Co-written with Heather Norum.
Technology has been amazing for parenting. What did we do before Doc McStuffins on the iPad and online math tutorials? But one area of technology that often perplexes parents is the world of video games. If you’re not a gamer, you might feel like it’s all a big mystery. You wish you could ban video games entirely or just stick your head in the sand and let your child lead the way. But if you have a kid who plays video games, you should probably learn a little bit about them.
For one thing, you’re probably the one spending $60 on the game, so you should know what you’re buying. What’s more, your child will be spending many hours engaged with the game, so you need to know that the content is appropriate.
To help parents out with this conundrum, we’ve created a handy little guide for non-gaming parents.
1. Not all games are created equal.
The sad truth about the video game industry right now is that you can buy games that are nearly unplayable. So before buying a game, do a Google search for it and read what folks have to say about it in reviews. This also means it’s a good idea to stay away from buying a game on the first day of its release.
Get to know the folks who work at your local video game store, if there’s still one in your neighborhood. Be friendly with them, ask them questions, and let them know what you’re looking for. Ask them if they would play it themselves, or let their own kid play. Most employees at video game stores are used to answering questions about games and like to discuss them.
2. Ratings matter … but not more than your judgment.
Just because an 8-year-old wants to play HALO doesn’t mean you should necessarily let him. HALO 5, the latest game in that series, is rated T for Teen for a reason: it’s a first person shooter where you look down the barrel of a gun and kill aliens.
The newest Assassin’s Creed game is rated M for Mature because you kill other humans, and it can be very graphic, including stabbing a person in the neck and having blood come out.
And though you might not expect it, some games contain sexual content that is definitely not appropriate for kids.
That doesn’t mean responsible parents never break the age recommendations, but they are a good place to start when determining whether a game is age-appropriate for your kid. Be sure you understand what happens within the game that earned it a high age rating, so ask questions of your local game store employee and/or read lots of reviews online first.
3. Chances are high that you already play video games, so you should try playing alongside your kid.
If you own a smartphone and you’ve played Candy Crush or Words with Friends (or something similar), congratulations — you’ve played a video game! This matters because if your kid is really interested in video games, it might not be such a leap for you to join in every now and again. A lot of games have options for multiple people to play at the same time. And even games that don’t, there are ways to make playing the game more social.
There is a lot you can learn about your kids by doing something they love alongside them. Ask them questions about the game after you’re done, like how they felt about having to shoot that alien, or how they got through the challenging sequence when all the turtle shells were coming at them.
4. Video games may — surprise! — actually HELP kids in school.
Studies have shown that when kids play video games, even violent ones, they get better grades the following school year. One study showed that gaming can help increase kids’ spatial and reasoning skills, and also benefits them with confidence in problem-solving, especially important in math and science.
Of course, your child’s games should be age-appropriate, and a time limit should be set so that they have time to do their homework and get some physical exercise, too. But don’t worry, video games aren’t rotting your kids’ minds. Quite the opposite, in fact!
5. Video games can be a source of support and hope for some kids.
Despite what is often said about video games isolating kids or making them depressed, many older kids find their gaming community to be a source of support and friendship when they need it most. In her book Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman tells the story of a young man from a troubled home who was being bullied. During the worst of it, he found Fallout 3, a somewhat violent game set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future, and says that it helped pull him out of a depression.
The boy explains that he learned, “Even when times were hard, I, as a person, was actually worth something … I was saving people, changing lives, and vanquishing evil — I felt like someone worth living as, and this translated into my real life and gave me a more optimistic outlook …”
6. Not all YouTube stars are created equal.
If your kids are into video games, chances are they also watch some of the popular YouTube channels that feature the games they love. While it would make sense for these hosts — who play a game and narrate it in a video your kids watch — to want to make their content kid-appropriate, many do not.
For young kids, pre-screen their YouTube viewings so you can establish which of these hosts reflects your family’s values. Some use swear words, and others outright bully or troll other players. Make clear to your child which YouTube stars they can watch, and that they should stick with those accounts until you can screen others. To get you started, check out DanTDM, who is so popular he has his own action figure, and see if you are okay with your kids learning how to game from him.
And remember, YouTube is not a kid-safe space. There is plenty of inappropriate content online, and you should supervise young kids when they’re surfing the web and prepare them for what to do if they come across it.
Heather Norum is a substitute teacher from California who unfortunately prefers clouds to sun. She’s been playing video games since she was knee high to a grasshopper. She is now considerably taller than a grasshopper and yet still plays video games. The grasshopper, it seems, was irrelevant. You can find her on Twitter.More On