In Defense of Screen Time: The Benefits of Playing Video Games as a Family

File under Stuff I’ve Probably Already Talked About, but in the wake of this article in the Atlantic that constructs a bogeyman threat of how young people are being ruined by their smartphones, I wanted to address a few oft-overlooked points about the benefits of screen time. I won’t dish all the details of my disagreement with Twenge’s take on how smartphones have supposedly “destroyed a generation,” as this counterpoint does a pretty good job of that already.

Instead, I want to take a moment to explain how playing video games, either as a solo endeavor or as a family, can be really beneficial for many kids in some ways. At the very least, I want to deconstruct the assumptions of many parents that video games are necessarily junk food for the brain. That’s truer these days than ever before. Allow me to explain:

1.  RPG style (role-playing) games can fuel a child’s creativity.

If you haven’t kept up with the times, games aren’t nearly as passive as they used to be. Instead of a rolling screen a la the original Super Mario, the ’90s and beyond fueled an age of fantastic universes, emotionally complex characters, and compelling storylines complete with plot twists.

Now, there’s still the possibility of playing one of these games and merely falling into step with the character on the screen in the most basic way possible. This is why I encourage parents to get involved with their kids’ gaming habits, whether via a multi-player setup or by simply paying attention to which games your child is playing, and why.

I’ll talk about Pokemon here because it’s what I know best. If you’re not familiar with the basic plot, the original game casts the player in the role of “Red” (you can rename him, don’t worry), who at the age of 11 or 12-ish, sets off on a hero’s quest to become a pokemon master. If this sounds familiar to you and you live in the U.S., you may be envisioning Ash Ketchum from the T.V. show. Red’s quest is pretty straightforward: travel from town to town, battle and collect wild pokemon, help Professor Oak compete the Pokedex, and win matches against the gym leaders in each town until you can take on the Elite Four and become master of the Pokemon League. In the cartoon, the plot is expanded a bit to include Ash’s rocky start with his somewhat unreliable starter pokemon, Pikachu. The two become fast friends and form an unstoppable team, along with each new pokemon Ash collects. In addition to simply taking on the gym leaders, Ash is constantly running into a ragtag band of Team Rocket henchmen who are trying to catch Pikachu. Hilarity ensues.

Try this: if your child has a game he or she loves, learn a bit about the game’s setting, characters, and plot. Ask your child to try writing a story that expands the plot using his favorite characters, or that perhaps incorporates characters of your child’s own design. If you play enough of these games, and become familiar with the comics and shows that sometimes spawn from them, you’ll see certain plot devices and story-telling tropes rise to the fore, hopefully in different ways. For a aspiring writer or budding artist, this is a fantastic way to kick a kid’s imagination into high gear so that she can start churning out stories of her own. Starting with an existing sophisticated game universe is just one of many ways to do it.

2. Video games geared toward a younger audience can include valuable social skills and character development lessons.

One reason Pokemon is great for school aged/pre-teen gamers is that it includes a somewhat moral component to the character development and the game’s expectations of the player. From the very first generation onward, the young trainer is cautioned that a Pokemon Master reaches success by caring for his pokemon and forming a bond with his star team. Yes, there’s a cock-fight element to the game, which relies upon battling a competitor’s pokemon in order to progress. Your pokemon needs to battle until its opponent faints; if your entire team faints, you must scurry back to a Pokemon Center to heal the poor little creatures. But as the gameplay progresses, you encounter bad guys who brag about being the biggest and baddest and strongest, and make it clear that they care more about winning than about being nice to their pokemon. But you’re going to show them, because you know that it takes friendship to raise a healthy and strong pokemon and become league champion!

What I love about the RPGs in general, especially the more sophisticated games, is that every choice you make has an impact on not only you, but the world around you. Sure, they may be NPCs (non-player characters), but they’re involved enough in the plot to make you question your actions and motives. Are you fulfilling your mission, or acting in your own self-interest? Obviously, I’m not talking about the Grand Theft Auto franchise here. But that’s where your role comes in as parent: your job is not so much to put the smack down on the true “junk food” games, but to actively steer your kids to choose game titles that support their own development in positive way. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if done right, there’s much to be gained by watching a world develop and a plot unfold based on the growth and decisions of player-character.

3.  You may be witnessing the making of a future software developer.

If you’re playing along with your kids, ask them what they think about not only developing their own characters and storylines, but actually building the components of the technical aspects of the game. I think this is great for older kids in middle or high school, especially if your child’s school has a computer science program they can utilize to begin learning to write code. There are also a lot of free resources available for both young people and adults online and at local community colleges — I see more and more of them popping up all over Facebook and elsewhere. Stop treating Minecraft like a diversion that allows you to get dinner ready, and start encouraging your kids to build mods for the game using programs like this one, for example. Did I mention the importance of encouraging our girls to embrace computer programming, a traditionally male space? Two resources to check out are Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code.

On a related note, I recently joined the gentlemen of Sword Chomp to guest host their podcast on all things video games – the Chompcast – in which we discussed the world of Pokemon and other gaming-related topics. (And if you’re wondering why, please check out the show I co-host, Rare Candy: A Pokemon Podcast, if you haven’t already!) Contrary to the gamer stereotypes that date back to the ’80s, many of us are fellow moms and dads who manage to handle our responsibilities at home and at work while also indulging in some much-needed electronic escapism from time to time. We spent a good chunk of the show discussing the above points about how kids and parents alike can benefit from family game time. I would be thrilled if you guys checked it out and let me know what you thought.

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