Raising a Child Who Plays Video Games

I don’t know anything about raising children. I suspect that when I have progeny of my own someday, I will learn just enough to get by. But I wanted to first dispel your likely rage upon seeing a twenty-three year old’s blog post titled “How to raise a child…” The title of this blog is more just to get your attention. If you feel manipulated into reading, then you are right. I manipulated you, Congressman.

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The Problem with where Parents Get Their Facts

Though I may not have any meaningful insight into raising a child who plays video games, I will stand up for my experience in having been a child who liked video games. Growing up in the world of Dateline NBC, The View, and whatever that bizarre semi regular cabal that can be seen on Fox News is, I have noticed one thing that has faithfully held back my parents’ generation from judging the role of video games in a child’s life fairly.

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Figure 2: Fox and Friends: By paranoid baby boomers, for paranoid baby boomers

No one in my parents’ generation who speaks with authority actually knows what they mean when they say “video games”.

And the reason why it’s so difficult to convince this generation of this is because they really think they do know. All because they had an Atari wired up to their living room TV and played Pong for about 20 minutes a week, they think they can, not only voice their opinion concerning the effect of modern video games in society, but actually lead the discussion.

The video games of this time are about as relevant to the discussion as hop-scotch or “I-Spy” is. The fact is that video games are completely different today. Anyone who gave up the gamer life before the Super Nintendo effectively surrendered their right talk about how they think Call of Duty is affecting our kids.

I know I am coming on a bit strong with the sweeping statements, but they are rightfully sweeping. In all my years of playing video games, not once have I come across a parent who appreciated the different types of video games that are out there. Which leads into my first bit of advice…

1. Know what kind of video games your kid play

When I said I have never met an adult who appreciated the difference between video games, I wasn’t being totally truthful. I’ve met one person. It was late in junior high, and after participating in sufficient, cordial dinner table conversation with our extended family, I escaped into the basement to play Xbox. I powered on the machine and picked up on where I had last left off. I was playing through one of the Splinter Cell games, which I was very fond of at the time.

To my shame, just as my character was seconds from assasinating the impetus of a dangerous revolution in Tblilisi, Georgia , I noticed my Auntie Bonnie standing over my shoulder.

“I didn’t mean to sneak up you, Alex. Just watching – that’s all. What are you doing?”

I offered her only as much detail as I thought she was interested in. ”Just playing video games.” We sat there in silence for a few more minutes. I pulled the trigger, sending a titanium round cleanly through the skull of the villain I had been dutifully watching in my long-ranged scope. Then, my aunt surprised me.

“So tell me about this character. Which country is this? Who sent you there?”

Sheepish at first, I delved into a little more detail. ”Well… I’m Sam Fischer. He’s been through a lot of wars, but he keeps getting pulled from retirement because he’s the best of the best. The NSA sends him into conflict areas because they know he can… make problems go away, I guess. He’s like a machine – he just gets the job done, no matter how stacked the situation is.”

Bonnie nodded in approval. ”That’s cool. Nice shot – that looked pretty hard.” Bonnie stood and watched until Sam climbed into an extraction helicopter.

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Figure 3: I waited until she walked away to throw my celebratory grenades all over the civilian town.

I was impressed, and I think most parents could learn a valuable lesson from Bonnie. The fact is that video games are very different, and more so every day. If you don’t believe me, just take a guy who plays Madden all day and send him on a little playdate with your typical World of Warcraft guy, and just watch how much they like each other (spoiler – the Madden guy asks the other what sports World of Warcraft guy likes, and the World of Warcraft guy just stares at his shoes until he walks away.

Video games are different. You can’t really talk about how “Video Games” are affecting your kids until you know what kind of video games they play – and how do you sleuth it out? Just as my Auntie Bonnie did, you simply ask them.

Sure – letting your swarthy son talk about what level magii he is in virtual-weirdo land may be the most boring five minutes of your life, but just watch him light up at the prospect of his parents actually caring about his interest. They may be boring, time-consuming, and radically different from how you used to spend your time, but they are still interests nonetheless.

How can this make your relationship between you and your kid better? You build trust. Getting banned from your favorite hobby sucks, but knowing that my parents took the time to actually familiarize themselves with how I like to spend the time makes it easier to focus on why I got punished in the first place. I know it’s not just a “stupid game” to them. They know it means something because I got a chance to explain why I like it.

2. Learn What your Kid is Getting Out of It

So you have stretched yourself and listened to your swarthy son talk about his dungeon fortress. I hope you find it wasn’t as hard as you expected, but it’s already time to level-up. The next step is to find out what your child is getting out of video games.

This places even more importance on your understanding of how different video games can be. Just as they are different, there is a number of strengths getting honed in each type of video game – and it’s your job to find out what your child’s game is honing exactly.

Some games have a lot of history. If you have ever walked in on your kid playing a game, and he is just kind of scrolling through screens and reading text, your kid is probably a bit of a history buff. In these types of games, you generally play alone and travel around a strange world, gathering an overwhelming amount of conversational context from a number of different characters. Your success in the game depends on your ability to distill a slew of conversations into meaningful direction and purpose. That could almost make it on a resume.

Some games require a lot of mastery and practice. Games that move quickly and flash a lot of lights do so to try to distract the player from the main task, strengthening their ability to focus through and despite all the other “noise”. This is more important than you may think – just ask your friendly neighborhood brain surgeon.

Some games are just plain stupid. They are kind of repetitive, and sort of lose meaning once people get way too good at them. But these are my favorite kind of games. These games aren’t designed to demand focus. They are more to facilitate conversation. They are ideal for hanging out.

I have a lot of memories of playing Halo with friends. We would chase each other around the same abandoned spaceship for hours, while the conversation meandered in and out of the petty tomeaningful. It’s amazing how one game can take you from just complaining about teachers to discussing the challenges of growing up in a mega church, or being a Christian guy in a public school.

I have to really commend my parents now. They had a very simple rule that I enjoyed my whole life. Whenever I had friends over, we could play video games for as long as we wanted… even until sun-up if we had the stamina. Thinking about all the meaningful moments of confession and confiding I had during those times, I couldn’t be more thankful for that rule – and I would recommend you implement it in your home too.

Video games facilitate a lot of great behaviors (as listed above), but this is also your chance to see if they are affecting your child negatively. God forbid you find out your kid loves games simply for the violence – or expressing his frustration. God forbid your kid only likes video games because they are so much easier than physical activity, and everything else is boring. God forbid you discover anything destructive that can lead to addictive habits, but rejoice in the fact that because you made it this far, you now have the influence and trust to fairly intervene. Like I said – knowing that a parent has taken the time to understand my video game habit makes it much easier to focus on their concerns when they come up.

3. Leave your Nostalgia in the shoebox - it's a crappy standard

Lastly, I would like to address nostalgia. I know it’s scary thinking back on what video games meant to you and comparing them to the strange beast they are today. You come from a time where video games didn’t have the power to affect people’s behavior.

If I were to advise you to condescend on your child and reserve your disappointment in how they don’t spend their time building tree houses and playing board games like you did when you were young, I will warn you that there would be nothing I could do to stop Benjamin Franklin from laying a hand on your shoulder and being just as condescending to you for participating in something as new-fangled and futuristic as a manufactured board game. After all, when he was a child there was nothing to do but sip brandy and read last month’s almanac.

Shortly after, I could see Galileo coming up behind Benny, expressing his disappointment in Ben’s fulfillment in something as weird and futuristic as an almanac. After all, when he was young, he found just as much excitement in dissecting birds and carving his name on trees.

Still after, Aesop approaches Galileo and furnishes his disgust with doing something as left-wing as dissecting birds. After all, when he was a child, he was just as happy wrestling forty-year old men and throwing sheep knuckles at his friends.

I could go on, but my point is that nostalgia is a horrible standard. The way your kids spend their time will always seem less valuable then the way you spent your time as a child, but you have to keep that to yourself. That feeling is for you and you alone. You have to let your kids have their time to.

Because in short time, we’ll be just as disgusted with the way our kids spend their time. While we all wish our kids played regular video games with hand-held controllers, our kids will be jumping on pads and flailing their arms around in virtual-reality bliss. We feel the pain too. We hate the idea of something as tacky as Wii Bowling becoming the new standard, but it is our burden to bear just as we are yours to bear.

Closing

I’m not a parent, but I do love video games. Coming out of that experience, I can sum it all up by saying you can never go wrong with just talking to your kid about the kinds of things he or she thinks is cool. Even if what they are into is really different from the things you liked as a kid, you can’t let that stop you from appreciating it. Hell – even sit down and play a game. Let your kid kick your butt in whatever game they are playing. They’ll be beaming the rest of the night – not because they won, mind you - but because you showed you give a crap about the stuff they like.

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Figure 4: And if you win, then congratulations – you transcend generations with how awesome you are at things. You can now gloat until your last lucid day on earth.