Video games — particularly when it comes to children and their passion for them — can get a bad rap. There are days when it feels as if there is no greater enemy of homework than Minecraft, and many parents find limiting game time to be one of their larger challenges.
But research suggests that there are moments in a child’s life when a love of video games, and the skills that come with it, can do more than just come in handy. The right video game, deployed at the right moment, can help a child overcome trauma, handle pre-surgery anxiety, bond with a sibling or just feel generally more confident and capable after a setback.
Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of “SuperBetter” and “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” has been studying games as well as designing them for more than a decade. In “SuperBetter,” she argues that adopting a more gameful approach to life can make all of us, adult and child, “stronger, happier, braver and more resilient.” She devotes an early chapter to the science of games, and while it won’t encourage you to support your child’s dream of dropping out of fourth grade in favor of playing Agar.io, it is a revelation for any parent who, like me, has been concerned about the hold video games have on some of our children’s imaginations. In specific situations, games can change a child’s experience for the better, and on a more general level, the skills many games develop and enhance can help a child in the real world — if the child is able to make the connection between the two.
Ms. McGonigal describes research suggesting that video games can actually work to mute pain signals — immersion in an engrossing, complex world may occupy some of the same mental bandwidth that our brains use to process pain signals from our nerves. Other research found that playing Tetris within a few hours of viewing frightening images made people less likely to have flashbacks of the images. Both studies could be useful for parents, as could the research suggesting that playing an absorbing, attention-capturing game can calm a child’s anxiety before surgery. “This is not the time to be introducing a new game,” Ms. McGonigal says. (Score one for parents whose children are quite familiar with any number of engrossing options on the iPhone.)
It’s been my experience that video games can also help warring siblings connect. The adoption of our younger daughter when she was 4 proved a challenging time for her, most of all (and rightly so), but also for her new siblings. The Wii console, with its many games that required cooperation to move ahead, proved to be a godsend; although they still battled over what to play and competed madly where appropriate, we could see the effect that coming together over the games had on them even when the games were off. In this case, the studies that support my anec-data offer more analogy than proof: Some studies suggest that playing the same game increases a physical synchronicity between two players, which may alsoincrease empathy. Other research has found a correlation between co-playing of video games among family members and higher levels of family connection. But when video games do slow the squabbling, they’re a gift to the whole family.
Beyond those specific applications lie Ms. McGonigal’s suggestions for encouraging a child to take the skills she gains from gaming seriously, and apply them to other parts of her life. Her ideas are appealing — anyone who ever reached the end of Myst knows that video game success requires skill and application. But applying those ideas to our daily lives requires a shift in how many parents view gaming when it comes to our own children.
“Children are so used to being talked down to about their games,” Ms. McGonigal says. “They know we see them as a waste of time.” But if we change our language, she says, we can help children take something real away from the games they’re already playing. “Try asking your child what it takes to be good at a certain game,” she says. “What skills and abilities do you use when you’re playing? If we can get them to be more conscious of the skills and abilities they’re developing, they’re more likely to use them in real life.”
“Learning a new game builds self-confidence,” Ms. McGonigal says. “As you get further into a game, it’s designed to frustrate you, but it’s a good frustration.” Parents can help children see getting past that frustration, she says, as an accomplishment — one that shows, for example, an ability to persist in other areas.
Parents can use conversations about games, she says, to help children change the way they see themselves. “Get them used to thinking about themselves as someone who never gives up,” she says, “or is really creative about solving a problem, or keeps trying new strategies until they find one that works.”
Those conversations, Ms. McGonigal says, also give children permission to be proud of what they achieve in the context of a game, and use that experience to face challenges in life. That helps enable children to have a positive relationship with the games they love.
“Kids can unconsciously use video games as an escape,” she says. “We can help them to understand that games aren’t just a way to escape negative emotions, but a tool you can use to create a positive emotion as well.” From there, she suggests encouraging children to think of other things that can create a positive emotion as well, making video games just one of a range of choices.
The constant drone of “limiting screen time” should be only one part of our overall approach to the ways our children interact with technology, from social media to television to video games. Helping them get the most (of both pleasure and benefits) from the time they spend there is the other side of the coin, and one that is just as important to get right. So if there is a video game, gaming system or maybe a few new controllers or apps on your child’s holiday list, give them another gift along with it: the gift of your enthusiasm for their love of the game.