Dear Dr. Fournier:
The video gaming industry is tough to keep up with as a parent trying to monitor his children. I am young enough myself to have grown up with Atari, Nintendo and the upgrades seen in the next generations by Sony and Microsoft. When I look at what we have for gaming today, I admit that I am at a loss on how to handle it with my kids who did not grow up with the progression. They are exposed immediately to what I had the luxury of watching evolve over time. I never had to consider the perils of online gaming, or had to be educated about conducting myself appropriately when dealing with others online until I was old enough to be able to make sound decisions about them. I also did not have to deal with virtual worlds like “Poptropica,” “Noggin,” the forthcoming “Tinkatolli” or comparable kid-friendly sites. I am not singling out any of these games, systems, or websites as “bad,” but I am unsure of how to approach them with my kids.
New York, NY
The question of where video games belong in the toy hierarchy is one I am asked every five years or so. Along with industry advancement, the debates of limitations, ratings and exposure always seem to resurface. The difference is that now some of the early video game players are now parents themselves, and perhaps there is a conflict of interest!
As you said in your letter, Arthur, video games have come a long way from the days of Pac-Man, Pong, and Mario Brothers. Today, we see rating systems, high dollar game productions, genres, hands free devices, virtual avatars, and online games/communities. The question of how to deal with children in the midst of the ongoing gaming boom is a sound one.
I have written in the past about the positives of video gaming in moderation: inspiration, cooperation, problem solving, and in some cases academic lessons through history, math, etc. I cannot help but think that as technology increases, so too will the academic benefits and possibilities found in video and computer games. There have even been presentations on this subject and its potential use in schools for young men.[i][ii]
All positives aside, I must speak now about some of the negatives, and the dilemma you are facing at home, Arthur. There are many games out there which require a significant time investment on the part of the player to complete, if they are games that have an ending at all. It is clear that these massive multi-player online community games have appeal, since players are constantly buying expansion packs and upgrades so that they can maintain their carefully constructed artificial personae, and may continue to play the game in question for literally months of real time. I remember a very poignant episode of the comedy show Southparkthat addressed just this sort of gaming addiction. Though satirical, it was certainly worthy of consideration.
Whether it is the psychological fulfillment these game personae are providing by easing the unfulfilled desires of the players, or that they are just plain fun is ultimately irrelevant for parents, because the question still remains: “What rules does a parent set?”
WHAT TO DO:
To address the question of how much gaming is appropriate for your child, every household tends to have a unique set of rules. The way I approached this problem with my own child was to simply handle video games/computer games as another toy. Avoiding extremes of all sorts and seeking the mean worked for Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, and it can work as a guideline for parents.
Too much of anything can be a bad thing, so we must look for moderation. Set a time limit for computer/video game use (assuming that it is leisure time and is not school related) and stick to it. In this age of multimedia devices, iPads and smartphones, a child can still be connected to a degree without being married to a television or computer screen every hour he or she is awake. (That said, dealing with a child who walks around with his or her eyes glued to a multimedia device is a problem for another article.) The point here is that video games, no matter how awesome and flowery they get, are another toy and should be treated as such. Remember this whether your elementary school age child wants to play a game in a kid friendly cartoon site, or your maturiteen “needs” to reach the omega level so his or her alter ego can get a magic sword.
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