When I identify myself as an authority on family gaming, the conversation often goes something like this:
Concerned Mom (wrinkled brow, stage whisper): “So, I don’t tell everybody this, but my kid has disappeared in to this game—what’s it called? Some superhero thing.”
Me: “Do you mean League of Legends?”
Concerned Mom: “I think that’s it! I don’t tell anyone this. He’s addicted. I feel like I’ve lost my kid.”
This conversation brings up a lot of feelings. When my son was a teenager, I too thought my kid played excessively. He played World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), and I was really worried about it for a while. And then, almost out of desperation, I started asking him a lot of questions about it.
Well, I ended up asking him to help me create a my own character. And then I asked him to teach me to play. From the beginning, I found the game exotic and fascinating. There was a whole world there! There were other people—real people—to chat with! There was an endless stream of things to do and learn. I remember following my son’s dwarf character all over Azeroth (the fantasy world of WoW) and teaming up to complete quests. I remember the patience with which he explained the arcana of character classes, armor, abilities, talents, and lore, on and on, ad infinitum. In WoW, we were able to hang out together in a way we hadn’t been able to manage in real life for some time. In the game, the mom-teen conflict melted away and were buddies again. I ended up playing WoW for several years—not every day, but probably several times a week for two or three hours at a time.
That’s why I understand why kids like to play video games a lot. And that’s why I can give you these nine reasons your kids might play a lot, too. (Even if you never end up playing yourself, there are many ways to understand and engage.)
- They don’t want to quit until they finish some task that seems crucial to completing an important objective. The trouble with this is that in games there is always something to do. One task leads to another. That’s how games work. Some kids get over-focused on completing things. You know if your kid is prone to this or to the opposite extreme—never completing much of anything. Suffice it to say, this behavior can get a little compulsive, and some kids might need help breaking it down or weaning themselves off of that nice feeling you get when you finish something. Think about how good it feels when you finish a task you’ve worked on for a while, like putting on a great family reunion or writing your self-evaluation at work. And then talk them through strategies to manage their time. Can they plan gaming sessions ahead of time to fit gaming tasks into the time they have available, breaking down tasks to do later?
- They experience “flow.” Video games are really good at producing the cognitive state of “flow”—that feeling you get when you’re so immersed in an activity that time stops. If you’re playing as a mage, for example, and you’ve mastered the keystrokes to vanquish the monster that’s ravaging the countryside, everything’s working the way it’s supposed to, and you’re kicking butt, it feels good. As a grownup and a non-gamer, you might experience flow when you’re writing or painting or cooking. Talk to your kids about why flow can be good for you. But ask what happens when you spend too much time on one thing—no matter how good it feels.
- They don’t want to let their friends down. Most video games these days are played online with other people. Often those people are other kids your kid knows in real life or plays with regularly. Your kid is part of a team, just as you’re part of your bowling team or your book club. Talk about what the norms of the team are, and ask questions: How much notice do you need to give if you can’t make it? Can you offer the team a replacement? What are the consequences of not showing up? Are you in too deep and should you quit and start over with another team that requires a level of service you can handle?
- They find the predictable environment comforting. Games can be a huge relief compared to real life; games have rules, and if you follow them, generally you’ll achieve the predicted result. It’s not like school or home, where teachers and parents can be capricious or hard to figure out or complicated. And it’s not like a middle-school dance, for example, where figuring out what to wear, how to move, and what to say can seem impossible and a mistake can feel like death. Think of driving on a freeway with a GPS guiding you every step of the way, for example, versus driving on the left side of a one-lane road in rural Ireland. Talk to your kids about stress relief and escapism. Escaping your problems for a while is not always a bad thing, not at all. Taking a break can refresh you and send you back to serious business with new energy. When and how is it okay to escape your troubles for a while? When does escapism become a problem?
- They get to be freer, with less fear of being judged by you or anyone else. Video games can be a safe place to try out different roles and behaviors. Girls can play as boys or men, and boys can play as girls or women. Short kids can make a tall avatar. Shy kids can speak up. Followers can start a new guild and lead it. Passive kids can try being aggressive. Think of how it feels to wear costume to a Halloween party that’s so elaborate that no one knows who you are. And ask kids why they like role-playing. Does it help them relate to other people better? Does it help them imagine new possibilities for themselves? What are the limits of role-playing in games when real people are involved, even if they’re only online?
- They are sad or depressed or anxious, and video games seem to help. Video games are good at keeping kids engaged in demanding tasks so they don’t have as much bandwidth to ruminate. There’s even some evidence that games can interfere in the brain processes that cause PTSD. It’s possible that some kids escape into games as a way to self-medicate. In that case, a game might be better than other things people use to self-medicate, like drugs or alcohol. But video games can also be a way for kids to avoid facing their problems, and there is some evidence that kids who are depressed end up playing so much that they become even more isolated and more depressed. Think of times in your life when you felt so sad or upset that you withdrew from family and friends and felt even worse for a while. Talk to your kids about the importance of accepting help when you need it and taking care of yourself even when you don’t feel like it.
- They have become an expert or leader in their video gaming community and they like the sense of mastery, fame, power, and/or ego strokes. Kids who aren’t leaders in sports or school may hit their stride in a game they love. Maybe they’ve studied and worked hard at getting better and all of a sudden they realize they’re good. Think of what it feels like to be good at something—maybe for you it’s being a computer programmer or a marathon runner. Talk to them about balance. How they can be good at more than one thing? Might it be better to be good at a range of things and have relationships with lots of different types of people? Why should you be careful not to depend too much on what others think of you?
- They don’t have to look right or present themselves correctly to be accepted. In video games, you can look however you want. Clothes can be changed at will, as can body type. You can exchange your acne for clear skin, or blue skin, or fur. Differently abled kids (especially with appropriate accommodations) can enjoy blending into the crowd for a while. You know what a relief it is sometimes to talk on the phone rather than meet someone in person. But no face time isn’t good either. Ask kids if they’re getting enough face time with friends. Isn’t it important to touch, dance, and talk in person, too?
- They may have unrealistic dreams of fame and fortune as a professional gamer. Yes, there are professional video gamers now. Esports are a huge deal, and the stars of esports rate the same kinds of rewards professional athletes and movie stars do. Unfortunately, becoming an elite esports star is about as likely as becoming a professional basketball player. Think about what it was like to be young and believe you could accomplish anything, and talk to your kids about how great it is to dream. And also read up on what it takes to be a pro; these people work incredibly hard and pay a price for their dedication. Talk to kids about what the tradeoffs are.
I don’t play WoW now, but I don’t regret playing. I learned a lot, I enjoyed it, I met some interesting people, and I got to spend time with my son. The time I spent in World of Warcraft replaced my television time, but that wasn’t a bad thing. And I can say without a doubt that the number of hours I’ve spent playing WoW will never hold a candle to the number of hours I’ve spent immersed in British detective novels or sci-fi television series.
My son played a lot for a while, and then he quit. He said he didn’t have time for it anymore. He’s in his twenties now, and sometimes the two of us reminisce fondly about our time playing WoW together.
So, moms and dads: video games are a pastime and a hobby, and they are a storytelling medium that can be every bit as compelling as any other. Some kids play a lot, and no matter what the reasons are, it’s worth your time, energy, and effort to understand.