Nervous or censorious parents blame video games for all manner of anti-social behavior. But in scapegoating the latest button-masher, parents discount the benefit that video games can have in helping kids develop everything from problem-solving skills to emotional intelligence. Sure, video games can ensorcell kids in a bad way, but rather than fighting that pull, parents can teach kids to enjoy games then walk away. It is, after all, better to teach good behaviors than be the fun police.
Part of the process of becoming a partner in video games is doing homework on what the kids want to play. Sarah Coyne, associate professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, says using resources like Common Sense Media can help parents make better decisions. “Parents should keep a close watch on the type of games children play, in terms of content,” she says. “Understanding the gaming rating system is a good start.” And when a child questions a parents decision about whether or not the game is appropriate for their age, it’s an opportunity for discussion that can also help parents address issues of violence or dark themes.
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As a partner in gaming, parents can also help regulate the amount of time a young child is playing video games. When parents take an active interest in the games, they have a much better idea of when, and how long kids are playing. They can also better empathize with their child’s sense of urgency in the game. That way, “at the end of this level” actually makes sense to a parent and decisions to the game off aren’t simply rote powerplays. This also helps kids who generally are not great at regulating themselves orient to time limits.
Of course, these tactics are complicated when the game of choice is personalized via smartphones and tablets. “A video game on a phone is portable so can obviously be played more and accessed at times when the parents might not want their kids to be playing games,” Coyne says. “This is harder to monitor.”
But, Coyne notes, there are apps, such as OurPact, that allow parents to monitor the time spent on the phone and even set app-by-app restrictions. She recommends letting the children have an influence in setting up the rules.
The biggest way to help a kid develop a healthy relationship with gaming, however, may be for parents to change their thought process. Parents who view video games as a barrier to connecting with their child shouldn’t frame the issue as one of addiction or compulsion. Instead, they should lean into the fact that video games are a naturally interactive, tool for connection and use them as such. Suddenly a game can no longer be an escape for a child.
“By taking the role of a ‘co-learner’ instead of a ‘gatekeeper,’ parents can show an interest in sharing what their children value and are interested, which in return, makes children feel connected,” says Sinem Siyahhan, an assistant professor of educational technology at California State University-San Marcos and the author of the book Families at Play: Connecting and Learning through Video Games. “This fosters intergenerational bonds, and allows parents to better monitor their children’s gaming as they become more knowledgeable about the games their children play and video gaming as a practice more broadly.”
With older children, Siyahhan recommends parents even be open to playing the most dreaded types of games: The first-person shooter and otherwise violent variety. Because while these games may have themes that are uncomfortable, that’s actually a good thing. It almost forces a conversation. “Video games become a vehicle for making sense of the world events and help develop a more critical eye towards real-world issues and how to solve them,” she says.
Still, if parents want to help their child branch out, they should be aware of the wide range of games available, says Elisabeth Gee, a professor at Arizona State University’s College Center for Games & Impact and author of the book Families at Play. “There are many different genres of games, and each genre offers different opportunities for learning and social interactions,” she says. “Sandbox games like The Sims and Minecraft allow players to be creative, to build their own worlds and enact storylines of their own choosing. Multiplayer games encourage players to develop skills in collaboration, communication, and team work. Role playing games can require players to engage in complex problem solving and systems thinking, as they make choices about how to build and equip their characters.”
Mix that in with other ways to interact and enjoy time together, and video games can become a healthy part of a parent-child relationship.
Call that a cheat code.