When I was growing up in the 1990s, “stranger danger” was a popular refrain. The Internet was a brave new world, and parents were concerned that with sudden access to global communication, their kids would be vulnerable to predatory adults lurking online.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, my parents still bought my brother and me a subscription to City of Heroes. CoH was a popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) where players created their own superhero avatars and fought evil with other users.
Yep, they let two kids (aged 14 and 11) loose in the virtual world with no supervision (or so we thought—more on that later).
Ten years later, kids are more connected than ever. According to a 2013 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, kids’ Internet usage becomes serious around the age of 8, with 67% of 8-year-olds going online. The numbers climb throughout the teen years—a Pew study referenced in the same research finds that between the ages of 14 and 17, 95% of teens are online.
What are they doing there? Socializing, mostly: 73% of American teenagers use social media, and 54% of teens regularly play multiplayer games online.
This opens the door for a family bonding opportunity.
Don’t follow? When it comes to staying in touch with teens, every parent has a saga of failed attempts. Teenagers are going through a lot of growing pains, both physical and emotional. They are struggling to envision the adults they will become, outside of their parents’ influence. So for parents who want to spend quality time with teens—it might be time to get digital.
Get On Their Level
Playing an MMO with your teenager might not be how you envisioned hanging out, but it’s time to bite the bullet. Not only is it a low-key way to spend time with your kid at home, it’s also valuable when they move away. In this story, which made the rounds a couple of years ago, a woman named Malinda started playing World of Warcraft so she could keep in touch with her son who had moved away for college.
She found that it was easier to connect with him through the game—they were both spending their time doing something they enjoyed, and it allowed conversation to flow naturally.
I had a similar experience when I was a teenager—not with my parents, but with my friends. At age 14 I moved to France. Remember, I had been playing City of Heroes before this. Knowing that I would be online, a few of my friends got subscriptions to the game as well.
Hunkered over the computer in my brother’s room, I would spend the night going on missions with my friends. We fought trolls, leapt over tall buildings, and coordinated our superhero costumes. When we were tired of running missions, we would have dance circles or simply explore.
“I think City of Heroes was the only real way we could hang out together across the distance,” my friend Taylor told me when I questioned her about our old gaming haunts. I was by no means lacking in ways to communicate with my friends: I wrote a blog of my daily adventures, I kept up long email chains, and I telephoned them regularly. But in City of Heroes I wasn’t just doing a monologue about my life in France—I was actively creating new memories and experiences with my friends. “Instead of talking or hearing about school we could actually play something together, which was great,” said Taylor.
Check on Safety Yourself
I think it’s still reasonable for parents to be concerned about what their kids are doing online. The danger, however, doesn’t really come from the mythical child snatchers of the 90s and early 2000s. Mostly, it’s about bad language, inappropriate conversations, and other bad behaviors like harassment.
City of Heroes had built-in censorship in its chat. If I tried to type a swear (of course I did, I was a teenager!) it would come out as a bunch of asterisks. World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO today, also filters bad language—though it gives you the option to turn off the filter.
A more pressing concern for parents is probably the thought of exposing their kids to inappropriate conversations online. Even as a teen, I was pretty savvy about this. I wrote a blog post once complaining about how a guy had asked me to be his girlfriend. When I said no, he immediately left my team and teleported away. Ugh, so obnoxious. Why would he join my team if he didn’t want to kill things?
To be clear, I think most teenagers are perfectly capable of playing an MMO, and the rotten parts of online communities don’t compare to the good parts. We’ve written before about tactics for dealing with trolls and aggressive players, and I encourage parents to ask their kids to step away from the game for awhile if it becomes too much for them.
What I want most parents to realize is that they can make an online community better just by being there. Playing an MMO with your kid is a great way to understand the kinds of interactions they’re having when you’re not around. It also means the online community has just gained one mature, thoughtful member—you!
Make Sure Everyone’s On Board
No matter what your family situation is, it’s important to make sure everyone is on board before you start playing together. If you’re a single parent, this might not be such a problem.
If you’re parenting with a partner, well—best make sure you and your partner agree as much as possible on some groundrules.
Looking back, I was kind of shocked that my parents had let me play City of Heroes. Not because it was a bad game—I had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the other players—but because when it came to media, my parents were pretty protective. I mean, for a while there I wasn’t even allowed to watch “Rugrats” on Nickelodeon. Yeah. I had a tech-savvy mother and a very outdoorsy father.
“It’s not that I was against video games, but at that age, I was trying to get you guys outside more,” my dad told me. “I didn’t know what you were doing online. I trusted you personally but certainly had my misgivings about the virtual world.”
My mom had a different response. She also said she trusted me (and not so much my younger brother), but she revealed that she checked the game and internet history, as well as message boards, when my brother and I weren’t around. She told me that she was concerned that if I did encounter a creep online I wouldn’t tell anyone, for fear of getting my Internet privileges revoked.
A lot of conflicts in our household arose from how much time us kids wanted to spend with gadgets—and how each parent felt about technology use.
If you’re going to start playing an MMO with your kid, recognize that you will be taking time from something else. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—maybe it just means cutting into Saturday night TV. But both parents have to be okay with the arrangement. And ideally, both parents will be in on the fun.
Talk things over together. What do you want to get out of gaming? What will be the time limits? How will you juggle game time with other obligations—like your work, time with your partner, chores, and your kids’ homework? How will you make sure that you’re giving your kid enough alone time?
I don’t want to make this sound like a huge endeavor. Really, it’s not that hard.
Consider Gaming To Keep In Touch Across Distances
For kids and teens, making phone calls or sending email updates about their lives can be hard. Millennials are used to posting life updates online for a mass audience. Understandably, a parent wants something a little more personal. But as much as your kids may love you and miss you, they can still feel pressured by an expectation to reel off the week’s achievements in a phone call. So, just as I did when I moved to France, you can make your own memories together in an online game.
If you’re a parent living away from your kid—whether that means 10 minutes away or 10,000 miles—consider using an MMO to keep in touch. If your kids are minors, all the advice I gave above about clearing this with the other parent still applies—even more so, since the two of you will also be juggling long-distance communication.
But playing a game together is a great way to relax and let conversation come naturally. It’s also a great way to foster teamwork between you and your kid and to make memories and inside jokes that you can laugh over later.
This applies to all kinds of families! Get those long-distance cousins online. Get your grandma!
You won’t know until you try it.