TV shows aren’t just for kids. In that context, your role as the adult becomes pretty clear.
I won’t lie – in our house, there are a LOT of video games, of all types. We use them for fun and entertainment, and learning, and problem solving. We make games and play games against each other. When I use Minecraft in my grad school classes, my kids will often jump online and help “shepherd” my adult students around the Minecraft world. But before you paint a picture of a bunch of nerds hiding in a dark house, huddled around screens for hours on end, let me also say this: All of my kids are competitive swimmers (some at the national level), we have a giant trampoline in the back yard for blowing off steam, and play doh and art are often part of our daily routine. We often have conversations about balance and variety, and what is healthy – for kids and for adults – and my wife and I try hard to model this balance in our own lives.
Here are a few tips that might help you in your own adventure with video games:
- Shop for games with your kids. Talk about new games coming out, and do a little research. The people who are the most shocked by the games their kids are playing are often the ones who send them into the video game store with a wad of cash and no direction. Do you think video game stores won’t sell “mature” or inappropriate games to your kids? Think again. Sadly, you can’t count on the stores to parent your kids for you. 😉
- Play games with your kids. Video games aren’t your thing? Maybe you need to spend a little time looking for the right kind of game for you. If you have tried them all, and it just doesn’t click (I bet you haven’t), then just suck it up and do it because your kids will love it and it’s a chance to express interest in their activities. If you want to shop around, but don’t have any good ideas, check out our Steam article for some tips. You might also look at some of our Minecraft articles or Minecraft Adventures.
- In our house, games and computing happen in public spaces. Especially games and activities that involve connecting online with other people. This allows us all to be involved in the content and the communications that happen. Safety online is a real concern, but this household policy gives us a good degree of comfort. In many games, we just turn the “chat” or “communication” features off if they aren’t important to the game.
- Talk about limits, appropriate content, and balanced living. Set standards together, and then stick to them. The key word here is talk.
- There will be a time when you have to ask or remind your kids to stop. Realize that arbitrary time limits, sudden stops, and “pulling the plug” are bad, bad ideas with games. Always try to turn off the game when there is a good place to stop. At the end of a level, after a save point, the end of a match, after x is done… Those are the times to stop. Part of respecting the game is stopping at a point in the game when stopping is appropriate. All games have stopping places. Figure it out. Communicate… (there’s that talking thing again).
- Sometimes helping your kids have a balanced life will simply require you to present them with a really great alternative. Go bowling, see a movie, or go shopping. Take them to their favorite restaurant, or do something else that they really like. Start a new hobby that you know they are interested in. These are all regularly employed in our house.
I’m not saying that video games are the cure to society’s ills, or that they will be great for everyone. I’m saying that I haven’t seen a strong case for a categorical dismissal of video games as a useful method of entertainment, or even a valuable tool for learning. I think they are worth a shot.