Talking With Your Kids About Video Games

Posted by on Saturday, 28th April, 2018

I’ve been a video game addict all my life. I have no kids, but I’ve been a high-school English teacher for over 15 years. I’ve spoken to some parents who aren’t sure how to talk to their children about the games they spend so much time lost in. I thought it might be helpful to share some ideas and recommendations for parents who are concerned and/or curious and/or confused.

(Most regular readers of this website will be familiar with these tips, but I want to make them available for parents who don’t play video games.)

Know What They’re Playing

There are, of course, many different types of video games — just as there are many kinds of movies. The gaming world today is filled with first-person shooters, action-adventures, role-playing sword-and-sorcery titles, puzzle games, story-rich “walking simulators”, real-time strategy games, tower-defense scenarios, twin-stick shooters, bullet-hell shooters, sports games, and a hundred other styles. Then, within each style of game, we find different genres: Some first-person shooters are futuristic scenarios, while others are WW1 games.

There’s as much difference between Tetris and Grand Theft Auto as there is between Finding Nemo and Get Out. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in the US and Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) across the pond provide ratings for games and describe the content. Notice, however, that many independent games don’t get rated by the ESRB or PEGI, so that information is not always available.

The best way to learn about what your kids are playing, of course, is to ask them. (This can be tricky if you don’t have much time — some kids have trouble showing restraint when describing their favorite things.) Have them explain what’s scary or difficult about the game. Ask them what happens to the bad guys after they’re defeated. Talk to them about the difference between fantasy and reality.

Talk to them, too, about what choices they have in the game. One of the most shocking (and gratuitous) moments in the Call of Duty franchise was a mission in Modern Warfare 2 (2009) called “No Russian”, in which the player accompanies a group of Russian terrorists as they massacre people in an airport. The player can choose to join in or not, with no penalty or reward offered in either case. It’s a gruesome and horrifying episode, and critics have squawked endlessly about what artistic purpose it serves. (My view: Not much, although it’s a rare moment in a war-zone video game where we see innocent civilians get hurt.)

My point here is that things like this show up in games all the time. In Grand Theft Auto V the player can choose which of the main characters to sacrifice. In The Witcher III, the player chooses whether to help a man who has savagely beaten his wife. (The man describes, in laborious detail, the mind games his wife had been playing with him before this act of horrible domestic violence. The line between explication and rationalization is obviously up for discussion.) In Fallout 3 we can blow up the town of Megaton (and everyone in it), or defuse the bomb and save dozens of lives.

These examples are from games rated “M” for Mature, so younger kids will (hopefully) not be faced with such dire scenarios. But other games have choices too: Undertale allows players to fight or avoid conflict. The Stanley Parable offers some novel paradoxes related to free will. Even Minecraft allows players to eat cows, or go vegetarian. The choices we make in video games can, if nothing else, serve as interesting doors to discuss important issues in the real world.

Deconstruct the Community

Online multiplayer video games bring an extra wrinkle into the mix: Other humans. Video game communities can be fantastic and supportive, or they can be horrible and toxic. Unfortunately, the latter are more common. Many sour children (and sour adults who act like children) bring their social frustrations and real-life insecurities into the online world, making games less fun for everybody.

This toxicity can take many forms: Racism, sexism, hatred toward LGBTQ folks, and streams of foul language. A small mistake can make a player the target of wretched hostility and abuse. Girls and women who play games online often receive harassment and ridicule, based on stereotypes and double standards.

Some players use “hacks” or “glitches” to cheat. Technology has helped in this regard, with technologies like EA’s “PunkBuster” and Steam’s “EasyAntiCheat” software. Beyond the digital arms race, however, we find sad desperate efforts to win by any means necessary. Some players go for personal glory even if it hurts the team. Some folks complain endlessly about how unskilled their teammates are. Many players take the games way too seriously.

On the other hand, some folks make online gaming into a fun, friendly experience. I’ve met some truly excellent folks online who encourage each other, forgive mistakes, and focus on having fun. Some gaming clans and communities (like the VeteranGamers) provide support for each other when things get tough. Real life is difficult enough already; video games shouldn’t add to the stress and meshugas.

Talk to your kids about these patterns. What kinds of people do they play with? Who have they met online? What kinds of things should a decent player do — and not do? Who’s the most interesting person they’ve played with, and when have they let frustration get the best of them? Who have they muted on the chat or headset, and why? Who have they made fun of, and how did it make the other person feel? Is the chatter online fun and playful, or serious and stressful?

Even if the games don’t have voice or text chat, there are usually forms of communication going on when a game is played online. Some games allow players to create levels of their own. Others allow “emotes”, where players wave, or dance, or salute. Talk with your kids about how they interact with other people online, whatever form it takes.

Explore the Stories

As with books and movies, video games offer lots of interesting stories that can ignite important conversations. Portal 2 and Mass Effect may be the best examples in recent mainstream gaming, but there are plenty of others. Don’t assume that just because it looks like they’re only moving blocks around, or fighting squishy monsters, that your children aren’t experiencing themes common to great literature. Betrayal, persistence, friendship, and good vs evil are ubiquitous in the most popular video games. Others like The Turing Test open philosophical doors to concepts like epistemology, while games like Gone Home present thoroughly engrossing narratives with complex (though physically absent) characters.

I’ve had interactions with these stories that are every bit as meaningful as my favorite books and films. (Some people claim that our involvement with video games is more meaningful, since the player is usually the protagonist of the story. I’m inclined to disagree, but it’s a discussion for another time.) The virtual people we meet and the paths we follow can allow us to reflect in fascinating ways on many aspects of human existence.

Perhaps even more valuable, the mechanics of video games allow us to break such stories apart. How satisfying is the ending, and why? What should a good story ending do? Are the characters realistic? Are they full individuals, or simple stock figures? How well does the game get your attention at the start? How difficult is it, and how does that connect with the story?

Video game developers don’t always think like producers of children’s movies or TV shows. There often are no lessons about friendship or sharing. Usually we get complex scenarios and harsh truths revealed through a game’s twists and turns. Nevertheless, we adults can use the games as a starting point for discussions about morality, relationships, and other topics.

Build Bridges Beyond the Game

In much the same way, game elements beyond the story can lead to important conversations and connections to the so-called “real world” as well. Some video games transform our thinking in revolutionary ways — the first time I played Portal I felt like the walls were melting.

There’s research to suggest that video games can help aid hand-eye coordination and lateral thinking. That’s all well and good, but I’m more concerned with the aspects of video games related to creativity and challenging assumptions.

This is tricky, because some games discourage imagination. It’s easy to become zombified, just going through the motions of shooting bad guys or bashing goblins. Many games are carbon copies of each other, one space-war and sword-magic clone after another. Even the open-world building game Minecraft can drain kids of creativity. Ignoring the amazing possibilities at their disposal, some players focus only on fighting each other, or blowing up the castles other people have made.

But at their best, video games can bring us into amazing new worlds and open doors of infinite possibilities. Ask your kids how the these game systems work. What can they do, and what would they like to do that they can’t? How does No Man’s Sky differ from Rogue Galaxy? Why is Civilization 6 better than Civilization 5? Which race is your character in Skyrim, and why?

Kids playing video games can look like brain-dead layabouts, but there’s often a great deal of concentration and problem-solving going on. With the right guidance and help, young people can relate to these virtual worlds in ways that are beneficial, educational, and even transformative. I love connecting with my students through video games, because we instantly have a language of commonality that nothing else can provide. (That same is true, of course, of books and movies.)

As the saying goes: GLHF — Good luck and have fun.

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