Learning,  Living with Children,  Play,  Self-Directed Learning,  Teens

Game On!

Making peace with and space for video gaming as part of the future

The dark room is aglow with wall-sized projection screens. Eight computer monitors display the game Fortnite. Boys ranging in ages from 13-18 position themselves for battle— Battle Royale to be exact. Fixated on the screens before them, the countdown begins. Over the next 90 minutes, they will compete against one another for the $120 prize money at stake. 

Only the faint whispers of a few spectators and the rapid clicks of computer mice are heard. Every so often an eliminated player lets out a moan or sighs. Some stop to stretch or get a drink of water before a new round begins while others stay seated and watch their competitors. On the screens, the maneuvers of a few players are visible giving a glimpse into the complicated demands of the most in-demand game. As a spectator and mom to one of the players, I find the game intriguing and exciting, but also nerve-racking. 

Fortnite is fast paced and action-packed. The game map gets smaller and smaller as time goes on forcing players closer together and increasingly into battle. The original 100 players is whittled down and the final players must be fast, resourceful, and capable of using their materials and weaponry wisely. For months I have watched my son play and the pace is dizzying. Half the time I don’t even know what I am seeing as he runs about building and battling, but he does and he is good at it. 

“Five minutes. Last round.” The tournament ending announcement is made. Those still in the game try to gather more materials and eliminate opponents to rack up additional points. “Time is up!” The players take off their headphones and push away from the tables. There is chatter and speculation about who possibly won along with compliments and jovial comments about particular wins and losses. The competitors are all smiling and conversing as they make their way to the waiting area for the results. 

Finally the top two players are revealed. A round of high fives and handshakes ensues. The winners are handed their prize money in an envelope, they take a few pictures, and everyone is invited to come back next month for another tournament. We say thank you to the host and head to our car. As we drive towards home, my son takes out his phone and calls his Dad as promised, “Hey Dad. I won!”

Author’s son (foreground) playing Fortnite.

Respecting the Process: Our Gaming Journey 

It all began with a Dr. Suess CD-ROM given to us by a friend. The same books we read together were brought to life in interactive games with characters my son was already familiar with. He counted and matched items and listened to storylines and poetry while thoroughly enjoying himself. When we went to the library, which was often in those early days, he would play games on the computers there too. While books and stories have always been a part of my life and important to me, I quickly saw how taking the stories to another level through gaming was important to my son.

Eventually, online games and gaming became part of our daily lives. As he got older his desire to challenge himself grew and his exploration into the world of gaming also grew—exponentially. 

***

I use the words “our gaming journey” because even though my son was the one playing and leading the charge, I was on the front lines learning alongside him. It was uncharted territory for me, not only as a mother but as a caring human living in a rapidly changing world.

Like any unfamiliar experience, I was fearful and conflicted. I worried and wondered if gaming was somehow harmful to my young, developing boy. Add to this the methodical tear down of gaming by other adults we met in our community plus the negative attitude towards boys and video games in general, and on occasion, I got sucked into the “gaming will ruin your child” vortex. 

However, I found peace with gaming as part of my son’s life because I made a point to understand. I talked to him about the games he played and asked him questions about his experience. We discussed why some games were harder than others, why he decided to stop playing some in favor of others, and how he challenged himself to get better over time. I also played alongside him whenever I could and especially when he asked. 

Even though there were dishes to wash or clothes to fold, when he invited me into his world, I accepted as often as I could.

Saying yes to his invitations gave me multiple opportunities to see and play the video games he was so fond of. It also offered us time to laugh together, learn together, and bond over an activity he was the expert in. There is something quite powerful that happens when a child is given the chance to teach his skills to a parent he looks up to—confidence-boosting for the child and humbling for the parent.

In the beginning, his Dad and I were competitors, but it did not take long for us to become easy opponents to defeat. Soon enough, playing with us was just target practice while he waited to play with his “more challenging” friends; the online and real-life ones. 

Were there times when we ran into issues surrounding video games? Yes. And when issues arose, I talked to him about my concerns. If it was a game that felt questionable to me on a moral level, we looked at it together and I told him honestly why such a game bothered me. This created a dialogue that showed him I was on his side as a caring parent, but also a willing partner in providing space for him to safely explore. On occasion, he would decide such a game was not for him and move on.

I found time and time again that honest communication is the foundation on which a child grows. Establishing parameters with a solid purpose and mutually agreeable terms is how video gaming can be fun, exciting, educational, and safe. Sweeping “no” statements towards all gaming and gaming platforms don’t just alleviate gameplay, it alleviates opportunities for learning, growth, and connection.

What the Science Says

An internet search will return plenty of articles and conversations against gaming, fanning the flames of fear and doubt. Truth be told, parents can find just about anything to support their opinions or to justify their decisions. Whether you are on team “Game Off” or team “Game On” there are studies, opinion pieces, Ted talks, and news accounts representing the good and the bad.  

What I have come to appreciate is that many activities a child participates in can have both negative and positive consequences if you really think about it.

For example, playing a sport like basketball, tennis, or soccer is great for physical development and emotional connection. You may have played sports yourself and can attest to the camaraderie you experienced and the positive impact on your physical fitness. However, playing sports can and does lead to bodily injury, including broken bones, concussions, and even death. Do I encourage my kids to avoid all sports then? No. Given the number of kids who play sports in this country, I think it is fair to say that most parents are overwhelmingly comfortable supporting such a high-risk activity too.

So what gives when it comes to gaming? Why all the hand-wringing and negativity?

Biologically speaking, we are wired to accept negative outcomes that we are familiar with. Children playing sports has been happening for generations. Therefore, we are familiar with the list of potential negative outcomes and are more accepting. On the other hand, we are also wired to be suspicious of the new and unfamiliar.

Generationally speaking, gaming is new and unfamiliar. Therefore, we escalate the unfamiliar to the top of the danger pile. If we are not mindful of this rapid escalation (and why it is happening) we can jump on bandwagons of fear and find plenty of people to join us. 

When my fear flag starts waving, I know it is time to get curious and start asking questions. Below are just a few of the many pieces I found. Some reduced my parental concerns and some have motivated me to continue communicating with my children in order to stay aware of their overall health and happiness: 

  1. A Ted talk by Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist, entitled “Your brain on video games”, which has been viewed 8.4 million times, suggests we reconsider our negative, knee-jerk reaction to video games as a waste of time and step into the lab to see what is really happening. In her research, she showed that those who play action video games have better eyesight, attention to detail, tracking, and more efficient brains in three areas than nonvideo game players. 
  2. A 2015 study found that action video gamers (AVGs) have increased grey matter volume responsible for seeing, hearing, emotion, speech, decision making, and memory function. 
  3. This study found that action games “awaken in players a greater capacity for visual and reading attention in response to difficult situations that arise, and that these stimuli can serve to fight dyslexia”.
  4. Free to Play games have come onto the scene with purported intent to create “whales”. Whales are people who are addicted to the games they play and are willing to spend huge sums of money to keep playing.
  5. *Gaming disorder is now recognized as a condition. But please be aware that this is still not settled science. “The first is that problem gaming often occurs alongside other factors such as loneliness, or mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. The APA argues problematic gaming may be a symptom of these, rather than a unique condition in its own right.”

*Like many disorders, there are usually multiple, complex factors that lead to a diagnosable condition. For instance, a depressed person may shop to fill an emotional hole. Shopping, stores, or even credit cards did not cause the depression. The shopping is in response to the depression. Likewise, excessive gaming may be a response to a person’s particular life situation or mental state and could be a way to check out and avoid reality.

Gaming is Here to Stay

The arcade games of my youth, now considered to be “retro” and “vintage”, have been replaced with a variety of gaming platforms, game choices, and streaming services. There are millions of players (potential opponents or potential teammates) to tap into online so you don’t have to leave your house, and mobile gaming to take with you wherever you go. According to the 2019 Global Games Market Report, the global gaming market will be close to $200 billion dollars by 2022. This includes revenues from consoles, smartphones, and tablets, downloaded and browser PC games.

Gaming is here to stay.

The incredible growth in the esports industry is a testament to the staying power of gaming as well. Tournaments are held across the world for all types of video games. From small local venues, like the one my son played in, to tournaments held in stadiums built specifically for competitive gaming. Prize pools have been known to reach 18 million dollars and the demand for such venues continues to rise. Market reports suggest revenues for the esports industry will surpass one billion dollars by 2020. For comparison’s sake, the NFL, the highest-grossing of all the professional sports, reported combined revenue of close to 14 billion dollars in 2017 for 32 teams. 

In early 2018, a forward-thinking and innovative entrepreneur, Delane Parnell, launched his company, PlayVs. He saw a void in the high school arena and wanted to give teen gamers and schools the infrastructure necessary to offer competitive eSports teams. Parnell has partnered with the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and continues to grow his reach to high schools across the U.S. Esports teams follow a standard set of rules, are coached by a teacher, and make time to practice just like a typical sports teams. The first PlayVS season was in October of 2018 and the spring season kicked off in February 2019. 

The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), a nonprofit membership organization created to advance collegiate esports, lists 96 member schools and 279 colleges with club chapters. Colleges were already offering varsity esports programs before PlayVS came online, but now they have another means to recruit players. College scholarships are available to top gamers who can also seek degrees in fields related to their gaming interests. 

Gone are the days of claiming video gaming as “a waste of time”. Gameplay can lead to college admission, a professional career, or a host of entrepreneurial opportunities. So when your son or daughter reaches for a video game controller or turns on their Xbox, instead of bemoaning their choices as worthless or instead of feeling worried they are ruining their lives, ask to join in. Seeking to see the world through their eyes will not only give you an experience you may not have had otherwise, but you might be pleased to admit you had absolutely nothing to worry about after all. 

2 Comments

  • Hayley

    Congratulations to your son, yay!

    Missy, I love the comparison to sports and how we fear the unfamiliar. Makes me think of the worries I believe were expressed about the mass production of books and more people having the chance to read, how that would lead to all kinds of health and social problems.

    ‘Sweeping “no” statements… don’t just alleviate gameplay, it alleviates opportunities for learning, growth, and connection’. Such a great point. I recognise so much in your gaming journey and appreciate the interesting links too. Thanks for a great read 🙂

    • Missy

      Hi Hayley! Thank you for your kind comments. I’m so glad this resonated with you. I have watched many a parent lose sleep over gaming and wanted to offer a perspective of hope and joy. Love your blog name! Can’t wait to check it out (and now I’m following you on Insta :)) Love meeting more mommas who are working towards a better world for our kids. xoxoxox

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