Kids & Screens: An Argument for Video Games
In this post, I want to highlight the positive experiences I have had with video games in my life, both as a parent and as a, well, ageing, gamer.
To quote Justin McElroy's tongue-in-cheek opening phrase to the great Besties gaming podcast:
Video games have come a long way since Pac-Man...
While this is understatement for comedic effect, it is nevertheless true. As I am replaying FromSoftware's 2022 hit Elden Ring, this time as a sorcerer instead of a warrior, I continue to be awed by all the levels of quality this game brings to the living room: great graphics, gameplay, sound effects, adventure, challenge, (very) dramatic classical music, sad, enigmatic characters who move through a land rich with lore...you get the picture: I am a fan.
That's all well and good, but what about the children? To address this question, we first need to address a sticky myth about violence in video games.
Causation or correlation?
In 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a meta-analysis of research done during the previous decade in which they claimed there was a meaningful connection between playing violent video games and aggressive or violent behaviour in real life. This research has often been quoted in arguments against the video game industry, especially in discussions relating to children. As a gamer, the tone of such discussions reminds me of the fear-mongering reports about heavy metal music and the occult decades earlier.
The study was criticised by many academics, who signed a letter of protest, stating that:
...the methodology of the research was deeply flawed as a significant part of material included in the study had not been subjected to peer review.1
A new meta-analysis conducted in 2020 led by Christopher J. Ferguson led to a very different conclusion:
We found that violent video games do not appear to be linked to aggression....Games are now more important than ever for socialization, feeling autonomy and control during an uncertain time, and just de-stressing.2
The APA itself has now adjusted its 2015 stance in a new resolution, published in 2020, which states:
Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.3
I will admit video games are not without problems, ones which parents should pay attention to. Video games can be addictive, and some content is dark. Sitting passively on the couch all day can't be good for one's physical and mental health either. And just like in TV or film, some games do contain purposeless, lazily-written violence. But I want to caution against oversimplifying things. Dark, depressing music (think Joy Division, for example) can sometimes be the best anti-dote for sadness or depression, and, speaking from personal experience, it was FromSoftware's Dark Souls series 1, 2 and 3 that helped me get through the pandemic.4
Video games have joined the ranks of other media - movies, music, theatre, paintings, novels, poetry, comic books, radio shows, podcasts, TV series - in shaping culture. It is clear from listening to critics discuss games on podcasts like The Besties, The Giant Bombcast (also previously The Beastcast), Into the Aether and Asynchronous that games address the whole range of the human experience, and, just like in any other medium, sometimes do so profoundly. Because writing is one of the dual backbones of video games (the other being gameplay mechanics), an avid book reader will recognise literary quality in the dialogues, voice overs and other storytelling elements in good video games. Games with a narrative focus like Firewatch, Citizen Sleeper, and one of my personal favourites, Lake (where your main goal is to drive around a lake every day, delivering mail and getting to know the town) are on par with reading an excellent novel. Some games with a stronger focus on action, like Celeste, can still deal maturely with weighty themes, like fighting your inner demons and self-acceptance. As such, I think it is important for parents and teachers to introduce and guide our children into this wonderful artistic world, in the same way we do with movies, books and music.
So, for the remainder of this post, I would like to illustrate some of the positive ways that has happened in my own household.
Early positive experiences I have had with all of my children is with the classic screen co-op mode. Back in the day (...) this is all we had. Whether you preferred Sonic or Mario, Contra or Street Fighter II, you were stuck with one console on one TV screen in the household, and you had to share. Sometimes this meant passing the controller back and forth between 'deaths' and other times, you could blissfully attempt the game's challenges together, using two controllers. This was the birth of screen co-op, a tradition many game developers continue today, with a good dose of nostalgia. Towerfall is an example of a game where you and your child, or even children, if you have enough controllers, can work together to try and beat the frenetic levels by falling. The oddly named Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a fantastically cute sci-fi co-op game, where the difficulty level ramps up pretty fast. A long-time favourite in our home is Castle Crashers, developed by a company called The Behemoth. This cartoony knight platformer does contain some blood and violence, but it's such fun to progress and overcome challenges together with its dapper characters that you can level up, and its hooky, whimsical music.
Some teachers worry about Minecraft; they really shouldn't. When one of my kids casually told me that he and his friends had developed a religion in their Minecraft world, complete with mythological creatures, scriptures, places of worship, and boons for passing rituals, I began paying attention. If your child plays this game, and especially if they play online with friends, you should ask them to show you what they have been building together. You may be genuinely surprised by the levels of creativity and ingenuity on display in these brick-by-brick built worlds. I believe Minecraft is an educational game, and a potentially great socialising tool for young and old. Some of the problem-solving mechanisms are a good introduction to the logic of coding as well.
My oldest and I share a love for video games. It is often a topic of our conversations. One of my favourite things is sitting on the couch together while one of us plays through whatever game we are attempting to beat at the time. It is relaxing and sometimes even intellectual and analytical. All of this began years ago with Nintendo's DS handheld console, and later the 3DS. Game series like Animal Crossing have grown across console generations to their modern versions on today's Nintendo Switch, a remarkable piece of handheld gaming technology. For many in 2020, both young and old, Animal Crossing: New Horizons with its cute characters, creative island development and social interactions was a panacea against the misery of lockdowns and Covid 19. Nintendo has a long history of putting colourful, family-friendly games on their platforms (Mario and Zelda spring to mind). With The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom scheduled to be released in May 2023, they show no sign of changing that tradition.
Board game emulations
If you have family or friends abroad, you can enjoy detailed, relaxing and complex board game emulations together online. Steam is a gaming platform that allows cross-platform play. Last year, my kids played Wingspan and various other major board game releases online with their aunts. It was a great way for them to keep in touch while developing problem-solving and strategising skills. Similarly, on Xbox, you can play simple chess, pool and card games (Uno, for example), but Carcassonne is also available. Many of these board or card game emulations support both online and co-op screen play.
Age restrictions, Blood Toggles, Saying 'No'
In a previous post I discussed my shock at discovering many of my youngest child's classmates had been watching the ultra violent series Squid Game on Netflix, most probably without adult supervision. As a gaming parent, I find I can at times be strict about age restrictions. I have held back on allowing shooters for a long while, and have recently allowed Star Wars: Battlefront for my middle child, partly because it is set in a sci-fi/fantasy world. Before that, I had allowed Plants vs Zombies and Splatoon. Both of these use the mechanics of a shooter, but by using plants and paint, they manage to keep some distance from realistic gun violence. I know from experience that playing competitive online shooters against real people can be an adrenaline-fueling experience, so make sure to stop playing these well before bed times. I think it is perfectly OK to say 'No' to games with higher age restrictions. One settings option I have recently discovered is that in some games for mature audiences, you can turn blood effects off, which makes the gameplay feel less violent, and sometimes the solo campaign may be the calmer experience than competing against real people online.
There are privacy issues with gaming. You almost always have to sign up with an email address and other contact details, including a credit card. I have not experienced the equivalent level of quality in open source games, so this one is a compromise. With its release of the Steam Deck, Valve has managed to introduce a lot of people to the Linux operating system, which is a good development.
Some games or platforms designed for kids, like Roblox, are just too greedy and toxic. As a parent, it helps to have some first-hand knowledge of video games in order to be able to spot these bad apples. Say no to Roblox, or any game that tries to get your child to spend real money in game.
The online experience has opened up a new social minefield of one-to-one or group chats and calls. This is something to really keep an eye on. I have heard squeaky-voiced kids utter the most disgusting threats in online shooters like Halo and PUBG, so perhaps leaving the microphone off to strangers is not a bad idea. This also may help prevent the worst-case-scenario of a potential adult predator from trying to start a conversation with your child. Most gaming platforms have very granular options for voice chat settings, or another option is to use the TV speakers instead of headphones.
For gaming with friends, on the other hand, I would highly recommend allowing chat and voice chat, but you do have to keep an eye on it. I would remind your child often that these groups are for friends only; kids easily let strangers in without thinking too much about it. As a parent, you need to keep an eye on the potential for bullying as well.
The expense of gaming can be an issue. In order to keep up with the newest games, and to play online with friends, it does help if you own the latest consoles, but these can be pricey. To resolve this, I would recommend an Xbox Series S with an Xbox Game Pass subscription. The Series S is the cheaper, DVD-less console, but it still boasts modern specs. Game Pass is Netflix for games, and you can even stream games now, rather than having to deal with downloads and storage limitations. For a reasonable amount per month, you and your children can choose from a huge library of high quality video games that is regularly updated. It really is the best deal around, and the ideal platform for discovering games to play together with friends online. For handheld gaming, Nintendo's Switch Lite is affordable and easy to find second-hand.
Finally, gaming can be so much fun, you'll want nothing else. This is the road to addiction, and it has to be managed. A lifelong gamer myself, I have experienced successes and failures with addiction to games, so parents should take a realistic approach. I do think clear rules about screen times help, and keeping screens out of bedrooms is essential for a healthy approach to gaming.
Current use and looking ahead
Gaming is important to me. I understand the worries some parents and teachers might have, but I really think there are many solid arguments in favour of video games. Games tell wonderful, meaningful stories in creatively sophisticated ways. I feel that they are one of the pinnacles of our cultural achievements as human beings, and I hope to play many more of them. My middle child and I recently started our first run of Dark Souls together, passing the joy stick back and forth between deaths. And for anyone who knows the series, there will be a lot of those.
Note: the podcasts I mention in the article are for adults:
YouTuber The Gemsbok does a "Philosophical Analysis of Dark Souls" in just over 1 hour and 35 minutes!
After posting this, a friend took the main body of text and asked ChatGPT to turn the argument into a Seamus Heaney poem. I think it is pretty good!
In fields of pixels, I did oft' tread,
With controller in hand and heart full of dread,
For in these worlds, I found solace and light,
A refuge from troubles, both day and night.
Video games have grown, past Pac-Man's realm,
With graphics grand, and tales to overwhelm,
My sorcerer self, in Elden Ring,
Did weave spells and delve deep, in everything.
But what of the children, you might ask with fear,
Of violence and aggression, so very dear,
To those who would lay blame on games we play,
But research has shown, it's not quite that way.
For causality's not the game here,
Just correlation, that's all, I hold dear,
With games now more important than ever,
For socialization, control, and endeavor.
In culture, games have taken their place,
With stories and themes, of love and grace,
From Firewatch to Lake, and Celeste too,
Video games are art, as all can view.
So let us guide our children, with care,
To these worlds of pixels, so bright and fair,
And in screen co-op, play and bond together,
In games of the past and those yet to come.
Also: "Study Finds Video Game Playing Causes No Harm to Young Children’s Cognitive Abilities" (23 Feb 2023)
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There are several great, detailed video essays addressing video games as a tool for coping with mental health, including several about the Dark Souls series: "How Dark Souls 2 saved my life", "Dark Souls Helped Me Cope With Suicidal Depression" and "Dark Souls 2 and the Curse of Mental Illness", the latter a grounded, moving account of someone explaining how Dark Souls 2 helped them cope with schizoaffective disorder.↩