Olwyn Beresford has a computer science background and, as a mother of 4, has a special interest in keeping children safe in a rapidly changing online world. She is active in the non-profit sector, helping to build awareness of gaming and gambling-related harms. Olwyn is a regular guest blogger for CyberSafeIreland and also volunteers for Problem Gambling Ireland, a registered charity that is dedicated to the prevention and minimisation of gambling-related harm in Ireland. For more information you can access their website or follow on Twitter or Facebook
Over the Christmas holidays we spent some quality time gaming as a family. This included old favourites like Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, but we also played video games. From simple mobile apps to split screen gaming on the PS4 the whole family got involved. We even got nostalgic and set up the Wii, breaking a sweat to an old Just Dance game. Modern day video gaming isn’t a solitary activity and can bring the family together in ways that other forms of entertainment rarely do today. We are not alone of course - I recently read that 57% of parents in the US are gaming with their kids once a week (1) and I wonder if the same is true here in Ireland. If you don’t then you could be missing a great opportunity to have fun with your kids, while developing a much better understanding of the virtual world they play in.
Besides the social benefits here are some other reasons why I think gaming can be good for your family:
- MAKING LEARNING FUN
There are some great educational apps and games available today. We usually have a few mobile apps on the go in our house - currently we’re hitting new levels in Wordscapes, comparing our maths skills in Hit the Button and managing a restaurant in Cooking Fever. The variety of games available is huge, so you’re sure to be able to find ones that appeal to the gamers in your house and make learning fun.
Not all games are time critical or competitive with some allowing you to show off your creative side. The hugely popular Minecraft (best selling new game of the last decade in the UK charts and 3rd overall!) has much to offer and it’s certainly a favourite in our (2) house, with up to 4 of us building together in splitscreen.
- COGNITIVE BENEFITS
Everyday skills, like hand and eye coordination, working memory, fast decision making, and focus, can all be improved through playing action games . Try playing a game as (3) simple as Subway Surfers and you can easily see how it tests your reflexes. Dealing with complex controls and fast pace can give you a mental workout at any age and it’s never too late to start, with gaming on the increase for adults over 50. So allow your kids to (4) introduce you, or even their grandparents, to games.
- IMPROVE DECISION MAKING ABILITIES & PRODUCTIVITY
Lots of video games require problem solving and strategic thinking - puzzle apps, lego games and real time strategy (RTS) games, to name but a few. My eldest son enjoys RTS games like Civilisation VI, Hearts of Iron 4 and Victoria 2 and the skills he’s learning could be applied in the workplace. In fact, these sorts of games have been shown to improve decision making, increase productivity and relieve stress . Even the less (5) ambitious Lego games played by my younger son have thought him to be patient and persevere as he problem solves to get through the levels.
- IMPROVE TEAMWORK AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Many video games today are team based and can help build the same skills that more conventional team sports do (minus the physical skills of course!). An additional benefit of gaming online is that your children learn to work well with others remotely, which is important in today’s society. Alternatively you could make up a team with family members and enjoy gaming side by side, like the father-son, sister-brother Fortnite duos we enjoy in our house.
Of course it’s not all good news and there are some potential downsides to gaming as well! However by engaging fully in your kids gaming lives you are in a good position to judge the risks. This allows you to figure out strategies to minimise harm in the virtual world, just as you do in the real one. Here’s a few pieces of advice that may help:
STAY SAFE WHEN GAMING ONLINE
It’s important to discuss the dangers of talking to strangers in multiplayer online games and sharing personal information. You also want to avoid toxic behaviour that is more common in competitive games, such as battle arena games, where emotions run high. Encourage your kids to game with friends and family members, rather than teaming up with strangers. Figure out with them how to mute chat and how to block and report users who behave badly.
PLAY THE RIGHT GAMES
Choose your games carefully. Gaming can provide a great escape from everyday worries and relieve stress, but not if your kids are playing games created for older audiences. These can leave young gamers feeling agitated and aggressive when they return to the real world. Ideally your child (and you!) should play a wide variety of games to experience the many benefits that gaming has to offer and stick with age appropriate games. With only 9% of games rated 'Mature' by the ESRB last year (PEGI’s figures will (6) likely be similar once published ) you have up to 91% of games to choose from, (7) depending on the age of your child of course.
FINDING A HEALTHY BALANCE
There is no getting around the fact that gaming is a sedentary hobby, but the old unhealthy stereotypes may be misleading. The New York Post recently ran an article about the growing number of elite gamers who “are upping their physical game to boost their virtual one”. So if you have any aspiring professional gamers at home you can tell them they need to put down their controllers and make time for active hobbies too.
Of course getting kids to put down their controllers can be the biggest challenge of all! Games are designed to keep us playing once we start, so it is really easy to lose track of time and in very extreme cases to develop a gaming disorder. It’s important to set and enforce appropriate time limits, so that a healthy balance can be found. We use a mixture of enforcement approaches in our house for all screen time - old fashioned clock watching, setting time limits on PS4 accounts, Google’s FamilyLink on mobile devices, broader controls via the WiFi router, physically collecting some devices at bedtime and a bit of self-regulation for good measure! You might also want to consider making family gaming time “bonus time”, as otherwise the kids may want to save all their screen time to play with friends.
THE HIDDEN COSTS OF GAMING
It’s easy to keep track of one off costs like gaming hardware, or a particular game title or DLC (downloadable content), but now games feature micro-transactions too. Many of these are cosmetic purchases, rather than functional. The worst of these micro-transactions involve loot boxes mechanics, which are banned or regulated as (8) gambling in some countries. You also have the added confusion of dealing in virtual currencies when you shop. It is possible to set spending limits on your games console using parental controls or to remove your payment details from devices and accounts. But it’s also important that you establish good spending habits for your kids, as you would for offline spending. In our house we earn through gameplay, save the buying of bundles and skins for special occasions and always know what we are buying upfront.
Overall, I highly recommend getting more involved and gaming with your kids - balanced out with other activities of course! Both the social and cognitive benefits are great and the risks are definitely reduced when you have a better understanding of this virtual world that your kids are playing in.
8 Loot boxes are game items that provide randomised rewards and according to a recent survey they are present in almost 60% of the top 100 games in the Play Store and App Store and 36% in the Steam store. Over 90% of these top mobile apps are deemed to be suitable for children of 12, in spite of evidence linking them to compulsive spending and gambling disorder.