By Scotty Sells, Sells Consulting
We have a lot to compete against these days for our children’s attention. It used to be MTV. Now it’s Youtube, Instagram, and FortNite. Today, let’s discuss ways you can keep your children from falling too far down the sinkhole that video games present. Yes, in general, this applies mostly to boys. I’m stereotyping of course but it’s generally true that boys are usually more interested in gaming than girls. Now before I begin, I must disclose I’m a huge fan of games. I started with Pong in the ’70s, moved to the Atari 2600 in my childhood and have been gaming ever since. I am not here to tell you video games are bad. Instead, I think they are ok and can actually offer some value with moderation.
Let’s break down video game’s challenges into four subgroups on how video games affect us.
1. Time consumed
2. Social interaction
3. Content/skill development
This can be the largest challenge as it’s so easy for a child (or adult) to become so absorbed in the virtual world of a game that the next thing they know 5 hours have gone by. I think it’s a great idea to converse with your child and work together to find ways to limit their gaming time. Start by asking your child what they think is a fair amount of time they should be allowed to game. You might find your child is willing to admit to reasonable time limits. Getting them to adhere to that is another matter.
Another strategy I’ve used before is to put the control of time allowed in the hands of the child completely. The catch is that you place the stipulation that they must read, study, exercise, play outside, or whatever your preferred less desirable activity might be for your child for the exact same amount of time FIRST. In other words, if your child reads for one hour, they then get the same amount of time to play games. If they read for six hours, they can game for six hours. The ratio does not have to be 1:1. You could use 2:1 if you like. Example: Read 1 hour, game for 30 minutes. It’s not so important to get the ratio right as it is to empower your child to build their own allowance. You will instill a better understanding of currency and work ethic because you’ll be teaching your child that good choices equal reward. It’s a positive based approach to parenting. The biggest weakness here is our ability to monitor to desired activity first. Being a parent is very hard and sometimes the last thing we want to do is watch our child read for two hours but without holding your child 100% accountable for the first action, you’ll only be teaching them that there are ways to cheat the system if you allow the reward.
This has become a very large part of gaming over the last ten years. Personally, I am no fan at all of playing online with others. I prefer slow solo adventures with puzzle solving. That’s not what today’s kids want. The majority of games offered these days are connected to a server with voice (or sometimes video) chat. Players for groups or clubs that enjoy playing together. There is also the total ability to connect with complete strangers as well. Inside this world, children find that adults have no say, do not regulate, nor do they understand it so players or left to a wild west. Inside this world, children often act in a way they would normally never act in the real world. They will say every 4 letter word you could think of, call each other the worst names you imagine, use social references they do not understand at their age, all to try to keep up with the barrage of attacks coming from all directions. Yes, there is harassment. Yes, there is bullying. No, the police do not care what some stranger said to your child while playing Minecraft. So how do you combat this?
The first thing to do is to understand the type of language and conversation your child is having inside a game. If they’re using headphones, that’s mistake number one. Have them play with the chat going through the speakers of the tv so that you can hear what is being said. If your child is too ashamed to let that be broadcast in the living room, you’ve taken the first step to influencing better choices. Asking your child to play with only people they know is unrealistic. Social gaming structure is not built for private use. Its main draw is to connect as many users as possible. If you do not want your children playing with strangers, then you should not let your child play any game that connects with others online. It’s really that simple.
You may have a child that you consider very responsible and you may be willing to allow them to participate socially online. In this case you could give the child permission to use voice chat with the consequence that if you hear them at any time use language in the real world that you don’t approve of, you will immediately assume it is due to that particular game’s influence and the result will be loss of access to that game. In other words: “If I hear a bad word come out of your mouth, you can kiss FortNite goodbye”. This strategy would only be applicable to an older child, say high schooler, who you feel has demonstrated pretty good choices already.
Lastly, if you don’t know what Discord is already, you need to download the app, create an account and dig into it. You also need to learn what twich.tv is as well. Your child knows what both are and you’re behind.
Some games are just better than others. It may be the old man in me talking here but I just don’t find any value whatsoever in Grand Theft Auto. A game built around a player moving through a city killing, stealing, buying drugs, running away from police etc… just has no place in my child’s life. That said, I do think games like FortNite or Minecraft have something to offer. Strategical thinking, spatial awareness, physics, budgeting, teamwork, are all skills a successful player in those games might posses. That is not to say that every time a players starts a game, they’re going to get smarter. There is plenty of mindless gaming but if a player wants to improve then they’re going to have to develop at least some of those characteristics. It’s a good idea to talk to your children regularly about these skills. Have conversations with them about how they might apply both to the game and in the real world. Yes, have conversations; the best method of balancing your child’s develop between what you want and what they want.
Don’t just trust the game rating system. Remember that even the lowest of rated games may still use voice chat and it’s inside voice chat where the ratings system goes out the window. This next suggestion is going to be a tough one both for you and your child. As I mentioned earlier, having conversations with your child is fantastic but what’s even better is you, the parent, sitting down with your child and learning how to play the game yourself. Try this: sit down on the couch with your child and turn the game system on yourself. Take the control and ask them to show you from soup to nuts how to navigate through the menus all the way to actually playing the game. Do not let them touch the controller. Have the help you navigate by only telling you what to do. No, it’s not your thing and yes, your child is going to lose their minds seeing you fumbling through a game terribly but you know what else is going to happen? They’re going to be very happy, even if they don’t admit it, that you are taking an interest in their hobby. At the same time, you will start learning what is consuming so much of their time. It will provide you with reference points to better relate to the rest of their lives as well. You’ll further discover the high level of coordination it takes to play the game of their choice.
If you give your child a pocket knife for Christmas, you should know how to open and close it safely yourself. If you allow your child to play video games you should understand what is happening inside those games as well.
This is less likely an issue for any child over 10 years old as, by that time, they’ve already made the mistake of running up the “in app purchase” bill you got out of the blue. So let’s separate this category into over 10 years old and under 10 years old. Those younger are more likely to accidentally buy silly digital add ons within games. These add ons can be very expensive and can add up very very quickly, especially if your child doesn’t understand the monetary consequences of buying that outfit in the Barbee app, or the bag of gold in Clash of Clans, or the best quarterback player in Madden. There is no such thing as “free to play”. No game developer is sitting around just donating their work. Every single game is designed to drive revenue. Calling a game “free to play” is a way to get the player onto the lot and once there, it’s a non stop sell. The worst one I’ve ever seen was a little fish aquarium app aimed at very young children. You tapped on the glass every hour or so to feed the fish that were swimming around. You are allowed to name the fish, watch them grow and so on. But about 24 hours later, the app presents a warning that you’re out of food and you’ll need to tap a different button to buy more food for $.99. You can imagine where that’s heading. Several hundred dollars later you have an app with fat digital fish. Games like that slip through the app store all the time. They prey on children’s innocence and lack of awareness of money. If you have a young child, I strongly suggest just turning off “in app purchases” in the parental controls and the problem should be solved.
Children over 10 years old have a better understanding of the value of a dollar and they know that games offer transactions. A game like FortNite is a social group fighting strategy game that is free. the revenue comes as the game encourages its players to buy different costumes and weapons. the more you spend, the better you look. Need I say more? This approach is called “micro transactions”. The most notable of this approach was seen last year when EA games released their newest game Star Wars Battlefront. The upfront cost of the game was around $60 but then the entire game made the player spend money constantly to upgrade their equipment. So whoever spent the most money, was the best player. it was a very dirty approach and the community rebelled. (excuse the pun) Disney got involved (they own Star Wars) and told EA to completely remove micro transactions. That lasted about a year but they’re slowly creeping back in. Talk to your children about what they may be spending inside a game. I work with families all the time that had no idea their card was being charged every month for random fees inside games.
Fighting the battle to find a balance between allowing your child to enjoy video games vs. keeping them engaged in the real world is hard. You can apply these same strategies to their use of mobile devices in general or whatever other behavior you feel needs moderation. There is no perfect approach and not every approach works with every child. Only you know what your child responds to. Hopefully, you can use some of these suggestions to gain a better understanding of what they enjoy about gaming and at the same time continue to build your relationship with them as well.
If you’d like assistance with this topic any home technology I’m always happy to help. You can sign up for a session directly on my website at sellsconsulting.com or join me every Monday evening at 7pm for free at my Town Hall online help sessions.
About Scotty Sells
Scotty Sells taught in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools for 15 years before moving to Apple. He then started his own consulting business working both in homes and businesses around Charlotte as well as remotely over the Internet. When he’s not sailing in Lake Norman or the Pamlico Sound, he tours the US playing steel drums for various groups. For more than 15 years Scotty has been helping both new and experienced users with technology as well as parenting best practices. For more info or to schedule a session you can visit www.sellsconsulting.com.