It’s the night before the big game, and Lura Calder lays out her son’s jersey on his bed, takes a picture of it and texts it to some friends. She’s excited. Her son is excited. Tomorrow he’s playing for all the marbles. Tomorrow he’s playing Minecraft.
“I’m the crazy soccer mom, I swear to God,” Calder says. “Only it’s gaming.”
That’s the world we live in now, a world where competitive gaming is a big business complete with championship tournaments, lucrative sponsorships, and coveted collegiate scholarships. It’s a world in which American adults are spending an increasing amount of time playing video games to such an extent that, according to a recent study, it may be diminishing their participation in the workforce.
It’s also a world populated by a growing legion of parents who passionately support their children in their gaming pursuits, sitting beside them while they play, rehashing triumphs and failures from their latest online sessions and, when necessary, driving them to live tournaments the same way they would to a karate match.
There are 2.6 billion people around the world who play video games, roughly 10,000 of whom are salaried, professional gamers, says Ann Hand, CEO of the Super League, which hosts online and in-person Minecraft and League of Legends tournaments for competitors ages 6 and up.
“Most of the time we have parents who say to us, ‘I don’t play these games, but I really can see the joy he or she gets from it, I can appreciate the skills that he or she is getting from it, [and] I can appreciate the computer skills they are learning,’” Hand says.
Calder says not only are e-sports as valuable to kids’ development as more traditional extracurriculars like baseball or ballet — in many ways, they’re even better for developing intellectual skills. Calder’s 11-year-old son Leo game of choice is the world-building game Minecraft, through which he learns computer-based skills like coding and programming, but which also exposes him to a much broader cross-section of real-world skills, from math and architecture, to politics and business management.
Andrew Fuenmayor hopes his three-year-old son will learn valuable lessons from video games. He and his son play games together like Mario Kart, Mario Maker and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Wii U. He believes that video games help to teach intrinsic life skills at early ages, and games like Mine Craft and Mario Maker give the player freedom to create and explore within well-defined boundaries.
“He gets to work on his hand-eye coordination, disseminating the useful information on the screen from the not-useful information, which is just a general skill,” Fuenmayor says. “These days especially kids have to be able to manage a lot of data that’s in front of them, a lot of information that’s coming their way, and being able to discern from what’s useful and what’s not useful and prioritize what needs to have their attention right now versus what can have their attention later is all just general skill that will hopefully be portable for him later on as he’s learning other subjects, whether it be academic or just handling new situations.”
Not all games require the same level of skill or develop young minds in the same way, but Hand points to Minecraft as the ultimate example of a learning tool that is also fun.
“It’s a real, kind of feel-good game for parents,” Hand says.
Fuenmayor says he won’t let his son play violent, shooting-based games like Call of Duty or Battlefield until he’s a teenager.
“Which is kind of hard, because games for a very, very long time, and still today, the protagonist usually is special because of their ability to fight or be violent in some way or another,” he says. But, Fuenmayor says, it’s getting easier to fun alternatives. “Every year cool stuff is coming out that’s more appropriate for younger kids, so we’re just kind of keeping our eye open for games like that.”
Not all games require the same level of skill or develop young minds in the same way, but Hand points to Minecraft as the ultimate example of a learning tool that’s also fun.
“It’s a real, kind of feel-good game for parents,” Hand says.
Not all video games are created equal, of course, which is why Calder steers Leo away from games she thinks are too violent or mindless.
Samantha Calderone, whose 7-year-old son is also an avid Minecraft player, restricts her son’s video game selections, too, limiting his exposure to games that would let him communicate with strangers online and steering him toward those that are intellectually stimulating.
“As for skills, his memory skills are remarkable,” Calderone says. “He remembers the names and stats of Pokémon, and monsters in video games, he builds math skills, although easy in level, it has helped him to pick it up quicker than I think he would have just through school.”
Within the sphere of games that he can play, he does so relentlessly — though not yet competitively —and his passion for them extends well beyond just the time he is playing them.
“Even when my son is not playing his games, he’s still thinking about them. He’s telling me how he defeated the latest boss in Skylanders, or the town he and his friend created in Minecraft,” Calderone says. “He is role-playing scenes as Link while playing dress-up with his friends or sister.”
Of course, since the dawn of video games parents have worried that their kids spend too much time playing them, and that passion for those games can grow into destructive obsessions. Calderone recently banned her son from video games for three days after he played for so long one day that he lost track of his senses, and peed himself while sitting on the couch.
“I do try to keep things in moderation because I was much the same way,” she says. “But obviously, I still need to teach him that other things in life are also important.”
Calder’s son plays Minecraft for between four and six hours a day after school, but Calder is adamant that this type of dedication is a good thing.
“You can’t really improve unless you’re able to spend the time to do it,” she says. “And the other thing is, when you’re playing a game like Minecraft, and you want to go into servers, you have to research those things. You have to watch YouTube videos where other people are explaining what they’ve done. And so, that’s another skill, the ability to have an interest in something, and then go and research it so you’re understanding of it is better. That’s not a mindless waste of time, in my opinion, because those of skills can be applied to anything, any kind of interest.”
Calder supports her 11-year-old son Leo’s passion not just by driving him to competitions, including Super League events like the one for which she laid out Leo’s jersey, but also by sitting with him while he’s playing and talking with him about what he’s doing, and why. And she continues those conversations after he’s done playing too, to help him understand what he’s learning from the games he plays, and why those lessons are valuable for his development.
But as excited as she is about everything Leo is learning, Calder does everything she can to support his gaming for reasons any parent from any generation can relate to.
“The main thing for me, as a parent — and I wish that more parents would see it this way — that as a parent, for me, I would never squash my son’s passion in something,” Calder says. “I think it’s important to support our kids in what their passions and interests are. And if that’s gaming, that’s okay.”