How we made video gaming a family activity that helps our kids to learn


Gaming is making my children curious, confident and clever, says Andy Robertson in this guide for parents

It’s half-term. If you, like me have children, the chances are that they will have spent at least some of their time this week playing video games. And you, like me, may well have worried – about what they’re playing, how long they’re playing it for and whether they should really be outside.

Shouldn’t they be climbing trees, making dens – or doing anything other than staring blank-faced at a screen?

Video games aren’t generally thought of as a parent’s friend. It’s no wonder, with NSPCC warnings of Fortnite child predators and the World Health Organisation naming “gaming disorder” as a clinically significant syndrome.

(Photo: Andy Robertson)

Do parents need to worry?

The LSE’s Parenting for a Digital Future report offers a more hopeful assessment. Video games, it says, can “bring families together” and sit alongside other activities, rather than displacing them.

Digital content forms “an important part of family life in an increasingly global and digitalised world”.

What is lacking isn’t stricter mechanisms to inoculate or protect children from the dangers of the digital world, but accessible advice and resources to empower parents to play their crucial role.

Andy Phippen, a professor of children and technology at the University of Plymouth, agrees with that assessment.

“Parents need practical, pragmatic advice that helps them to understand their children’s enjoyment of gaming while reassuring them that they are safe and well,” he says.

(Photo: Andy Robertson)

Finding a middle ground

As a technology journalist and a father, I find myself standing between these two camps. I appreciate my peers’ anxiety about perceived gaming addiction, violence and escalating costs, but I’m also deeply grateful for what games have instilled in my children. This includes curiosity, compassion, resilience, confidence, problem-solving skills and patience.

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The solution, I have found, is simpler than it appears when your 12-year-old daughter is having a tantrum about her Fortnite ban.

Rather than worrying about the screen time, parents need to focus on guiding the gaming diet of children, like they do in other areas of life.

What’s on these screens – Roblox, Slither.io, Geometry Dash, Fortnite, Grow Home and the like – may look confusing initially. But with time, research and experimentation, parents can acquire gaming literacy.

Don’t be embarassed to ask ‘dad questions’

Asking my children questions about what they’re doing, and listening to the answers, has been hugely eye-opening.

These “dad questions”, as they call them now, can be as simple as “What are you playing?” or “What’s the best thing about it?” or “Who do you play it with?” or, ever more importantly these days, “Does it ask you to spend money?”

Similar to ensuring healthy food is on my children’s plates at mealtimes, I have the same opportunity with video games. Although, of course, there aren’t the plethora of cookbooks and cooking shows to inspire and guide us as readily towards video game health.

Well, not until now. This year, the crowdfunded publisher Unbound invited me to write a “family gaming cookbook”, Taming Gaming. It offers jargon-free gaming advice from real families along with a library of tried-and-tested gaming recipes that other parents swear by.

(Photo: Andy Robertson)

Each recipe, like the one below, outlines the technology you need, how long the game will take, which ages it suits and what the benefits are. The recipes provide clear instructions to get started and some serving suggestions – ways to play the game that have worked for other families.

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In the words of Ken Cornish, the online safety officer at UK Safer Internet Centre, the aim for the book is to “add sophistication and insight to achieve rewarding gaming experiences rather than panic, fear and barriers”.

Phippen is also hopeful that the recipes “will make a tangible difference by equipping parents to play an active role in this crucial part of development”.

Gaming recipe: ‘Journey’ allows for online play without the banter

Journey, available on PlayStation, is an adventure set in a desert. Although you play with other people, you can’t talk to them. It’s a chance for you and your child to experiment safely with online interactions, and discover that there is more to communication than words
and letters.

Players
One per system and online players.

Age
7+ for mild fear and mild violence.

Duration
Each level takes around 20 minutes. The whole game is about two hours.

Ingredients
Journey (£11.99); PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4; one controller; a PlayStation Plus account to allow online play (£6.99/month) and a television set.

Method
Ensure you have setup a PlayStation Network account and have entered these details to your console.Download Journey from the PlayStation Store, or purchase in a shop and insert the disc. Allow time to download. Start the game and log into the PlayStation Network.

Serving Suggestion
Learn to identify how experienced other players are by their clothing. Play the game multiple times to find additional “Glyphs”. Discuss how another player changed the game. Discuss what to share online if you can talk to the other players.

Visit Andy Robertson’s Unbound funding page for ‘‘Taming Gaming: Guide Your Child to Video Game Health’

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