Whitefield Academy Blog
Harnessing the Power of Video Games
Imagine a typical evening at the dining table. You’re asking your kids about the day’s events.
One of your children launches into a stream of consciousness…
“First I gathered a bunch of wood, and some stone too. I had to build a shelter because it was getting dark. I also made some armor, but that took a long time. I accidentally fell into some lava once. After that, I found some villagers and bartered with them to get some emeralds…”
The story goes on ad nauseum, and, wait, since when does my child live in a wooden hut he built himself and barters for precious metals with strangers?
Of course, none of this actually happened. These were all virtual events in a video game.
Many of us know, what it’s like to have children, especially boys, wrapped up in games. The games have an obvious hold on their attention. What is apparently in short supply is actually understanding why our children are so enamored with their games.
But what if you could actually get inside your child’s head, actually understand his mind? Maybe even have better conversations with your child about the games he plays rather than him just giving you a play-by-play of his game while you secretly zone out?
Any Given Saturday Morning…in the 90s
As a child of the 80s and 90s, many of my childhood Saturdays looked like this:
After breakfast, my brother, mom, and I gather around the television – the only one in the house – to play video games together. My brother and I had pooled our own paper route money to buy the gaming console.
Mom takes her turn just as Dad is leaving for the day. He eyes Mom suspiciously. “Remember to let the boys have a turn,” he says as he leaves to run errands.
Mom flails her arms wildly while trying to keep the on-screen character out of a bottomless pit. As she plays, my brother and I “coach” her by incessantly shouting in both her ears. The chaos and noise looks like some kind of bizarre family therapy, as if we are somehow working out all of our unspoken family frustrations, conflicts and dramas through this bizarre ritual.
Then it’s my brother’s turn to play.
After a while, we go our separate ways: to play outside, to do chores or homework. In the afternoon, we reconvene to yell at each other some more.
And just as Mom is taking up the controls again, Dad would inevitably return home. He’d have to have a talk with her later about her out-of-control gaming habits, which had apparently kept her in front of the television for six solid hours.
Those innocent days of families steering a pixelated avatar on the family television set appear to be gone.
Living Out Stories, Virtues and Greatness
Today, video gaming is the predominant pastime of preteen, adolescent and young adult males. This demographic makes up the large majority of the customer base of the gaming industry, an industry which now surpasses Hollywood in annual revenue.
Boys have more access to games than ever before – from home consoles to handheld devices to the phones in their backpacks. There is always something calling, beckoning them.
Parents, it’s nothing sinister. In fact, it’s a deeply primal part of your child’s brain that is being awakened in each play session. It goes like this:
Your child makes a discovery or acquires a reward or triumphs in a conflict. There’s a little bit of musical fanfare; a new widget is added to the virtual collection. And that virtual reward triggers a “ding!” in your child’s brain. That “ding” is a little bit of dopamine which tells him that he did something right. He accomplished something. He took a risk and did something good.
This isn’t about mere fun, even if that’s all your child can articulate. What is being activated is his deep desire to accomplish things, to conquer, to solve problems. Through a game, a boy is able to live out stories of heroic virtue – fortitude, justice, prudence. He is able to have experiences of victory, camaraderie and just plain greatness.
And the reason the stories are so powerful is that there may be no other time or place in a child’s routine in which he experiences this immediate feeling of fulfillment, of having his inner desires met so clearly. The game offers a highly saturated version of reality that answers a child’s need for achievement through concrete tasks and rewards – it was designed for him to win. The rest of his routine offers none of this: schoolwork full of abstract tasks, sports in which victory is never guaranteed, hobbies which may take the proverbial 10,000 hours to master.
Here’s the bottom line: a child may not get a “ding” all day. Playing a game might be the one time he feels like he has actually achieved something.
Putting Games in Their Place
Parents certainly need to be sensible about the sorts of entertainment they allow in their homes. However, a parent who wants to be purposeful about managing their children’s game habits, besides setting time limits, may have good results with a little creativity:
First, you can sincerely engage kids in conversation about what they are playing. Don’t just read articles written by skeptical adults. Talk to your kids about the stories they are acting out. Try to find out what kinds of tasks the game offers that they find enjoyable.
Pay attention to the emotional response your child has to a game. Does your child have positive feelings, or does the game seem to bring out excessive frustration and anger? If it’s the latter, it might not be a healthy experience for your child.
Try to find activities that activate similar “achievements” in your child’s mind and nurture those as well. Kids love building, creating, exploring and solving through lots of avenues. The more “dings” our kids get through different activities, the easier it may be to keep gaming habits healthy and moderated.
Keep family game night alive. Even if the adults in your house can’t work a game controller to save your virtual lives, invest in some seriously stimulating board games. The world of tabletop games has exploded in its depth of choices – you may even find yourself with a new addictive hobby!
Finally, for the truly creative parents, consider “game-ifying” some part of your child’s real world. Kids need to have meaningful tasks to do around the house – so perhaps link clear tasks with creative non-monetary rewards. These don’t have to be complicated – point systems and widget collections that mimic in-game virtual rewards can be a lot of fun for the kid-and you as the game “designer.”
And if your child really loves collecting virtual food that much, let him organize the pantry.