As video games have become an important cultural force over the last few decades, people have put a lot of time and effort into understanding why people play them, and the simple fact of the matter is… there is no “one reason.”
If you really want to know why your kid plays them, it’s going to require a bit of knowledge of your kid, and indeed, a bit of knowledge of video games. This article aims to introduce you to these motivations.
Why is this important?
Sadly, plenty of parents simply ignore this whole phenomenon, never putting in effort to understand, and the results have not been good. I’ve seen parents drift away from their kids, separated by this divide they willingly cultivated. I’ve seen parents misjudge the content of video games, unwittingly buying their children highly inappropriate games without even knowing. And I’ve seen parents completely devalue video games, writing them off as worthless toys and removing them from their kids’ lives.
If I may be frank: these approaches are not only wrong, but actually harmful. You can avoid this by making an effort to understand this thing that is now a major part of our culture.
So, in this first article, I will simply try to answer the question: why do people play video games? What is it that draws your child to these things? What do they gain from it that they couldn’t, or choose not to, from anything else? In the second article, I will discuss the value of these games, and how they can actually be of great benefit to your children if you know how to approach them.
Though this is probably an oversimplification, I am going to narrow down the appeal of video games into four factors, and explain how they work. So let’s get started!
Sorry for the use of this obscure word, but I felt “escapism” has been thrown around too much and carries too much negative baggage. “Abnegation” basically means, “to deny something,” and in the case of entertainment it specifically means to seek solace and enjoyment in something that distracts from everyday life.
It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with abnegation in moderation. We all do it, and we all appreciate the ability to escape the problems of everyday life, be it with a good book, some hard work, or a fun video game. The only danger in this is an issue of self-control, so it really is no different from anything else out there; doing anything to the point where your responsibilities suffer is a problem. Video games are not unique in this way.
So if your kid plays video games just as a fun way to relax, there’s nothing wrong with this, and the negative potential of this motivation can be avoided by setting reasonable play limits (which goes both ways, by the way; you don’t want them to play all day, of course, but 15 minutes isn’t enough to play anything worthwhile, and letting them spend more time on other media like television is a pretty heinous double-standard, so be considerate of their hobby when you do this).
While books and movies let you experience grand adventures, video games actually put you into them, meaning you can actually be the one doing all these grand deeds. This gives someone a unique feeling of control, of power, of the ability to actually make a difference, which makes this motivation popular among people who feel stuck in life, or aren’t in a great home situation. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; the question is what their fantasy consists of.
Grand Theft Auto, for instance, is famous for not generally being the healthiest of fantasies, focusing on crime and carnage. Games like Skyrim, on the other hand, allow the player to be the hero of a vast, detailed fantasy world, and this kind of fantasy has actually led to feelings of empowerment in real life, helping encourage people through difficult times.
So if your kid enjoys playing these roles and experiencing this power, look at the games they play and ask them why they do what they do. Are they playing Halo because they like the feeling of control over their enemies, or are they playing because they enjoy filling the role of a hero saving humanity from an alien threat?
Imagine you could read your favorite book, but instead of just observing the events in it, you could actually be part of it. As a literary medium, this is what video games allow us to do. Video games are an art medium that tells great stories in unique ways.
Many games simply tell great stories and immerse the player in them. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time tells a tale of a young, arrogant prince who must own up to his mistakes and let go of his pride to save the people he loves. Shadow of the Colossus is a tragedy about a boy who goes way too far for someone he loves, and hurts himself and others because of it.
Other games present interesting dilemmas. The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, tasks the player with protecting a young girl, and the story changes based on many difficult choices. What example will you set for her as you try to survive in a hostile world? This goes beyond presenting thought-provoking moral dilemmas by forcing the player to actually make a decision, allowing a level of introspection other art forms simply cannot inspire.
Some video games tell truly amazing stories, and have no less value than a good book. Games like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, and Heavy Rain are played because they present a good story with interesting themes and characters. In all honesty, there is no downside to this motivation, and no dangers save those that exist equally for other art forms like books or movies.
It has long been believed that video games are a lonely experience, but this could not be further from the truth. Video games have long had a focus on bringing people together through competition and cooperation.
Gaming together in person is no different socially than playing a board game. Replace Monopoly with Super Smash Bros., and you’ll have the same bonding experience; the fact that it’s a video game does not change the community or personal interaction in the slightest.
Online gaming is the more controversial one. Mainly because, yes, it’s possible to sink time into playing online with people you don’t really know, which can become unhealthy. World of Warcraft is famous for this, but of course sinking hours a day into Call of Duty is no better. But this is abuse of multiplayer gaming; it’s not inherently bad.
When my cousin, one of my closest friends, went into the Army, we played Halo together often. One could suggest we could get the same connection by talking through email or Skype, but one would be very, very wrong. In Halo, we honed our skills together, accomplished things together, and occasionally enjoyed some good competition against each other. It kept us close despite being so far away, and we’ve gotten many deep conversations in over a game.
So multiplayer gaming, in the end, should be treated in the same way as board games or card games, as they have the same social value. And while online games can be abused, they offer the ability to easily allow social connections with distanced friends and loved ones. So if gaming with friends is in excess for your child, it may be prudent to apply a reasonable limit to their online gaming, but don’t be quick to judge it.
If you are unsure as to what attracts your child to video games, keep these things in mind and ask them about it. Take a look at the games they play, and ask what they enjoy about it. You can easily get a handle on what inspires them to play, and what the potential benefits and difficulties of their playstyle can be.
The upcoming second article will discuss how gaming can actually be a positive thing, and how you can make it so for your children. See you then!
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