When I was a kid, my siblings and I would enthusiastically gather around my dad’s computer to watch him kill orcs in Warcraft I. We would cheer him on, give him advice, and point out treasures he’d missed. When I was a little older, he taught me how to play, and I was defeating armies of slime by age 8. We played together through Warcraft II, III, and the expansion packs, and finally started in on World of Warcraft, the MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing game). As a teenager, I didn’t connect with my dad on a lot of subjects, but gaming was one of them.
If I could go back, I admit I would’ve tried harder to communicate with my dad, especially on the subject of gaming; I loved it, he loved it, and I wish we’d played together more often. But teens are notoriously bad at that type of communication—the “spend more time with me” communication—so here are some tips for parents who want to game with their teens, but don’t know where to begin.
1. Meet them where they are. Most teens play games, whether it’s PC games, video games, or simply the Angry Birds app on their phones.
2. Pick an age-appropriate game. It can be hard to connect with teens. They don’t want to play Monster Attack in the backyard anymore; they want a more mature relationship with you, and they’re usually put off by adults treating them as if they’re still little kids. The thing is (as much as it may not seem like it at times), they have matured, and so has their play. That doesn’t mean you can’t play with them, just that you need to find a game that matches their age level—you can battle monsters in a video game as easily as you can battle them in your backyard. Gaming can also be a fantastic way to connect with your kids if they live far away if for any reason you’re separated for an extended period.
3. Take the initiative. Some teens have a hard time communicating, especially when they’re feeling lonely or unloved. They want people to notice their moods, and don’t understand why they suddenly have to speak up. (After all, their parents were easily able to figure out their needs when they were younger.) Teenagers might be dying to ask you to play, but not know the words to show it. They also might feel that you won’t be interested. If you’re the one to approach them, you might get an enthusiastic response. You never know!
4. Don’t shy away from gaming with girls! All kids might have to face foul language when gaming online, but women face the brunt of it, and you can act as your daughter’s backup if the need arises. If you are a woman yourself, you can act in solidarity with her. On that note, try not to make any assumptions about the kind of game your daughter wants to play. Ask her what she’d like before choosing a game, and whether she picks Gears of War or Fashion Designer, make an effort to try it out with her.
5. Don’t denigrate the game. And try not to judge character based on a favorite game. You may be uncomfortable with an aspect of the game—intense violence, for example—but you can’t assume that the violence is why kids like the game. In fact, they might be just as uncomfortable as you are. Use these moments as opportunities to listen, learn, and give feedback. Find out why they are okay with playing the game despite unsavory factors. If they do seem to enjoy the shadier aspects of the game, talk to them about why this is and how it makes them feel, and give real-life examples of why that content isn’t okay with you. Finally, don’t let them use “but it’s just a game” as an excuse to avoid talking about it—media matters, and even if your kid fully understands the difference between real life and gaming, everyone in the family should participate in an ongoing discussion about how media impacts our views in subtle, but meaningful, ways.
6. Be a guardian. Studies show that gaming with kids is the best way to deal with some of the controversial aspects of gaming.
7. Don’t underestimate your abilities. Games take some time to learn, just like all activities. Don’t expect it to come easy, but don’t assume that it comes easy to your kids either—chances are they’ve had a lot more practice, and that’s the only reason they seem to pick it up faster. Of course the older you get, you may notice slower reflexes, but don’t let this stop you. The key is to get your kids to help you—teens love teaching, and they might jump at the chance to show you their favorite pastime.
8. Try to find games you can all enjoy. Don’t force yourself to play something you despise. You might never find true common ground, but if you’re hating every minute of it—or your kids are—it will be clear to all parties involved. There are many, many types of games out there. Social games on mobile apps might be more in line with your interests. There are party games, light-hearted MMORPGs for PC gamers, and plenty of intense video games that don’t involve violence or rapid-action reflexes.
9. Don’t assume you’ll hate gaming. You never know what you might get out of it—maybe just the joy of hanging out with your teenager for extended periods will make it worthwhile! (We can only hope, right?) On that note, even if you do find yourself hating gaming, that’s okay. Not everyone is going to have the same interests no matter how you look at it. However, it’s important to accept gaming if it’s something your kid enjoys, even if you aren’t an active participant—after all, chances are you’ve sat through dance recitals, Little League games, and musicals to support your kids’ passions. Why should gaming be any different?
10. Just have fun. Relax. Enjoy yourself! You’re allowed to like whatever aspect of gaming you want, even if that means gathering flowers while your teen wanders off to kill monsters. Learn how to make potions with the flowers and hand off your bounty so your kid always has a full stock of health and magic. If you don’t want to play the game yourself, watch and ask them questions. You can help from the sidelines, just like my brother and sister and I did when with my dad when we were kids. Most of all, don’t think of gaming as the enemy. Get to know it, and you might find yourself enjoying a hobby you never imagined you’d like.