My brother and I were introduced to video games as kids by our dad. But after the Commodore 64 and NES were no longer a novelty, the frequency with which he actually played with us started to reduce. He still showed an interest in what we were doing but he’d often let us play by ourselves, huddled around a screen in the dining room or hiding in my brother’s bedroom.
I’m not sure this is possible nowadays. Video games of some kind are often a child’s first introduction to technology, and everything is increasingly becoming online and electronically mediated. It’s therefore up to parents to guide their kids through the virtual world safely and help them understand how technology can be used responsibly – and this includes gaming. Playing with them is the only way to truly understand what they’re getting up to, how they interact with media and whether what they’re playing is suitable.
And aside from all that serious stuff: it’s fun. A round or two of something entertaining can bring families together through shared experiences and friendly competition. In fact, gaming was how I initially bonded with my stepson after meeting him and my now-husband when Ethan was seven-years old. After getting past his initial disbelief and proving to him that girls really do play video games, the hobby became something we did together as a family and it’s still something we do now that he’s twelve.
It hasn’t always been easy. As I’ve written before, there are certain challenges which come from being a blended family and having to co-op with others who don’t necessarily understand video games or their content. These problems can be tough to solve sometimes, particularly when communication isn’t as open as it could be, but there’s usually always a sensible way forward. The past five years have taught me a lot when it comes to my stepson and gaming – although I realise there’s still a lot to learn.
The first lesson I picked up quickly: the titles I thought would be suitable weren’t always the ones Ethan wanted to play. The idealistic view of sitting on the sofa together in front of something ‘educational’ rarely happened and would last no longer than 15 minutes before he got bored. What I eventually realised was that it was important to figure out what he enjoyed about gaming and then let him choose the game, with a certain amount of gentle guidance. It gave him a sense of responsibility and me the opportunity to introduce him to new things.
I also saw he’d get a certain amount of satisfaction from teaching me how to play, even if I was sat right next to him during the tutorial or if it was a title I’d already completed. Children don’t have a lot of power so giving it to Ethan in this way was a fun experience for him; and more importantly, it allowed him to see how I handled myself. Showing a kid you can listen, understand the rules, and remain positive even in the face of frustration is far better than simply telling them what good behaviour looks like.
Limits are important too, in terms of both the amount of time spent playing and the titles made available to kids. Pete and I got into the habit of giving Ethan a ‘notice period’ whenever we needed him to do something, and even now we still let him know when there’s 15-minutes to go before bedtime or we have to leave the house. This gives him the chance to get to a save-point in his game because we all remember how frustrating it was when our parents didn’t understand and told us to ‘turn that thing off right now’.
I think situations like this help him see we’re reasonable and he can talk to us openly about the things he wants to play. We don’t always say yes – like when he asked if he could buy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt with his birthday money – but we do always discuss it and let him share his views. These conversations mean that when we do say no, he understands why and doesn’t argue too much despite being disappointed. He knows we’re saying no for a real reason after listening to his opinions and seeing where he’s coming from.
Discussions like this have put us in good stead now that Ethan is almost a teenager, but that doesn’t mean things always run smoothly. In secondary school he socialises with more peers than ever before and this means a wider range of video games being played by his friends. Should we therefore let him buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate because that’s what they’re all playing right now, so he shares something in common with his classmates? Or should we say no because it’s a mature game, risking him being the odd one out?
Pete and I don’t have all the answers, and we’re pragmatic enough to realise that not all of the decisions we do make will be the right ones. But together with Ethan we’ll move forward as a family and keep those open discussions going. And if we do our job the best we can, my stepson will pass those lessons onto his on children in the future – and maybe one day we’ll be playing video games with our grandkids.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.