Being a parent and a gamer can present a whole host of challenges. Games are a pretty new medium, and with novelty comes fear of the unknown.
Fortunately, none of us are navigating these waters alone. At PAX East last weekend, I got to see groups of parents and psychologists discuss the issues around gaming, such as screen time concerns, finding the right games for your family, and even finding time as a parent to play games you enjoy.
For Nicole Nymh, “it took a few years to get back into that role” of being a gamer as well as a parent. But one day her young son started playing with her iPad, and that gave her a reason to explore gaming as an activity they could do together.
When it comes to finding the right games, Steve Lubitz, co-host of gaming podcast Isometric, said, “I’ve started bucketing my games into games I can play with the kids, games I can play when the kids are around, and daddy games,” a pile that got smaller and smaller as his kids got older (and stopped taking naps). He found a solution to the timing problem though: he gets up early in the morning to work out, and plays games on his exercise bike. The statement drew laughs from a crowd of parents used to finding non-traditional ways of gaming with kids in their lives.
Stephen Duetzmann, the editor-in-chief of Engaged Family Gaming, said that being a parent made him more critical of what games he plays. He sees his kids’ childhoods as a golden opportunity to play games like Mario Kart and experience the magic of gaming—even though his sons are tempted by more mature titles like Destiny.
Sean Knuth, a forensic psychologist, and Patrick O’Connor, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, had suggestions for parents who struggle to interact with their gaming children. If your kid wants a new video game you’re not sure about giving them, you can ask them to write a video game report, Knuth suggested. Like a book report, a game report would ask the child to examine the game’s story and what they like about it. As a bonus, it gives the parent an insight into the child’s mind and their interactions with the game.
Another problem parents might have is getting their kids to stop playing a game. O’Connor has worked with children and video games in the past. One of their exercises was called “controllers down,” in which he asked kids to put their controllers down for a short break in the middle of a Mario Kart race. This exercise helped him understand how each child responded to the stress of losing. He found that some kids reacted better to the exercise when they had no warning about putting the controllers down, while others preferred to be warned that they would need to put down the controller in 30 seconds, or have a countdown.
“We would communicate to the parents how much happier the kid was when they had this warning. If you’re having a hard time getting kids to stop gaming, maybe you need to warn them ahead of time,” O’Connor suggested. “Some kids want to get to a save point. They want to plan for things.” Meanwhile, others just wanted to get it over with. In Mario Kart, these countdowns became an exercise in time management. Kids who had a countdown might save their special items and use them as a boost once they were allowed to pick the controllers up again. Giving kids the chance to get to that save point shows them that you understand that gaming is important to them.
Small screens were also singled out as a great part of any parenting strategy—both for parents and for kids. All the parents recognized their kids’ natural fascination with the Wii U GamePad. Something about having a screen and a controller in one device makes it irresistible for kids. And since certain Wii U games can be played on the GamePad instead of the TV, it’s a lifesaver for families.
“It used to be a useless feature to me, and now it’s everything,” said Kyle Churchill, co-host of Run Button. Being able to play games on a small screen instead of taking up the TV makes sharing the living room easier. Lubitz also recommended the PlayStation Vita’s Remote Play ability, which lets him play PlayStation 4 games on his handheld Vita system. That way, games that might be inappropriate (or just uninteresting) for his kids can be kept private.
Another parenting concern related to gaming is the debate over screen time. How much is OK? How much is too much? The American Psychological Association has stated that kids under two years old should have no screen time whatsoever, saying that “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” However, experts note that screen time with a parent is the best bet. Studies have shown that when parents interact with their children over screens (such as asking them question about a show or a game), the child retains more vocabulary and has a greater understanding of the story.
Still, moderation is best.
“There is nothing inherently good about video games, and there’s nothing inherently bad about video games either,” said Knuth. Even though we can all agree that maybe a game like Candy Crush isn’t the best for us, playing it isn’t bad unless you engage with it in an unhealthy way.
The speakers also encouraged getting to know kids’ hobbies, and trying to understand their perspectives. Of his daughter, Knuth said, “My job as a dad is to develop an interest in her interests.”
“It’s not about shielding them from what you don’t want them to see; it’s about making sure they’ll have fun,” said Lubitz. “It’s about knowing your kids: what they can deal with, and what they can’t.” In Lubitz’s case, his daughter is terrified of zombies, so even a family-friendly title like Plants vs. Zombies is out of the question. But they enjoy artistic games like Child of Light and Gravity Ghost.
All in all, the panelists agreed that gaming is great way to spend time as a family. “What games do,” said Knuth, “is help us connect with each other.”