Why You Should Play Video Games with Your Kids
Sharing video games can improve your relationship and give you parenting tools.
Posted July 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Playing video games with children has many benefits, including quality time together.
- Understanding your children's motivations for play can help you expand their interests.
- Experiencing video games for yourself can help you assess games for appropriate content.
- Understanding the games your children play can help you set boundaries and have important conversations.
The best advice I can give to parents of gamers is: Play video games with your kids.
Can’t get your kids to spend time with you? Play video games with your kids.
Teachers are complaining that your kids are paying more attention to Minecraft than their schoolwork? Play video games with your kids.
Your kids have no other interests? Play video games with your kids.
Concerned that your kids are being exposed to inappropriate content? Play video games with your kids.
Worried about your kids’ decisions? Play video games with your kids.
The most obvious reason to play is to spend quality time with your children. Even though you might prefer spending time outside tossing a ball around or going out for ice cream, it’s important to meet them where they are.
I fondly remember playing a game called King’s Quest with my father. As a young child, I’d spend hours sitting on his lap moving the computer mouse to help the protagonist explore the Alice in Wonderland-like world by solving puzzles. Twenty-five years later, he and I still talk about how fun it was to share that experience.
It’s also easier to have conversations while sharing an activity. Every therapist I know who works with children has a trusty deck of Uno cards in their office. Having something to do makes conversations feel less forced—sneak in a “By the way, how’s school going?” or a “How are your friends doing?” while playing. You’ll be amazed how much more open young people are to answer questions while beating each other up in Super Smash Bros. than sitting face-to-face getting “interrogated” by their parents.
There are also several enormous gaming, comic, and anime conventions around the country (you’ve probably heard of Comic Con). Spend a day walking around one with your kids. You’ll be amazed by the elaborate costumes and might even glimpse a few familiar guest celebrities. More importantly, your children will appreciate the chance to go with you and show you an important part of their world.
Adding to Your Parenting Toolbox
Learning about games will also give you language to have effective conversations with your children.
For example, certain types of games cannot be paused at will, for example, in the middle of a round. They’re therefore hard to stop, especially for young people whose friends might be depending on them. Decades later, my parents still joke wryly about their sons’ whining, “But Mommmm, I can’t come downstairs right now, I’m in a trainer battle…!” They didn’t understand what that meant or why it felt so much more urgent than coming to dinner when it was hot. It led to strife on more than one occasion.
Knowing this, which of the following approaches seems more likely to get a child to put down the controller without an argument?
- “You need to stop playing that game so much, you’re failing your classes.”
- “I know you’re playing WoW with your friends right now, but you need to stop after this raid to get your homework done.”
- “Please come take out the trash.”
- “Please come take out the trash at the end of the round.”
- “Come on, let’s go take a walk.”
- “Let’s go for a walk when you’re at your next good stopping point.”
Even if you decide that you want your children to turn the game off as soon as you call, understanding the language your children are using will give you the tools to have this conversation with them. Simply acknowledging the dilemma by using their language will be more readily listened to. “I know that you’re in the middle of a round, but Grandma is coming over and I need your help” will be more effective than simply, “Put down the game. Grandma is coming over and I need your help.” And of course, if you knew what a trainer battle was, its importance to your child, how long they typically take, and the problem it may cause them if interrupted, you might choose to give them a bit more latitude.
Many other examples exist. What would you do if your child asked you for money to buy “skins”? What about “DLC”? Is either worth your money? The easiest way to learn the lingo is by playing. (You can reference a glossary of video game terms here.)
Assessing Appropriate Content
Would you be okay with your children playing Octopath Traveler? How about Katamari Damacy? How do you know? The ESRB rating on the box and websites like Common Sense Media are helpful, but they cannot replace your own instincts and value system. There is no substitute for experiencing the game yourself.
This is particularly true for games with a public chat feature. When players can hear anyone on their team talking, it can turn even the most family-friendly game toxic. Racist, homophobic, and sexist slurs are common in some games. Playing the games will help you monitor this aspect and decide if you want to restrict voice chat to only communicating with players your child knows and trusts. (Candidly, that’s something I recommend for almost anyone; public chat is terrible.)
Similarly, many games can provide unique opportunities for important conversations. Sexist and harmful content in Grand Theft Auto can be turned into a positive lesson about how to treat others. You can demonstrate how to regulate your emotions while dying repeatedly in the punishingly difficult Celeste or Dark Souls.
Parents who own firearms can point out irresponsible behavior by characters and reinforce safe practices. Parents who disapprove of guns can use the same games as a lesson about why they see them as harmful. Talk about the difference between fantasy and reality: Why is it fun to watch fictional characters solve problems with their fists, but unacceptable for real people to do the same?
Discussing values through fictional characters provides a more comfortable way to discuss real life. It’s easier to have a conversation about a character’s choices than it is what your child should do in a given situation.
For example, most teenagers will roll their eyes at their parents trying to teach them how to respond to a bully. But during a scene in which the protagonist in Life Is Strange faces a cruel student, a well-timed “Wow, what would you do?” could teach the same lesson without the groans.
One mother decided to try this approach by playing Minecraft with her 6-year-old son. She was initially concerned about how he was handling the cartoonish violence in the game, so she decided to ask why he was killing the virtual animals. She was relieved to discover that “this wasn’t about aggression but understanding cause and effect. ‘See, you get stuff,’ he said after killing a cow and receiving a small pixelated steak...Even if he couldn’t always answer these questions, his attempts to answer them marked the first step in his understanding of why such questions merit answering.”
Video games can also be used to lead young people toward similar interests in the physical world. Which games does your child gravitate toward? What draws them to those games? And how can they explore those aspects in other ways?
Does your child enjoy fast-paced games with lots of action? Maybe they’d enjoy martial arts or soccer. Do strong characters and stories excite them? You could have a budding author in your living room. Do they gravitate toward games with unique art styles? Sign them up for a drawing class or buy them a book on artists whose work might interest them.
Young people often need help finding things to be passionate about. Creatively finding links between the games they play and other activities is a natural way to transition between them.
Video games are also fun. You might be surprised to find you enjoy some of the games your kids play. It’s such a diverse medium that there are games for everyone. Even skeptical adults I introduce to Jackbox Party Packs quickly understand the appeal and ask to play again.
Overall, playing games will give you a chance to spend quality time with your children, but it will also help augment your parenting by helping get inside your children’s world.
Strauss, E. (2019, February 18). The argument for playing video games with our kids. CNN.