There’s no question that games are everywhere now. We’ve got game commercials during prime-time TV, about half the people glued to their mobile phones during the morning commute are playing games, and Angry Birds have even invaded our beloved Star Wars. It goes without saying that teens play games. In fact, a 2009 PEW study found that 97% of teens play video games. Amazingly, the same study indicates that 53% of adults of all ages also play games. These adults might be spending more time on Candy Crush than Call of Duty, but they’re still gaming.

If you’re not a gamer, it might feel like games cause teens to go into isolation. But that’s not entirely true. A gaming habit can be good for teens.

Before you think about restricting your teen’s play time or banning games altogether, ask yourself some questions:

1.       Why do teens play games?

Gaming is more than just players interacting with games. There’s a diverse culture and strong community around gaming that teens are participating in. There’s even evidence that some teens find belonging and social acceptance in their online gaming communities and that gaming can improve a teen’s well-being and self-esteem.

This is in addition to the inherent psychological rewards from playing games. By succeeding in a game, players feel a sense of control and achievement—what educational researchers call “agency.” It feels good to have agency, but it’s also empowering and good for social development.

2.       What do teens learn from games?

Games are essentially systems of rules that players have to explore and master in order to progress. Many games depict violence, but violence is often not the point. The Hitman games, for example, present players with interesting puzzles to solve, and some games actually encourage minimizing direct combat, rewarding players for being stealthy instead. In the end, games are about problem-solving and learning how to navigate complex systems. The trial-and-error processes that players use to solve a game are strikingly similar to processes used in science and engineering. Additionally, through gaming, players develop strong “metacognitive” skills—the ability to see goals and progress towards those goals—which are necessary in figuring out what to do next. These are skills that players can learn to apply outside the game as well, but some teens might need help. By playing games yourself and thinking about these issues, you can understand how to best help teens hone these skills.

On top of learning from playing games, players are learning from their community experiences. They may be building social skills, negotiating behavioral norms, coordinating joint action, and communicating in sophisticated ways.

Be aware that some games have toxic online environments. One inclination is to shut off the games completely, but teens often find ways to access them anyway. If they are keeping secrets from you, they are far more likely to end up in a bad situation. By allowing teens into these communities, parents and teachers have a chance to guide teens in how to be upstanding and good in the face of online detractors. When players encounter bullying or toxic language in games, they don’t have to respond in kind! Learning these strategies for facing conflict in games could be a great way to learn how to manage conflict outside of games, too.

3.       How Can You Connect With Gaming Teens?

Get to know what teens are playing! The best way to answer these deeper questions about gaming is by trying out the games for yourself. Then look for YouTube videos and websites where players talk about the games, share strategies and insights, write fanfiction about the games’ characters, and hang out with other players. Figure out strategies for how to participate in smart, safe ways. Better yet, explore issues that come out of these games and gaming communities with your teens.

So, pick up that controller, grab that mouse, pull out that phone or tablet, and start playing games! Play on your own, play with teens! More importantly, reflect and talk about these experiences with your kids; a lot of social good and guiding moments can come out of it.

This article was written by

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He holds appointments at Pepperdine University, UW Bothell, and University of Ontario Institute of Technology, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. Recently, Mark was a post-doctoral scholar at UW Seattle in the College of Education, working with Computer Science & Engineering’s Center for Game Science on evaluating science and math games. He has a new(ish) book out based on his dissertation work on learning in online games titled Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. He holds a PhD in Learning Sciences/Educational Technology from the University of Washington.