If you feel that the opportunities to connect with your kids are few and far between, the solution might be to break out a video game. (Seriously!)

By Scott Alexander

Video Games: A Useful Learning Tool

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.

Putting a Time Limit on Video Gaming

The necessity for our first regulation, time limits, became apparent almost immediately. It wasn't just that my kids would game all day if they could — it was alarmingly easy for me to sit down with them to play only to look up and see we'd burned off three hours without even trying. There's a reason for this. Video games create goals, whether shooting all the alien ships or building a killer roller coaster, and if the designers have done their job well, then reaching those goals feels great. Game makers call this getting players into a "flow state," where they lose track of time, space, and their surroundings and are completely engaged, says Warren Spector, one of the industry's most prominent developers, who now makes games for Disney. Sounds ideal if you're on a cross-country flight. It's not quite as wonderful if there are pets going unwalked or homework that needs doing.

When my two boys and I emerged from a gaming session and my wife called it "the longest hour in the history of the world," I realized we needed to come up with some ground rules in a hurry. Our first decree: no games on weeknights. The time between getting home from school and going to bed was already short and jam-packed enough without electronic interference. We decided that on non-school days (weekends and holidays) each kid could game for an hour. It was less than a lot of their friends got to play, but we thought it struck the right balance between enjoying games and having a life.

Using Video Games as an Incentive

Next we needed to firmly establish games as a privilege, not a right. For that we defined conditions that needed to be met without exception before a console got powered up. To be specific: clean bedrooms, made beds, and all chores done. It took exactly one time being denied interactive gratification for our usually organizationally challenged children to develop a fastidiousness we'd never seen before. (At least on weekends. Hey, it's a start.) Their swift response made something else abundantly clear. Video games gave us considerable clout as disciplinarians. The threat of no dessert lost its effectiveness by age 4, but the notion of losing their weekend video games got their attention in a big way — and could be deployed at any time during the week.

This gaming thing was turning out to be a pretty good deal. We decided to press our luck. Could we use it as a carrot as well as a stick? Turns out, yes. Our next decree was strictly optional: We told the boys that any chores they did above and beyond their normal load would result in a one-to-one earning of video game time (capped at one extra hour). As a result we now have two boys who regularly ask if they can do some dusting, sweep the kitchen floor, or tidy up the backyard. This I could get used to.

Video-Gaming as a Family

The last move was to fine-tune the time-limit rule. (I love how this turned out, for purely selfish reasons.) My wife and I noticed the boys enjoyed gaming together but couldn't always agree on what to play. So while Phineas might normally be happy to play Super Smash Brothers with Benny, if it was going to count as his game time, he'd often opt to sit out, saving his time for his own choices. The same went for Benny when Phineas was playing. I had hoped video games would be something they could enjoy together, but after several months joint play was becoming increasingly rare. Gaming was starting to feel isolationist, plus when they played consecutively it blew a two-hour hole in the middle of our family's day. The solution was to change up the rules again. On game days they'd each get a half hour of freely chosen game time, and the other half hour would be spent with the three of us playing something together. This didn't work; we quickly found that for three people trading off a single controller and trying to solve problems together, 30 minutes is a frustratingly short chunk of time. It was Phineas' idea to alternate. Every other game day they'd get an hour of free-choice gaming apiece. The following game day the three of us would spend an hour playing together.

I'm not ashamed to admit that the play-together days quickly became the highlight of my week. The experience is reminiscent of another of our favorite activities, my reading aloud to them. There's something magical in experiencing stories with other people. But while books turn out the same way every time, in a video game the outcome depends on our input. We're not just hearing a story, we're helping create one.

I look at it this way: Our kids are growing up in the 21st century. Video games are going to be part of their lives whether we like it or not. When they're chosen carefully, games can be an exercise in cooperation, group problem solving, brainstorming, and working through frustration. And they can bring your family closer. I'm sold. But you probably guessed that by now.

Frequently-Asked Video Gaming Questions

Playing video games will neither turn your kids into geniuses nor make them violent or obese — but don't try telling the news media that. We asked several experts to look past the hysteria and give us their take on what games can do to (and for) kids. This is what they said.

Are video games bad?"Asking whether video games are good or bad is like asking if TV is good or bad," says Dimitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and a researcher on children and media. "The answer largely depends on the game and how much it's being played."

Will gaming make my kid fat?Probably not, says Christakis. "People assume playing video games is a sedentary activity and therefore leads to obesity, but there is no evidence of that. Too much TV watching is associated with packing on pounds because of food advertisements and the fact that it's easy to eat while viewing, but games don't involve food ads, and your hands are occupied, so you don't eat while you play."

Can video games make my child become violent? Expert opinions differ on whether there's a connection between video game violence and real-world violence. Youth violence has sharply declined as video game consumption has skyrocketed, which would seem to suggest there is little to no connection. Keep in mind, the way an individual child reacts to violent content varies vastly with age, maturity, and emotional makeup. Iowa State University professor Craig Anderson, co-author of Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents (Oxford University Press), says, "Video games are wonderful teaching tools. If the game encourages positive or pro-social behavior or is educational in a positive way, that's what the child will take away. If the game teaches how to solve problems with violent behavior, they're going to learn that too."

Is video game addiction real? Yes, but it's rare, and typically a symptom of larger issues. "We're talking a small segment of kids who might be a bit unstable or having a difficult time in another part of their life. Often there's a history of addictive behavior in their family, or depression, anxiety disorders, or alcoholism," says psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital. "The game is not the problem."

Should parents play games with their kids? A thousand times yes. The experts were practically unanimous: The only way to know about the games your kid plays is to play them yourself, at least a little bit. Think of it as a chance to interact with your kid in his own airspace, which can be fun for both of you.

Video-Gaming Statistics, Rules & Rating System

Survey Says...In June 2008, Yahoo! Shine (a new female-centric section of yahoo.com) posted a survey about video games in conjunction with Sony Online Entertainment. Hundreds of mothers of tweens and teens across the US took part, 87 percent of whom said they play video games with their kids at least occasionally. A few of the findings:

  • More than 80 percent reported that their kids game in a common area of the house, such as the family/living room.
  • Almost 80 percent said they take away video games as punishment.
  • More than 70 percent said they feel video games have enhanced their child's problem-solving skills.

Rules of EngagementGame playing in the house should be on your terms. Some suggestions:

  • Set a timer. Video games are designed to make people lose track of hours. A timer keeps everyone honest.
  • Understand the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) content ratings for games. It's E for Everyone, T for Teen, M for Mature, and AO for Adults Only. These roughly correspond to the MPAA film ratings (E=G, T=PG, M=R, AO=NC-17). For info about the rating system and a tool to look up games, go to esrb.org.
  • Research the games your kid wants. Do they seem mentally engaging or are they purely reflex driven? Access firsthand synopses written for parents at www.whattheyplay.com.
  • Position the game console or computer in plain sight. Don't put it in your kid's bedroom. No matter where it is, keep your eyes open.
  • Play with your kids, even if the last time you gamed was on an Atari 2600. To really understand this medium, there's no substitute for participation.

Talking with Experts About Violent Video Games

We had a frank talk with the authors of Grand Theft Childhood (Simon & Schuster), a recent book about kids and violent video games by Harvard Medical School psychologists Lawrence Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD. This husband and wife (parents of a college-age son) take a clear-eyed look at children and violent video games, examine — and often debunk — previous studies, and present their own research findings. The result is an interesting mix of surprising info and sensible advice.

Family Circle: You two hadn't done any video game research before this. What made you want to write this book? Cheryl K. Olson: Kids are playing video games in overwhelming numbers these days. Our biggest goal was to help parents figure out what normal behavior is in this area.

FC: So should parents be worried about their kids playing M-rated games? CKO: We found that a certain amount of M-rated gameplay is normal for preteen and teenage boys. So parents don't have to freak out if they find their kid playing Grand Theft Auto at a cousin's house. It doesn't mean they're going to go act out what they're seeing.Lawrence Kutner: Our other goal with our research was to try to see if there are markers in kids' behavior around games that can serve as a sign that parents should look deeper.

FC: Did you find any? LK: We did, but not the ones people thought we would. First off, they're different for boys and girls. If you have a girl who's playing almost exclusively M-rated games for more than 15 hours a week, that's associated with a set of real-world behaviors that may be of concern, like getting in fights, damaging property, problems with grades, and so on. That level of M-rated play is unusual for girls. However, if you have a boy who's 13 or 14 years old and he never plays video games, that's a bigger marker of risk than if he plays 15 hours of M games a week. That's because boys use video games as a social tool.

FC: Isn't it troubling that kids are acting out all these extreme and violent behaviors in games? CKO: People have called video games "murder simulators" and said they teach children how to kill, but that's just not common sense. Why do we assume that a child doing something in a game with a joystick is so much worse than watching the same thing in a movie? I think it's just as possible that violent movies are worse for kids than violent games. In a video game children have control over the experience — they can start it and stop it — and that helps them know that it's not real, simply because they're controlling everything. If you're watching an R-rated movie in a theater, your only options are to flee and be embarrassed in front of your friends or sit there and take it.

FC: There must be such a thing as too much gaming though, right? CKO: You know, if a kid practices the piano three hours a day, we don't talk about piano addiction. The question to ask is whether it's interfering with your child's life. If your kid is doing well in school, has one or more good friendships, and is in reasonable health, who cares about video games? Now if the same kid is isolating himself in the bedroom, playing alone for hours, he could be using games to distract himself from his feelings. That's something you want to watch.LK: And be aware of what your kid is playing. Find out what's in the games, bearing in mind that some stuff that's important isn't going to be on the box — like the context of the violence and the game's underlying attitudes. You've got to look up reviews online and check out videos of the gameplay. The ESRB rating system is pretty good, but it doesn't tell you if you're shooting trolls or real people, or whether the goal is to keep people alive or kill everything that moves.

FC: What if you have no context for figuring out what's in a game? LK: Have your kid show you. In the families we studied, parents almost never played games with their children, but the kids all said they would like them to. Ask your child what he likes about the game, or have him teach you how to play, or ask him to show you a scene he liked or a move he's mastered. It's a great way to flip the parent-child dynamic — let him teach you for a change. If you do find he's playing a game you're not sure you approve of, try to find out what he likes about it before you shut it down. We talked to a lot of kids whose favorite things to do in Grand Theft Auto were deliver pizzas and drive ambulances. Games are a great way to open up a dialogue with kids, to get them to talk to you about all kinds of things. And then you get a chance to tell them why you don't agree with the game because of its violence or negative attitudes toward women. Definitely tell them what you think, but also listen to their point of view, and know that they're not necessarily playing these games because they want to be like the game characters in real life. Just because a kid reads Harry Potter doesn't mean he wants to be Lord Voldemort.

Smart Video Game Picks

Lots of games billed as "brain builders" have hit the market lately — the only problem is, they're generally not as fun as regular games, many of which challenge the gray matter just fine. Check out picks from the past few years that are a blast to play and mentally stimulating, too:

Civilization Revolution $60. Rated E 10+ Xbox 360, PSP, PS3, DS.Create and nurture a society from mud huts up through space travel in this modern masterpiece, now playable on some of the consoles.

Crush$30. Rated E10+. PSP.An engaging brain teaser that has you popping the world from two dimensions to three to navigate the various levels.

Echochrome$20. Rated E. PS3, PSP.In this visually stunning primer in perspective you solve puzzles by creating optical illusions.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess$45. Rated T. Wii.This long-running series recently had one of its best incarnations for the mighty Wii.

Lego Star Wars: The Complete SagaFrom $35. Rated E10+. Xbox 360, PS3, DS, Wii.Lego plus Star Wars characters plus puzzles plus comedy equals a near-perfect game that's fun and challenging for multiple generations.

Little Big Planet$60. Rated E. PS3.Don't be fooled by the lighthearted exterior — this game is a remarkably deep journey.

PortalFrom $20. Rated T. PC, Xbox 360, PS3.It's a shooter without bullets, a puzzle without pieces — a genuine mind-bender. This standout, released in 2007, features thought-provoking gameplay and outstanding writing.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village$30. Rated E. DS.Navigate a giant series of puzzles to solve the town's mysteries and help its inhabitants.

Psychonauts $30. Rated T. Xbox 360, PSP.A quirky, entertaining cast of characters populates a summer camp for psychic kids.

SimCity CreatorFrom $30. Rated E. Wii, DS.The latest in the long-running city-building series still has the magic. You can now play the original SimCity online for free at simcity.ea.com/play/classic.

Spore From $30. Rated E10+. PC, Mac, DS.The objective here is to design bacteria, then guide them through a millennium's worth of evolution.

Thrillville: Off the RailsFrom $30. Rated E10+. Xbox 360, PSP, DS, Wii.An amusement park simulator that's equal parts management and fun. The cherry on top? You can ride roller coasters built to your specifications.

Originally published in the November 1, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.