How Role-Playing Games Can Teach Kids Decision Making

Posted by | March 10, 2015 | Opinion, Tips for Parents | 9 Comments

“Okay, so what you want to do is try to have everyone attack the same enemy, so that…or you can try spreading the damage around too. That’s fine.”

My daughter and I are playing Child of Light. She’s nearly eight, and she’s never played a role-playing game before, so this seems like a good place to start. Her reading level is high enough that she can decipher what everything does and keep up with the story. It also helps that Aurora, the main character, is a girl around her age who wields a giant sword. That appeals to my daughter a lot.

Normally with games like this I’d be the one to use the controller most of the way, but I decided to let her take the reins this time. This puts me in the role of Aurora’s firefly friend, who can pick up extra health and help out in battles in subtle ways (somewhat similar to the co-star mode in the Super Mario Galaxy games).

I knew going in that playing a game like this herself—and being the one to make the decisions—was going to be good for my daughter. Games like this are really good for basic math, reading comprehension, and strategic thinking, and she’ll develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills from working through the admittedly simple puzzles the game throws her way. What I didn’t realize was how much playing a game like this with her was going to teach me about being a better parent.

One thing I’ve struggled with a lot as a dad is letting my kids make and learn from their own mistakes. After all, I know from my own experience that most of what my parents told me went in one ear and out the other, but when there were natural consequences for making a bad decision, I rarely made that same mistake again. It’s really hard with a young child to know when and how to let those mistakes happen, though; you spend the first several years just trying to keep your child out of harm’s way, then suddenly you have this small human who’s capable of making her own decisions about things.

I should add here that my daughter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when she was three, so that complicates things for us even further. As a result, my daughter is often skittish about unfamiliar situations where she doesn’t know exactly how things will turn out. When things do go off the plan she has in her head, she can get very upset and frustrated. So for her, making decisions ahead of time without knowing what effect they’ll ultimately have is a skill she needs extra opportunities to work on.

Child of Light Decision Making

There are lots of decisions that can be made in any role-playing game. Child of Light is no different.

What video games like Child of Light have provided both of us is a venue where she can fail, and I can let her, and we both know nothing bad will happen. A lot of it involves my daughter making choices and then determining why they were right or wrong. Even more of it, though, has been an exercise in restraint for me; I have to let her play the game how she decides to play it. It’s really, really hard to hold my tongue and not say anything when she’s making a bad decision that I know is not going to turn out the way she expects, but she needs to experience the outcome for what it is. It’s a lot easier to accept when you can say to yourself that it’s just a game and that the worst possible outcome is that she restarts, which she can do whenever she wants.

Playing Child of Light has been a fantastic experience for building up confidence for both of us while we’re spending quality time together. She gets to try different things out more or less on her own; I get to see her decision-making process evolve. I can teach myself to let her make mistakes without immediately swooping in to fix the situation. But I can also be there to answer her questions or to help her understand how to get better the next time around. This is great practice for life in general, for both of us. Pretty soon she’s going to be going out on her own, navigating everything that life throws at her. She’s going to make mistakes, and it’s good for her to know how I’m going to handle the big things when we’ve had plenty of practice at the little things—whether those little things happen to involve flying girls with swords or not.

So she gets her next quest and starts flying off in a direction to see what else the game has to offer. I try to lead the way forward, but she decides to go a different way. We end up getting stuck in a thorny tree for a while, but she works her way back out, slowly but surely. It’s not a big deal, though. I know she’ll get where she wants to go, when she’s ready to go there. And I know that I’ll be there to light the way when that time comes.

Steve Lubitz

About Steve Lubitz

Steve Lubitz got a copy of ET for the Atari 2600 at age 4, and loved video games so much that even playing that game couldn't turn him away. Steve is the dad to three daughters, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. He is also one of the hosts of the Isometric podcast on the 5by5 network.