Game-changing ideas

I’m not a video game enthusiast, to put it mildly. I would rather devour a book, take the dog on a walk, or even do laundry than spend my free time parked in front of a game system collecting gold coins or changing the virtual diapers of a Sims baby. My personal lack of interest in gaming, coupled with my concerns about the unhealthy aspects of video games—the physical inactivity, the addictive quality, the violent and misogynistic elements of some games—helped me resist for many years my kids’ pleas for a game system of their own.

As they have grown into their tween and teen years, though, I’ve had to adjust my thinking about video game play. Because it’s clearly an important social and recreational activity for my daughter and my two sons, I’m trying to take a greater interest in it—just as I learned more about Star Wars and Harry Potter when they were younger.

Also, because I can’t be present every time they play a game—on our Wii or at friends’ houses—I’ve had to learn more about the games they like so I know whether they’re appropriate, and what benefits and risks they might contain. Helping my kids become responsible game players sometimes feels like a Sisyphean task. But the stakes are too high to take a hands-off approach.

What are the benefits?

Today’s video and computer games have advanced light years beyond the games available when I was a teen during the age of PacMan fever. Besides boosting eye-hand coordination, the games can provide opportunities for problem solving and use of math and language skills, and they can foster interests in strategy, science, history and geography. Of course, not all games are created equal. While some have many educational benefits, others offer little more than unhelpful lessons in crude language and gender stereotyping. 

David Williamson Shaffer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies the educational benefits of video games, says in his book How Computer Games Help Children Learn that the best way for parents to find out what a game is teaching their kids is to play it with them and then talk to them afterward about why they like the game, what strategies they use, and what they think they’re learning. 

“Parents, teachers, and mentors who want to help children learn from games need to think carefully not just about what kinds of things players do in a game but about what justifies those actions. How do you know in the game when you have made a good decision or a bad one? What evidence is available to base your decision on, and how are you supposed to evaluate that evidence?” Shaffer writes.

Setting ground rules

Games are designed to encourage players to keep advancing to further levels, so it shouldn’t be surprising that my kids have difficulty policing themselves. ParentFurther.com, an online parenting resource from the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, advises parents to set rules for how much, when, and where their kids can play, to have consequences for breaking the rules, and to follow through with those consequences. It also recommends that parents follow the video game ratings guide and be aware of the signs of video game addiction.

“Some parents have found that they need to give a 15-minute warning before they want a child to stop playing a game so that the child knows it’s time to look for a place to save. If your child claims he can’t stop after 15 minutes, you’ll know that your child is pushing the boundaries,” the ParentFurther site advises.

Encouraging responsible gaming

The University of Minnesota Extension Office recommends that parents limit video game play to one hour a day. This may seem inadequate to tweens and teens who feel like they just get into a complicated game at the 60-minute mark. Our family has found that during a school day, our schedule is too hectic to allow for video game play, so we usually allow for longer periods of play on the weekends.

Whenever my kids play, I encourage them to take breaks, to recognize when they’ve played too long, and to learn to balance their desire to play with their need to do other things. I’m hopeful that by taking a greater interest in what my kids enjoy, while also providing the structure they need to play in a healthier way, we will all benefit.

Especially if I can avoid changing any of those virtual diapers.