A big misunderstanding that many parents have about teenagers playing video games occurs because the parents focus so much on the games and not on what the games are doing for their kids. The parents see their kids’ gaming as a solo activity rather than as the social activity that it is.
Given the state of technology in the early days of video games, it’s easy to see why parents would see the games as a solo activity. Either gaming was a single-player activity, or at best, you had the one console with multiple controllers. When you have two people on a couch interacting with the same technology, it’s easy to see that it’s social bonding time.
As video games have gotten more sophisticated, the necessity of having your friends sit on your couch and play with you has diminished or become detrimental. When your buddy is on the couch with you, you have to share the screen and sound, which means that other teams may have a one-up on you because they can see and hear better than you can. No one wants to be the noob that gets snuck up on.
In yet other games, most of the communication that happens is via typing, so parents may never hear their kids communicating with other people. Even when they’re not playing with other people in real time, they may be competing with their scores, building arenas or stages for their friends to play in, or racking up points, skills, or equipment to use when they play with others. (And, yes, some parents understand how much effort, planning, research, and coordination their kids are putting into gaming and are even more frustrated when their kids aren’t putting a fraction of that effort into school or chores.)
Before I go on, I want to answer the parents who just thought, “yes, smart guy, I know my kids are playing games with other kids. Do you think I’m not paying attention?” Of course I know you’re paying attention. And I also want to make sure we dig deeper than the games and how see how the activity is feeding their basic needs.
Games are the container for social time for many kids, so we have to recognize that the draw isn’t idle escapism, laziness, or pure play, but rather that it’s an activity that allows them to bond and connect with their friends and make sense of their days. They have built their own default social gatherings that are far more compelling and relevant to them than the ones that parents have historically made their kids participate in.
Yes, I also believe that they would be better off getting outside, playing sports, or doing something creative, but we also need to give our over-scheduled, over-pressured kids some unstructured time to play.
To address any problems that their gaming may be creating, you have to understand the social role it’s playing. Since it’s largely adults’ choices that have made the ways we hung out when we were kids a thing of the past, it’s our responsibility to co-create compelling and relevant alternatives for free-form social play if we want them to do something more than get home from school and start playing games until they go to bed.
But don’t start the conversation from the perspective of their gaming just being about the games.
One last thing: given that the average age for gamers is 31 (2015 Video Game Statistics), this post isn’t just for parents — people with partners who are gamers also need to consider the social aspect of their playing if it’s a source of conflict.