Chances are that as a parent, you’ve realized the ability of video games to keep your children entertained for hours. It’s no secret that most kids find video games very attractive, regardless of whether they’re computer games, console games, or mobile games that can be played on a phone or other portable device. This seems to be true of all ages--I’ve seen toddlers who can’t even talk yet quiet down as soon as their mom hands them an iPad. The gaming industry has not failed to capitalize on this; there are a huge number of games out there targeted specifically at children, and its proving to be a lucrative area for new development.
So, kids love video games. And the gaming industry loves that kids love video games. But how can you, as a parent, turn your children’s gaming experience into a positive influence in their lives? Here are 7 tips for helping your children become happier, healthier, and holier through the way they play video games.
7. Do Your Research
Find games for your children to play that are appropriate to their maturity levels and abilities. Different video games are targeted at different audiences. If your children are playing games that are too old for them, not only could they be traumatized by the content, but it may prove to be a frustrating experience because the mechanics of the gameplay are designed for older players.
Before you purchase a game for your children or allow them to play it, check the game’s rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (https://www.esrb.org/ratings/). The website allows you to search specific games and see exactly why they have the ratings they do and what sort of mature content they contain. Alternatively, search online for feedback from other parents about a certain game. It can also be helpful to watch some of the gameplay on YouTube before making any decisions. Seeing a few minutes of what the game actually looks like while it is being played can give you a better idea of whether it is something you think would be well-suited for your children.
Once you understand what a game is and why it has the rating it does, confront this with what you know of your children. Do they become frustrated easily? Does cartoon violence help them blow off steam or make them more aggressive? Are they sensitive to certain themes that could come up in the game? If the game includes more mature content, are you willing to take the time to explain it to them or help them process it? Take all of this into account before making a decision about purchasing the game.
This step requires knowing your children well. But understanding can’t take place without healthy communication. Which brings us to the next tip:
6. Talk with Your Children About Their Gaming Experience
Initiate regular, non-judgmental communication about video games. Do this in a way that makes your children feel that you are interested in the things that interest them, not so that they feel like you are monitoring them or trying to catch them out. Show that you care about the video games your children play. Try to understand gaming the way they experience it. Let them tell you what they like about the game and what they get out of it. You could even let them show you how to play or stay in the room to watch them play-- and don’t worry if you’re no good at video games. In my experience, whether it’s Minecraft, Monster Fishing 2020, or Assassin’s Creed, kids are just excited to share a game they’re excited about with someone who cares.
Establishing open, healthy communication about video games where your children feel comfortable talking to you is foundational for being able to shape your children’s gaming experience into a positive influence in their lives. It will also greatly reduce the tendency for them to hide something if a problem does arise (for example, if they encounter cyber-bullying from other players in an online game, if they are exposed to inappropriate content while gaming at a friend’s house, if they come across a scenario in a game that disturbs or scares them). You can only help your children deal with something if you know what the problem is. You can’t know what the problem is if they don’t feel safe sharing with you.
Normalizing conversation about video games paves the way for an important conversation:
5. Discuss the Meaning of the Stories Presented in Video Games
In a nutshell, media literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, and engage with the messages communicated through media. It’s never too early to start talking with your children about the messages they encounter in video games (or any other media, for that matter). Keep in mind that some games are more message-heavy than others. A game like Instant Sports, where players virtually play basketball or tennis, has a lot less to grapple with on a media literacy level than a story-based game like Kingdom Hearts III, where players team up with Disney characters to save the universe from the powers of darkness. But every game communicates some sort of message. It is important to help your kids understand that games have the power to communicatevalues and influence the way we think.
Use the principles of media mindfulness to start a conversation with your children. Get them thinking about the following questions:
© Pauline Center for Media Studies, taken from "Media Mindfulness" by St. Mary's Press. All rights reserved.
Talk about these questions with your children in regards to particular games they like to play. Help them understand why certain messages and values are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Look at them in light of our Catholic faith and use them as teaching moments. This is particularly important if your children play games that include controversial content or themes that are not in line with Catholic teaching. For example, Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator puts the player in the position of a single father who has just moved to a new neighborhood and has the option of dating seven different men who are also fathers. It is rated as appropriate for ages 13+, but it presents many difficulties for Catholic parents who may be struggling to impart to their children a correct view of sexuality and the human person in the face of prevalent gender ideologies. If your children are exposed to this game, don’t assume that they will automatically be able to interpret these scenarios on their own, even if you’ve spoken to them about gender issues before.
On the other hand, video games with good messages can provide fantastic opportunities to teach your children about virtue or Catholic social teaching in a way that will influence them in a lasting manner and help them relate what they are learning in video games to real-life situations. Kids copy their role-models and their favorite characters. Use this to your advantage. For example, if your children idolize Sora from Kingdom Hearts (a character who places a high value on friendship and doing the right thing), help them connect his care for his friends to the way they treat their own friends at school or on the playground.
If you allow your children to play games that are rated older than their age level, be aware that the game will not be presenting that material in a context easily understood by children their age. This is especially true of games that are rated Mature (intended for audiences 17+), but many Teen rated games also handle difficult themes that could require explanation. In these cases, it can be helpful to find out what the stories presented in these games mean to your children. Don’t be afraid to discuss the deeper issues raised by these video games with your children.
Developing habits of media mindfulness takes practice, discernment, and positive reinforcement. If you are looking to learn more about media mindfulness and how to share this with your children, check out our Resources Page; you may find our online courses or other blog posts helpful.
Of course, aptitude in media literacy always needs to be paired with the following skill:
4. Set Healthy Boundaries
You wouldn’t trust your children in a candy store with no rules. You don’t set limits on their candy consumption because you enjoy their temper tantrums, but because you know that eating too much candy isn’t good for them. Boundaries help children make sense of the world around them, develop the virtues of temperance and prudence, and learn how to make healthy lifestyle choices as they mature. Teaching your children about boundaries and setting healthy limits is particularly important when it comes to video games, which have the potential to be addictive when not moderated properly.
Boundaries need to be tailored to your children’s particular needs and circumstances. They can take a number of forms. Here are a few suggestions:
- limits on the time spent playing: set up and enforce a regular block of time when your children are allowed to play video games (whether daily or weekly). Take into consideration what will be healthy for your children’s physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual development, keeping in mind that screen time should be less for younger children and experts recommend a maximum of two hours of screen time for teens. Establish a system where your children are only allowed to turn on their video games after they have finished their other responsibilities (like chores or homework).
- limits on where video games are played: allow video games to be played only in common areas of the home (for example, in the living room, not in a bedroom with the door closed). This is especially pertinent considering the rise in mobile gaming, when video games are always accessible. Establish rules about playing video games at school or when you are out at public places along with clear consequences if these rules are ignored (such as reducing game time).
- limits on what games are played: if certain games have a negative effect on your children (such as making them more agitated or anxious), don’t let them play these as often (or at all). Avoid scary or agitating games right before bedtime. Slot extra time for more beneficial games (such as educational games or multiplayer games that teach teamwork). Ban games that you deem to be inappropriate or set a future date when they will be old enough to play them, but always explain your motivations for the rules you set.
- balance gaming with other forms of play: children need many forms of play in order to mature into well-integrated individuals. Help your kids discover and engage in other types of fun activities outside of gaming, whether it’s arts and crafts, playing outside, dressing up, or building a pillow fort. Playing sports or musical instruments are other great ways to get the brain working in a different way and engage the body as well as the mind in play. Encouraging fun alternatives to video games rather than simply replacing game time with chores can help your children experience boundaries positively rather than as a punishment.
For more guidance on establishing healthy boundaries in a Catholic family, especially in regards to video games and technology use, feel free to reach out to us directly with questions or see The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World by Michael Horne or Digital Families: Tips and Guidelines for Living in an Online Society. There are also plenty of articles available online about this topic.
Whatever boundaries you ultimately choose to set for your children, it is essential to clearly communicate them, consistently enforce them, and explain why you are limiting their screen time. Also be open to adapting them as your children grow and circumstances change.
Having healthy boundaries opens up the possibility for video games to have a positive influence on your children’s relationships with others. Which leads to the next point:
3. Use Games to Foster Relationships
Video games provide players with a common interest and experience. They give children something to do together and talk about, as well as practice with teamwork and navigating group dynamics. Thus, video games can be the grounds for making new friends or strengthening existing friendships, especially when complemented with other activities and forms of interaction. My friends in high school bonded through playing League of Legends together. It’s a tradition they’ve kept up over the years, though now their friendship has grown to encompass much more than just video games. Maybe your children already have a group of friends that they like to play certain games with, either in person or virtually. If they don’t and you think this is something they might benefit from, consider organizing something with other parents or checking to see if the school or local library has a gaming club.
Video games can also be a tool to bring families closer together. Weekly family game nights are a fun way to do something together that is more interactive than watching a movie. My thirteen-year-old cousin loves playing Fortnite with his dad and brother-in-law as a sort of “guys’ night,” for example. If you don’t know where to start in finding a video game that every family member would enjoy, there are plenty of articles with recommendations online.
Playing a game with your child one-on-one can also be a great way to bond. I still remember fondly the hours I spent fighting monsters with my dad in Guild Wars when I was a middle-schooler. He recently told me that he especially treasured this time because I would ramble about things happening at school that I never would have talked about over the dinner table. Video games don’t automatically create a good relationship and need to be balanced with other forms of meaningful interaction. But they can provide a channel for connecting with your children on a deeper level if you go about it the right way.
But video games don’t only influence our relationship with the people around us. They can also influence our relationship with God:
2. Bring Video Games to Prayer
This is a good way to help your children integrate their gaming experiences into their spiritual lives and teach them that they can talk to God about anything--even video games. It also helps them understand and practice intercessory prayer. Below are a few suggestions for what this prayer might look like:
- pray for those who made the game: just as we can pray for our favorite actors and musicians, so too we can pray for voice actors and models for video games. And let’s not forget all the game developers, programmers, designers, artists, etc. who worked so hard to bring you that game. They need prayers as much as everyone else in the entertainment industry. Encourage your kids not to skip past the credits at the end of a video game, but to read some of the names and ask Jesus to look after those people and guide them in their work.
- pray for those who are undergoing similar hardships as the ones presented in video games: most video games are based on fictional premises, but many grapple with very real issues or problems in the world today, especially games targeted at older children and adults. A teen playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order will encounter themes of trauma, self-discovery, reconciliation, and finding the will to fight in the face of hopeless situations. While the aliens and spaceships of the Star Wars universe are fictional, there are many people who battle with guilt, overcoming loss, and doing the right thing every day. Praying with the deeper messages presented in a game can open our eyes to the places in our real world today that need God’s mercy and grace.
- pray for other players: this is particularly relevant for multiplayer games where your children interact with other real people during gameplay. The encounter might be positive (such as working in a group to accomplish a goal) or negative (battling other players as enemies), but it’s always good to remind your children that behind the avatars on the screen there are actual people with their own stories and needs. Praying with your kids for those people can help your children understand the real-world implications of their in-game behavior and teach them compassion even toward strangers. You don’t have to know someone’s real name or what they look like to ask Jesus to bless them!
Whether you have a family prayer time where prayer intentions are shared aloud or you encourage your children in personal prayer, make it clear to them that it’s okay (and even a good thing!) to pray about video games and the experiences they have while gaming.
Of course, all of these skills and habits will be useless if you don’t follow it up with the most important tip on the list:
1. Lead by Example
Set a good example with your own media usage and media mindfulness. Actions speak louder than words, and kids can detect the injustice of a double standard from a mile away. You can talk about having healthy boundaries all you want, but if your children notice you obsessively checking your email or turning to a phone game whenever you have a spare moment, they won’t internalize the skills you’re trying to teach them. Conversely, if you show them the importance of being present to people and using media in a balanced way by setting healthy boundaries for yourself, they’ll be more open to learning these healthy habits and more likely to live them even when you aren’t there to enforce the rules. If you really want your children to absorb media mindfulness techniques, then make a practice of pulling out the deeper messages from the media you enjoy and pray for the people involved in it. You’ll be amazed at how much your kids can pick up from the example you give them.
This list could have been much longer. There are countless other ways that video gaming can be a positive experience for your children. Maybe you’ve discovered a few tips of your own. If so, keep doing what you’re doing, and rest-assured that you are in the Media Nuns’ prayers!
Our guest blogger is Sr. Allison Gliot, a novice with the Daughters of St Paul. She is from Falls Church, Virginia, and has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of America. She loves video games, but not as much as she loves Jesus.