Having been asked to write a short piece as a parent of a gamer, several negative aspects sprang to mind immediately but with more reflection it became an interesting look at social change.
I don’t view myself as particularly old or ‘behind the times’ (although no doubt I am!) but I can still remember when my mother was looking after my two young boys. She told me that she would be showing them her computer and there were games and activities they could do while I was away. I was curious and suspicious. What was this thing called a home computer? Was it a good activity for them to be engaged in? She took me upstairs and showed me a very weighty machine with several components I had never seen or used before. I fumbled with the controls as I experimented but, unsurprisingly perhaps, by the time of my return the boys were experts and keen to show off their prowess. It sounds as if it was from a different time in history but these young boys, now in their early to mid-twenties have grown up with many advances becoming the norm. Jazz Jack Rabbit, game boys, Pokémon, PS1, 2, 3, Xbox. Which was better? These were key points around the family table.
It was a slightly bewildering world to me. I was always relieved when, on entering a games shop, a young and keen assistant would rush to my aid – no doubt primed to assist mums at key times of year. Here were where some of the negative aspects would arise. It seemed to be a very expensive pastime to me. Machines were soon out of date, new games were desperately ‘needed’ but most of all the suitability of these games caused more than a little stress on a number of occasions. We held firm on age labelling. If you were under 16, then you couldn’t have a game rated as suitable for sixteen-year olds or over. We were not popular but protecting our children and their childhood seemed a matter of extreme importance to us.
I still hold by this. Being a primary school teacher and seeing the influences of games on some of my more vulnerable children who had elder brothers or fathers who played violent games I feel this is a matter for more responsible parenting but a discussion for another day, perhaps. This leads to another point. It seemed to me that games were particularly aimed at boys and that they were generally shoot and kill games with some very clear and explicit graphics. I can recall discussing the violence level of a game with a young assistant who had no understanding of a mother’s concerns – I didn’t buy the game. Even labelling can backfire. One Christmas my younger son’s game was clearly more violent than my elder son’s. My children humoured me and we came to compromises; certain graphics were turned off and they accepted the age restrictions – at least in our own home!
As a parent, and a teacher listening to parents, many concerns around games come from the feeling that they are a waste of time. Children should be playing outside more, they should play with humans not machines, they should spend more time on homework and so on. I firmly agree with all this. We had rules about when and how long games could be played but as the children got older and exams became more important there were often clashes. We had varying degrees of screen bans to deal with offences. At times, these were very effective and at others, the offender would say how much they had enjoyed the break and playing with their non-electric toys. An eye opener for them perhaps.
The reality is, as with everything, it’s all about balance. If you eat too much, you will gain weight. If you don’t exercise, you won’t be fit. If you play games excessively, there will be negative consequences. Balance was what we eventually aimed for. People need to be outside for their physical and mental health. Can games supply that? The recent Pokémon experiment would suggest not in a long-term way. I feel we succeeded in this aim. Our boys are both keen on exercise and have many interests outside of gaming.
Parents are keen on ‘educational’ games. Children often less so. There are many useful games out there for youngsters but I don’t think these would really be classed as gaming. So, are there educational benefits in ‘gaming games’? Yes, there are. Quick thinking, problem solving, perseverance, often maths skills are hidden in there and many games have a historical aspect – not always accurate perhaps but with a son who wrote his dissertation at university on gaming and ancient history I am not going to argue too much with that. Interest was piqued and learning at a deep level resulted.
Playing games is also a social event. Friends can play together on line and keep in touch. They enjoy teaming up together and friendships can be easier to maintain than by letter or phone calls. New friendships can be forged although, of course, younger children must be protected from strangers and abusive language and behaviour when playing with strangers or being overwrought at a key moment in the game are not acceptable – at least in my view.
It’s easy to blame games for all sorts of things but actually it all comes down to responsibility – as parents with younger children and as individuals when gamers grow older. All activities have positive and negative aspects and gaming is here to stay. I know it’s an integral and enjoyable part of my son’s life. It has been a key part of his educational journey and he has gained much from it. He will still be gaming when he is the age I am now. I wonder what he will think of the ‘modern’ games his own children will play?!