I'm well aware that a lot of my fellow parents (I'm the father of four) see video games as a pastime for children -- not adults. This stirs up an intense need within me to tell them that they're missing out on an amazing way to bond with kids. At their core, most video games present a specific problem that needs to be solved, whether it's an alien invasion to face down or a simulated civilization to help survive. Match the right game to the right kid and the process of trying to figure out solutions is nothing short of exhilarating. For sure, gaming comes with caveats, but in my experience, it's a powerful addition to your parenting arsenal.
True, news reports linking video games with violent behavior abound, but there's also plenty of recent research touting potential positive effects of gameplay, from improved hand-eye coordination to enhanced visuospatial cognition. (In layman's terms, that's a skill associated with careers in fields such as architecture, engineering, and surgery.) And according to Henry Jenkins, co-director of comparative media studies and professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, playing video games is a very good way to learn because lessons come in making mistakes, by seeing what works and what doesn't. "That tends to be a very useful way of interacting with the world," says Jenkins.
But let's keep this in perspective. In the end, games are a form of entertainment and should be consumed in reasonable measure. The same way you wouldn't let a fifth-grader read Naked Lunch or watch Scarface, you shouldn't let your kid play games that are crass, violent, or just plain stupid. (More later on how to tell which is which.) Terrific video games can make for a stimulating, rewarding experience, but overdoing it on bad ones is just a downer for all concerned.
None of which I was thinking about when I introduced Phineas and his 5-year-old brother, Benny, to cyberplay. Content-wise, I was clued in; I'm a gamer myself, so I already knew what to steer them toward and away from. It just didn't occur to me initially that we were going to need set rules as part of this equation. It turned out we would require a bunch.