I was somewhere in my thirties (circa 1980) when our family, amazed at the prospects, bought a computer. Video games came into our home along with the computer, and I soon set myself up as a critic. I sat down with my sons a couple of times and played a couple of games and made my decision: computer games were a waste of time. Period. I didn’t realize what an over-generalization this was, something like saying that all movies, television shows, or even books are a waste of time, rather than focusing on the need to be selective and for children to have parental guidance.
In those first years, however, when the games were more benign, the benefit of knowing where my sons were (especially the teenagers) outweighed my objections. Whenever they had free time (when homework, paper routes, etc. were completed) my sons would usually be in our family room gathered around the computer with half the other boys in the neighborhood taking turns playing video games.
As the more violent video games became all the rage I changed my opinion of games from “waste of time” to just plain “bad” (although sometimes still a lesser evil to roaming the streets). I read some of Victor B. Cline’s research on the effects of television violence on children (such as “Desensitization of Children to Television Violence”[i]) and concluded that the effects of video game violence could be just as devastating. I recognized more and more the need to screen games, but that it was futile to ban them altogether. The boys would simply go play at their friends’ houses whenever possible, and we would rather have them playing at home.
When my youngest son Scott was fifteen, he said he wanted to get a job as a video-game tester. We chuckled and humored him. Then he came home one day and announced he had done just that: become a beta tester for a local video game studio! Eventually, two of our sons actually got paid to test video games. My objections to video games didn’t have a chance.
When my sons were in their late teens and early twenties I wrote a piece called “To Be a Mother: the Agonies and the Ecstasies.” In it I lamented my inability to pull my sons away from the computer, but comforted myself with the thought that they would grow out of it . . . that I wouldn’t have to worry about it when they were forty. Well, my sons are now in their thirties and forties and are still playing video games! Thankfully, not to an extreme, but they still play them. Not only that, they even create them.
Recently, my son Scott studied, mastered, and implemented every step in the process and created a video game called “Plush.” You can imagine my relief when I learned it was not violent, but was a delightful game for children, that to me is like a breath of fresh air compared to many other games. Instead of guns and explosions, the graphics are adorable stuffed animals and other children’s toys.
Okay, I admit that making you aware of Scott’s contribution to this whole arena (a contribution I find quite amazing) was my primary motivation for writing this article. However, I was also motivated by my desire to share the different perspective on games that Scott’s game has given me. It finally motivated me to really look at video games and their undeniable fascination to a whole generation of young people. I want to share my change of perspective and the reservations I still have.
The main point I want to make in this article is that relationships can be strengthened or weakened depending on our willingness to do with our children what they most want to do and which they show the greatest interest in. I blew it! I never played video games with my boys; I only made the whole game thing an issue that divided us. You can learn from my less than fine example and do better.
Over the years I tried to console myself that the games could not only be good for hand/eye coordination, but could challenge their thought processes, as well. Scott’s game is a good example. Younger children can have fun with it, and older children can be challenged by “stuffed animal physics” and 40 puzzle levels. (You can check out “Plush” at: www.redheadgames.com ) But it never dawned on me that parents could and should actually be involved in the game-playing process. “Plush” is one of many constructive games on the market today that provide a vehicle for parents to start playing games with their kids at a young age, helping them solve puzzles, etc. (maybe even as part of an evening ritual).
Video Games Needn’t Be a Solitary Pursuit
We as parents and grandparents so often see movies, television, and video games as babysitters for the young, which can keep them occupied so we can get something done. As children grow into their teen years, however, we may become annoyed with the amount of time they want to spend “spacing out” in front of screens (now more often hand-held electronic devices). We really wish they would be doing something “constructive” with that time instead. But it rarely enters our consciousness that many forms of electronic media, if viewed or played together and discussed, could become part of a growing relationship and give parents important teaching moments. For instance, my son uses video game playing with him as a reward for good behavior and tasks completed. My four oldest grandchildren, all boys, think the best time of the week is when their dad puts aside everything else to play video games with them.
A parent’s willingness to leave “important tasks” and spend time with a child doing something he or she really likes to do can send an important message of love to the child.
Scott sent me the following link to a short YouTube video called “Extra Credits: Not a Babysitter” that gives some excellent perspectives for parents:
Some of the ideas suggested on the video are: Any media can be harmful if you just leave the child to it and give them no context or opportunity to ask questions and get perspective. A parent’s job is coaching, encouraging, and answering questions when they get stuck. Engaging with a child requires patience. Sometimes the most important thing is to just be there. Choose your moments to ask questions or give information. Don’t pester or interrupt. Every game offers topics to explore. Help them draw out elements of the game they might not see on their own. Read up on what your child is playing. Research and teach them to research. Check out things on “Game Facts” sites. Show them how to find and categorize and reference information, all in the context of a game your child loves. Make it into something you can share, something that can be a bonding experience.
Video games do not need to keep parents and children apart.
How My Sons Have Bonded With Each Other Through Games
Over the years, my grown sons have continued to get together on a regular basis for what they call “Boy’s Night Out.” What do they do together? You guessed it. They play games. Playing games together has been a vehicle for their relationships with each other to keep moving in a positive direction. The result? They have created and maintained a really strong support system between them. They often help each other with labor-intensive projects, and each of them knows that in times of crisis their brothers will be there for them. These days, on some holidays when they all have free time, they include the oldest grandkids. They gather laptops, which they synchronize so they can all play a group game. My grandchildren love it and are being drawn into this family support system.
Perhaps my sons and grandsons exemplify the positive side of game playing that I refused to see for so long: the power that mutually enjoyable games have to draw people together and keep them together. I’ve recognized the positive possibilities of board games and card games ever since I was young. Why did it take me so long to apply the same idea to video games?
Caution is Still Advised
Of course the reservations I’ve had are not without merit. Games can be addicting. We’ve all heard sad stories of young men who turn away from the opportunities of missions because they can’t bear to leave their games, and even sadder stories of husbands and fathers who choose games over family responsibilities. The reality of the danger of being desensitized to screen violence is also real and should be considered carefully. However, as the market has expanded and improved, more and more games that are educational and positive in content have become available.
Just like any media, the choice is ours. We truly live in the best of times and the worst of times. Evil is more readily accessible at the click of a remote, the click of a mouse, or the touch of a screen than ever before in history. But more good is available too. How we use our agency is the true test moment by moment, day by day.
The good news is that we have the option to choose positive images on our screens, to choose mutually satisfying media with our families, and to discuss and educate our children by not only knowing what they are viewing and playing, but occasionally doing it with them.
Is it possible to teach this old dog new tricks? Well, I’m not likely to be turn into a big fan of video games anytime soon, and frankly, I can’t see myself reading up on video games and looking up game facts. But who knows? This week I might be found playing Scott’s game with one of my grandchildren!
Don’t forget to check out Scott’s game here.