Raising Children With Games

Thursday, April 2, 2015
The Maw was one of the first games they played. An old picture, but I think it illustrates good game manners well.

Ours has always been a house of gamers. My wife and I both play games and have since before we started dating. We courted over Halo and have used Borderlands to keep in touch with some of our friends who have moved away. Our kids have been interested in games for a long time and in recent years have started playing games on the console and PC. A while back, my brother asked me what our policy was for regulating our children's time with games and I found it difficult to answer. Since then I've received a few requests for an article on the same topic. I've taken some time to look at our rules for games and hope that what I present below will be useful.

I don't really remember what the rules were for me regarding video games when I was a kid. I honestly don't think I was regulated very much, something evident in my stacks of unfinished homework that gathered near my bed. The house computer was in my room for many of my high school years and I spent a great deal of time on it playing Quake III, The Sims, Syndicate, Privateer, Worms (especially Worms) and a dozen or more other games. While I managed to self-regulate my time enough to graduate, I don't think I had healthy gaming habits at the time.

Our girls love games of all kinds. We play board games from Candyland to Forbidden Desert, they are loving the D&D game I am running with them and one of their friends and we all play video games (together and solo). Over the last couple years birthday and Christmas presents of playing cards have introduced them to games like Hearts, Go Fish, War and Old Maid. They seem to enjoy how easy card games are to transport and set up. Their favorite game at the moment, however, has to be Minecraft. We bought the Xbox One edition of the game as a dual present for them. Most of their friends play it and we thought it would be a good game for them to play together.

We really don't have a lot of rules dictating how long or when the girls can play. Most of their play time is dictated by other, general rules that we have; homework is done first thing when they get home, followed by reading for at least half an hour. They are free to play outside or in afterwards and if the console is free and they ask to play they can set up in front of the TV for a while.

We do our best to give them reasons when they can't play a video game. Rather than just saying no, we tell them why. We may be leaving for the store, the library or their grandparents' house soon and they don't have enough time to play. It might be dinnertime, or they might still have homework to do. Often though, we follow the statement by giving them a time or condition on which they can play. For example, we'll say that they can play when we get home or limit the time to half an hour or so and have them set their own timer. When a timer isn't available we give them five or ten minute warnings so they can save or find a stopping place.

While useful, most of this is pretty basic info for many of you. I don't think the ideas above would have worked with our kids at all if we didn't teach them first and foremost about good game manners. Before we ever let the kids play video games we sat down to talk with them about appropriate behavior for playing games by themselves and with others. The distilled version of those rules follows:

1. If a game is making you mad or frustrated, it is time to put it down.
2. Treat other players nicely and they will play with you again.
3. Help other players when they ask for it, but do not boss them around.
4. If you need help, ask nicely.
5. Work together,take turns and share when possible.
6. Do not make fun of other players for any reason at any time.
7. Don't be rough with your controller. You can't play with a broken controller. 
8. If your time is up, the game is turned off.

Some of these seem a bit repetitive as adults, but I think it is important to lay out specifics whenever possible. I've dealt with too many "you didn't say I couldn't do _______" moments with my children to expect them to adequately interpret the finer details of broad statements.

Of all of the rules above, I think the first one is the real key. I've seen adults get pissed off at a puzzle they couldn't solve and throw a phone across a room or snap a controller in half when they lost a match. These are people with bad game manners. Teaching my kids when to walk away from a game has significantly helped them self-regulate their time with video games. It was hard at first; there were fits, tears and groundings for a while. Follow-through is really important here. If the kid gets mad at a game and refuses to put it down, take it away or turn it off. Remove the game from the kid however possible for however long you think is reasonable. Usually we went with a week, more if the tantrum was particularly bad. For some it may be enough to remove just the game, but we often removed game time entirely.

Eventually, our oldest started putting the game down herself when she got stuck or frustrated. In turn, she has taught her sister how to calm down and walk away when she gets mad or cries about something in the game. I've been impressed by the amount of self control the two of them have exhibited recently. I think teaching them when to walk away and when it's okay to come back helped my kids break through the "just one more level" behavior. I hope it will work for you and your little gamers as well.

I'm happy to answer any questions that you readers may have about this piece or anything else related to gaming with kids. Feel free to ask in a comment here, via e-mail or twitter.