Video games promised to transport my children to magical lands, seed imagination, inspire competition and tell them stories in new ways. But the reality was arguments over stopping, family rooms full of plastic peripherals and constant pestering for the next new game before they’d done enough washing up to pay for the last one.
I wanted to close the door and leave them to it; or lock them in a high cupboard — the games, not the children. But that would admit that the games had won. Besides, I was a games journalist, damn it!
A decade later I’m glad I didn’t back away. My presence in my children’s gaming world has been as important as at the dinner table, on woodland walks or trips to the cinema. They didn’t need my help to play the games, quite the reverse in fact, but they did need me to model a healthy relationship with them.
Children are expert players. Digital interactive spaces are their native habitat. They swipe to unlock before they can write, tap and drag before they can read. They are highly literate in the language of interaction. They are instinctively drawn to video games as experiences made for their benefit.
But beyond this veneer of confidence and ability they are as woefully ill-equipped to cope with this increasingly commercial and competitive space, as they are to handle supermarket shopping, illness, football crowds, failing at tests or the death of a grandparent.
Children need parents to show them how to navigate video game experiences. They need advice on how to cope with losing. They need guidance on how to walk away before they throw the controller. They need grown-ups present to make their games more than just play. They need adults to suggest more interesting or ambitious games they hadn’t heard of or considered playing.
My children haven’t come to me and asked for any of this. They bleat about games: “just one more go”, “it’s not fair”, “there’s nothing else to do”, “he’s cheating”, “I’ve wasted my day” and “everyone else is playing it”.
What they’re actually asking is how to keep games enjoyable, avoid getting controlling by them, integrate their incredible virtual worlds with the rest of life or maybe even how to avoid their gaming escalating despite of negative consequences.
These are phrases the World Health Organisation uses to designate its new gaming disorder disease. Your children are unlikely to fall into this territory but it is useful to underline how much benefit parents provide and the potential dangers of leaving gaming to children to navigate alone.
If you’re not a “gamer” or find all this too complicated to understand, then this book is for you. Your children need you to guide their gaming and develop healthy habits — just like you do with their reading, eating and outside play.
I figured it out the hard way. Trawling the internet, talking to developers, interviewing game rating agencies and hours spent trawling YouTube. It took a long time and led me down endless rabbit holes, but I’m glad I did because now I can make it easy for you.
This is the bottom line: children need parents to keep gaming healthy; parents need accessible guidance to start being that positive presence.
Over the next chapters I’ll provide the guidance I wish I had when embarking on this journey with my children. As a games journalist and industry insider (not forgetting father and husband) I’ll draw back the curtain on the real dangers, point to unexpected benefits and help you to develop your own understanding of video games so you can play a genuine active role in your child’s video game time.
Whether on The One Show, YouTube or friends in my home town, I’ve seen family after family go from video game stress and concern to parents actively curating this crucial area of life — and loving it.
Recipe: A Game With Help From Strangers
Journey, on the PlayStation, is an adventure in a desert. What’s unusual is that you encounter other human players in the landscape who often help you to explore a sandy landscape and discover an ancient story.
Even without being able to communicate verbally, the presence of another person transforms the barren landscape into a inhabited space. It creates a beautiful journey from sand to snow and water that creates an unusual appreciation of help from unknown others.
Recipe: A Game You Play By Texting
Bury Me, My Love is an unusual smartphone game that tells the story of a Syrian migrant. Parents and teenagers can play it simultaneously for a unique shared experience around themes of war, homelessness, migration and border control.
It’s a text adventure that looks like a messaging app. You play the role of the husband of a migrant travelling to Europe. Choosing different written and emoji responses to her questions, that pop up on your phone. result in different choices and routes. It unfolds in real time so messages pop-up throughout the day, but the game will wait for you to respond before continuing.