Why Video Games Are Not ‘Wasted Time’

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Why Video Games Are Not ‘Wasted Time’
Tom Werner/Getty

Since my son discovered they existed, video games have always been a source of contention in my house. Any kind of electronic device, really. When he was little, my ex-husband and I set up strict boundaries concerning time allotted for electronics as well as any chores that must be completed before my son was allowed access. We’d use electronics as a currency to keep our son’s behavior in line.

We didn’t like screen time, though. We tolerated it as a means by which to motivate our kid. Experts implied that screen-time and gaming would rot our son’s brain. Our doctor’s stern eye reminded us of it at every well checkup—“No more than two hours per day on screens, right?”—and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents limit screens, especially for young children, recommending no screen time at all for kids under 2, and no more than an hour per day for kids ages 2 to 5. With older kids, the AAP’s recommendation is to “be mindful.”

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But we were dealing with a child who had an ADHD diagnosis and almost zero intrinsic motivation to comply with rules and boundaries. Frankly, we would have used whatever currency was available. If we could use screen time in small doses to motivate our kid to do what would otherwise take an act of God to get done, we were willing to allow for a bit of brain rot.

Now that my son is a full-fledged teenager living in the socially distanced epoch of a worldwide pandemic, he spends a considerable portion of his day online gaming. This worried me a lot at first—with no place to go, no way to see his friends, he was spending far more time online than ever before. Was I ruining him by allowing this?

I’d hear him chatting with his buddies, sometimes shouting curse words, sometimes squealing with happiness about achieving some game-related goal. I’d wander in his room to check on him and see he wasn’t just playing a game—he was also watching a game on his phone. Two screens at once. Sigh. My 10-year-old daughter does the same thing, but with art apps, and she has always been easier to peel away from screens than my son.

I teased my son about watching other people play video games. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of video games? Isn’t the entire point to play the game yourself? Every time my kids get off screens, I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank goodness they’re living in the real world again, I think to myself. I’ve gotten into arguments with my son about the risks of being on screens. He reminds me that “literally everyone” is doing it, and it’s not like he doesn’t have plenty of things going on outside of gaming. He reminds me that he’s perfectly capable of carrying on a nuanced conversation with an adult, he still reads books, and knows how to write 10-page-long research papers. If gaming really fries his brain, he asks me, then how come he’s so well-rounded in these other ways?

I don’t have an answer for him. He’s right. He is a well-rounded kid.

In a recent Ted Talk on gaming, Cara Lane addressed many of my fears about my son’s gaming. The arguments she used sounded a lot like my son’s, and they were backed by research and the lived experience of having successfully raised two incredibly well-adjusted gamer sons to adulthood.

Lane pointed out that, as adults, we’re quick to judge our kids’ behaviors in the same way our parents and their parents were so quick to judge the behaviors of the generations coming up behind them. She recommends that parents of gamers be curious rather than critical—that we show the same kind of enthusiasm for a kids’ love of video games that we would for any other interest.

For those of who just don’t “get” the world of online gaming, this may sound ridiculous. I mean, our kids are just sitting in a chair staring at a screen while their brains turn to pudding—what’s good about that? This knee-jerk reaction is the problem though.

The Good Side Of Gaming

When kids play video games, especially if they’re playing an interactive game with friends, they’re socializing—but more than that, they’re cooperating, collaborating, and strategizing. I overhear my kids coming up with plans, formulating how they’ll proceed, and then, when the original plans go awry, actively regrouping and modifying and devising new plans.

As for my making fun of my kids for watching other people play video games, Lane pointed out that we adults also watch other people play games. The difference between adults watching sports on TV and our kids watching their favorite players play online is that most adults have zero chance of attaining an ability anywhere near the pros we watch. Nor do we watch to study how to improve our own performance. But generally, when gamer kids are watching their favorite players play, they are actively studying and analyzing how to apply their favorite players’ techniques to their own game play.

Not only that, but gaming simply isn’t the useless pastime we adults so often make it out to be. Gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, with over 164 million adults in the United States playing video games. Um, that’s half of the U.S. population. Some colleges now offer scholarships for “esports,” and the military and many careers use video-game type simulations to develop their products and services. In 2019, the League of Legends tournament captured more viewers than the Super Bowl that year, with 10,000 people showing up in person at the St. Louis, Missouri arena and more than 600,000 fans accessing the tournament via Twitch and YouTube.

In other words, gaming isn’t going away, and if we don’t want to alienate our kids, we’d better get on board and embrace this new era. Personally, I don’t get gaming at all. My kids have begged me to play with them, and lord knows I’ve tried, but I simply do not have the hand-eye coordination to navigate those damn controllers with the 82 buttons. *Shakes cane and shouts at kids to get off my lawn.*

Still, even the gaming-challenged parent can support their kids’ affinity for gaming and use it as a tool to be closer and more involved with their kids. Lane recommends that every parent of a gamer ask the following three questions:

– What games do you play?

– Why do you enjoy playing those particular games? – Can I watch you game sometime?

Most of us have memories of a parent showing up and supporting us in our passion, and how good that felt. Some may have painful memories of wishing a parent would show up, but never having that wish granted. Our kids want us to be interested and enthusiastic about the things they love. Why can’t we do this with gaming? Why criticize it so much and only point out the bad instead of getting curious about the good parts? If our kids love it and care about it, why not try to figure out what it is they love so much about it? Maybe our kids have a point, and maybe criticizing what they like actually makes them feel small and invalidated, and maybe we shouldn’t do that.

When I asked my kids to tell me about their gaming, they lit up—especially my son. He ended up staying long after dinner was finished to keep telling me about his games even though his gaming buddies were online waiting for him. He was excited to explain to me about the “Sky Block” game in Minecraft, where you trade goods at the “Bazaar,” using supply and demand theories to make “money.” The kid is learning macroeconomics via a video game.

So, I don’t worry so much about gaming anymore. We still have time limits to ensure the kids get up and move, spend time with the family, complete chores, practice music, and like, shower occasionally. But I don’t mind so much anymore when I hear the screams of frustration or glee emanating from my kids’ rooms, because I know they’re just playing with their friends. Sure, playing with friends doesn’t look the way it did when I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable.

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