What I'm Learning About Video Games

BlogHer Original Post

We bought our first video game system when my oldest son was six. He has intuitively been a fan of gadgets and technology from his earliest days; I knew, just knowing my kid, he was going to be a gamer. I greeted this fact with some trepidation, at first; I wondered if the purchase of our first system (a Nintendo GameCube, as it turned out) was the harbinger of great doom. There are certainly enough studies about how excessive media exposure can be harmful to children, and this a valid concern (Common Sense Media discussed one such study this week). But I'm in this parenting gig for the long-haul, and I reasoned that the most responsible thing I could do is teach him to approach video games (and all media, for that matter) with moderation, discernment and good sense.

So my husband I decided to take the plunge, but we still felt overwhelmed at the process. Walking the video game aisle at the electronics store is mind-boggling, especially for parents new to video gaming. What system, we wondered, was best for starters? What do the game ratings mean? Especially with the holiday season kicking into gear, parents are looking at their kids' wish list and asking these questions.

Thankfully, resources exist to help parents navigate this technology. Just this week I've been reading the book Play the Game: The Parent's Guide to Video Games, by Jeannie Novak and Luis Levy. It is a very basic primer about the most elemental aspects of video games, starting, even, with the history of the technology. It lists details of each of the main gaming systems, and it gives a thorough explanation of the rating system. Helpfully, sprinkled throughout the book are "Parent Snapshots", where real parents (many in the tech industry) share how they've incorporated gaming into their own families.

The authors are clearly big gaming fans themselves, and their take on the blending of video games into family life is largely positive. They point out the many positives of gaming with moderation, especially for older kids:

Although the best games are filled with obstacles that need to be overcome, they also provide a tangible, fun-filled reality that can easily serve as refuge...Simulation games might allow us to test out scenarios that we haven't had experience with in real life. (p. 137)

And they offer some suggestions for how to keep gaming an enjoyable part of family life, instead of injecting stress and conflict, even listing some "Living Room Rules of Engagement" (p. 24).

On-line resources are, of course, available too. AOL has recently launched PlaySavvy, a site to help parents navigate the ins and outs of the video gaming world. I had a chance to ask the editor-in-chief, Libe Goad, a few questions, and she explained that parents often approach video games with some assumptions:

Some of biggest misconceptions about the world of video games is that all games are violent, and that's simply not true. Just like films there are many that are appropriate for kids and others that are adults only, this is where parental supervision comes into play. Then there are others that blame games for making their kids fat, lazy and stupid but -- like TV, cookies or most everything else -- best to do all things in moderation.

She went on to point out some of the features at PlaySavvy, including a guide to educational game systems, an explanation of video game systems, and details about the ESRB rating system.

My own family's video game experience has been a positive one. We've set some firm limits; gaming time has set boundaries, and it doesn't happen every day. We pay special attention to the fact that, in our experience, hand-held games (like the Ninentdo DS) tend to pull kids away from family time more than those that are played in the living room. We limit them even more carefully.

Most of all, we embrace the fun we've had gaming as a family. We're big fans of the Wii around here, and it's often a family event. Some of the Mario games make my eyes cross, but even I can show up for some of the great re-runs of the eighties. Tetris, anyone? Our living room tournaments are fierce.

Novak and Levy share a solid piece of advice in their book (p. 145):

Video games are an evolution of physical and board games, from sports to chess. They are tools of modern times; use their power wisely, never selfishly, and always with your kid's well-being in mind.

For some other bloggers' perspectives on parenting and video games, check out the following:

Kathryn of the Daring Young Mom recently called a technology hiatus in her home.

What They Play is another resource for parents, with very specific information about individual games.

Geeky Mom writes about the importance of balancing gaming and non-gaming activities.

Shannon Lowe is a BlogHer contributing editor (Mommy/Family). She also blogs at Rocks In My Dryer and The Parenting Post.

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