Who Is Holding the Game Controller? Game Education in Families with Children

Rauna Rahja & Jenni Helenius
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In this article, we will discuss some perspectives worth considering in media education at home. Essentially, adults can support children’s controlled gaming and positive relationship to media by being open and curious and getting to know the game cultures suitable for their children’s age level. Many parents and guardians are concerned about what kinds of contents are suitable for young gamers and how to encourage balanced gaming.

Children’s skills to control their gaming and understand game cultures develop from an early age with the support of their social network, and especially their parents. With young children, gaming should be practised gradually, and above all together.

The models offered by adults, discussions and exploring games together help children to understand the many different aspect of gaming. What kind of game is fun? How do I feel when playing this game? In the game, which things could be true, and which are really a fairytale? What would happen if someone drove their car into the sea like Super Mario? Gaming together and discussing games together strengthen children’s media skills. Diverse discussions also support children’s safe use of media and protect them from harmful content. At best, children also learn how to avoid it themselves.

For many children, young people and adults, gaming is a pleasurable pastime and often also a hobby with a goal. The games that interest the adults of a family may be different from those that interest children, but it is still a good idea to play together. Digital games can be considered a digital form of play, one that evolves alongside traditional games and plays.

Children enjoy playing games together, and many also wish that they could play together with an adult family member. Adults should seize this opportunity. Playing games together creates shared experiences and positive memories of spending time together and of adults being interested in what children like to play. When gaming together, children learn many skills by example from adults and from solving the challenges of the game together. These skills help them to navigate digital culture and other social situations. Not all people who raise children play games themselves, but we all remember how rewarding other games, the joy of discovery and improving your reaction speed, for example, can be. Games provide opportunities for experiencing these, among other things, and adults should take part in them.

A young child playing a video game.

Suitable games for children of different ages

The PEGI age ratings of games do not guarantee that a certain game is suitable for children of a certain age; rather, they serve as warnings about harmful content. Even though a game is rated for a certain age group, some children in that age group may find the game too exciting, too scary or requiring motor skills that the child has not yet developed. There are a number of things for family members of different ages to consider when discussing gaming at home and choosing what games to play.

  • It is a good idea to think carefully whether children of a year old or any younger should play digital games at all. Small children do not really need digital media and have plenty of time to enjoy gaming when they are older. Traditional jigsaw puzzles and memory games, for example, are suitable for them.
  • For toddlers, suitable games include cheerful, colourful and slow-paced games with friendly characters, which are easy to control for example using a touchscreen. When small children experience digital media, it should happen in the presence of an adult, who can help them to understand what they see and experience.
  • Preschoolers are usually already able to use a mouse or game controller. The stories of the games they play can be more diverse and include some exciting elements. At this age, children start to develop their taste of media and may already find favourite games for themselves.
  • School-aged children play many kinds of games, and there is a wide variety of games available to them. At this age, gaming also becomes more sociable, and children often play together with their friends. In some games, they may be in contact with other players online, and these players may include people they have never met. Children need guidance about what they can and should not tell strangers about themselves. Learning foreign languages may also increase the variety of games available as well as the number of gaming companions. Many children learn English when they play games and may also play online with persons living in other countries. With the help of games and their stories and characters, children can also test various roles. Usually, school-aged children already understand that the stories, the interestingness of the characters and the time pressure of the games, for example, are features created by game developers, and they may become interested in game development. They also want to share their gaming experiences with other players of their favourite game. Many school-aged children follow gaming-related content on the internet and some also produce it.
  • In games played by adolescents, action and stories play a more prominent role and come closer to those of games intended for adults. A young person’s gaming community may include both friends from school and other hobbies, and other friends. For young people, gaming is often more than ‘just gaming’; it is an important part of their identity and about belonging to a group of friends. It is important for parents to understand this when for example thinking about restricting gaming time.

It is a good idea for adults to get to know the games their children would like to play in advance. In digital computer and console games, the age rating indicates that the game includes harmful content, such as violence. As for mobile games, it is good for parents to browse the games and their descriptions available on applications shops in advance. On the current platforms, free games usually come with advertisements, which are not classified according to the PEGI rating system, and thus it is possible that advertisements not suitable for young children are displayed in advertising-supported free games suitable for small children. One way to get an idea about the world and atmosphere of a game is to watch game trailers or game videos on YouTube. An even surer way to determine whether a game is suitable for one’s child is to try the game out in advance.

Adults tend to favour children’s games that they think their children will enjoy or that will be useful to them. It also worthwhile to have a look at different kinds of educational games and offer them to children to try out. Educational games can be used as a support, for example, when practising certain skills, such as numeracy or letters. Playing games can offer children many kinds of experiences of discovery, exciting informative content and problem solving independently or together with other players.

Rules about time use as part of a balanced daily life

Small children are not yet able to control their use of time, and therefore adults should set limits to support their well-being and a well-balanced daily life. For children, it would be nice to play their favourite game all day long, but daily life also includes many other important things. Among other things, adults should make sure that children take breaks, have good ergonomics and get enough and good sleep. Children must also have time to play, spend time outdoors and meet their friends. When it is time for a child to stop playing a game, it might help, for example, that the adult sits next to them, talks to them calmly and reminds them about the agreed gaming times.

Daily routines also determine suitable gaming times: Are afternoons suitable for gaming? Is it OK to play games in the morning if school starts at ten o’clock?

Evening routines and the time before sleep should not include digital activities so that for example staring a bright screen or leaving an exciting and absorbing game unfinished does not disturb sleep. In the evening, traditional board or card games may be a calmer choice compared to digital games. Reading a bedtime story or a book together before sleep has a good, calming effect.

As children grow up, it is best that the rules concerning gaming are drawn up together and that everyone in the family adheres to them. Giving reasons for the rules helps children to understand how gaming affects the daily life of the family or how to control one’s gaming. However, it is not always easy to draw up rules that are fair. In addition to gaming time, it is good to discuss in what kinds of situations gaming is appropriate or not appropriate. It is also possible to test new rules that were prepared together for some time to see if they work, but in general it is good to be consistent with rules.

Some children have more than one home, and thus discussions about the rules of gaming should involve all the adults present in their daily life. Do the different homes have different rules? What kinds of misunderstandings might this cause? The families of children’s friends may also have different rules about gaming. It is good to talk with your child about what to do in these situations. One good basic rule is that when visiting friends, children should follow the rules of the home that is more cautious about gaming. Primary-school-aged children can be instructed to say that they are not allowed to play games rated for adults in case a friend suggests playing such a game.

Discussing children’s use of media with other parents and respecting other families’ rules form an important part of media education. Rules can also be made together with other families or the children’s school so that they are more consistent and easier to supervise. Families may also coordinate gaming times to make them compatible between friends.

The following table contains some examples of rules that families could choose to apply in their home. It is good to remember, however, that both children and families are unique and have different kinds of needs, and thus different rules work for different families.

About practising media, emotional and social skills

Gaming involves a wide variety of different kinds of emotions, and processing them together with an adult strengthens children’s emotional skills. Parents should observe the emotions and reactions gaming produces in their children so that they can steer their gaming into a positive and safe direction. Gaming provides good opportunities for practising how to deal with disappointments, as well as excitement and calming down. Parents can share their children’s joy of achievement in a game, but they can also help their children to become aware of how gaming makes them feel. When children take part in game culture, parents can help to strengthen their media literacy by discussing for example the following questions with them: What makes a game interesting or attractive? How can players proceed in the game? For whom is the game designed? Why is it sometimes difficult to stop playing?

Children should be encouraged to talk about any unpleasant or frightening things they might come across when gaming. Showing interest in children’s gaming and use of media also helps to create an open atmosphere for discussion, which also promotes safer media use. It is also good to contemplate together how gaming affects interaction in the family and the daily lives of the other family members. How is the atmosphere at home during and after gaming? How do the other children feel if one child always throws a tantrum when they lose? Processing these kinds of questions also helps to take other people into account.

Sometimes gaming causes friction at home. The other family members might not be happy if one member of the family spends all the evenings by the computer with their headphones on, shouting and cheering with their online friends when their team succeeds. Sometimes there might be disagreements about whose turn it is to use the family’s shared device. Other times the cause of friction might be that the family member who spends a lot of time gaming does not participate in the household chores or loses their temper when they are told to join the rest of the family for a meal or a family visit. Children should be reminded that, as part of good gaming behaviour, they must also be able to take care of other things in their life and show consideration for the other family members, for example by keeping the volume of their game reasonable.

With older children, it is also good to discuss the culture of the games they play. How do players talk to each other, what is the tone of interaction like? Do players verbally insult each other, and how do they react to failures? Does the game include for example abuse, exclusion, game rage or hate speech, and what should one think about them? Every game has its own culture, which is created within the framework provided by the game environment and through the interaction between the players. It is good to encourage children to be fair players and behave in a supportive and positive manner towards others also when gaming. By putting themselves in their friend’s situation or seeing from their perspective, children develop their empathy skills.

Young girl playing computer games in internet cafe.

Becoming an independent gamer

Usually when young children start to explore the world of games, they do so using their parent’s or family’s devices. It is important to ensure that for example toddlers or preschoolers do not spend long hours playing games or using other such content alone. Children need adults to help them understand and verbalise what they see in games or on the screen, and they also need face-to-face interaction, which is crucial for their development.

There is no certain right age for getting children their first own device, but in Finland, many families get their children their first phone when they start school. Parents should be aware that when children obtain their own device, they take a step towards becoming more independent users of media and internet, and mobile gamers. If a child will have their own smart device with an internet connection, it is important to agree on rules about the use of internet and downloading applications or mobile games. It is also wise to discuss and practise money use that gaming and using one’s mobile phone might involve. If a family member’s credit card is linked to a child’s device or user account, the settings should be checked to ensure that no purchases can be made without a password.

Before getting a child their own phone, it is important to practise situations related to gaming and other media use with the family’s shared devices. It is also a good idea to talk about age ratings and why a parent or guardian’s consent is needed for downloading some games and mobile applications. Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and Finnish data protection legislation, guardian’s consent is required for those information society services in which children younger than the indicated age rating give their personal data.

Games are classified according to the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system. The current age ratings of digital games (3, 7, 12, 16 and 18) do not indicate the technical difficulty of games or their suitability for children of a certain age; instead, they warn about content that might be harmful for children and young people.

Social gaming situations and adults’ examples

Gaming at home involves different kinds of social encounters and situations. If the family includes children of different ages, it should be ensured that the youngest members of the family are not exposed to content not suitable for their age. This may require some effort from the parents, because they have to come up with alternative activities for the young ones while the older children play their own games.

When adults themselves play games, they must take into account the presence of their children and the way their use of media affects the family life and interaction.

  • What kind of example of gaming am I giving my children?
  • How does my gaming affect my interaction with my children?
  • How may my children feel if I spend a lot of time on gaming?
  • What do I tell my children about adults’ games?
  • How do I avoid reinforcing the assumption commonly made by children that games rated for adults are somehow special and wonderful?
  • Or, how do I correct the assumption, made by some adults, that their children are mature enough to play games rated for adults?

Age ratings are not a question of maturity; rather, their purpose is to protect minors from harmful content.

Gaming and growing up

Games are designed to evoke feelings, stories and experiences of success. At the same time, gaming also provides opportunities to discuss one’s feelings of disappointment or excitement and the necessity of concentration. Choosing games suitable for one’s age level supports one’s growing up as a gamer. Some children play games occasionally and for pleasure. For others, it is important to constantly become a better gamer. On the other hand, gaming can have different meanings at different ages as well as in different situations: sometimes it entertains or calms down, and other times it helps to forget an awful day or inspires to use one’s imagination.

Often gaming offers a gaming community, who shares one’s experiences. At best, gaming is also a fun activity that unites family members, brings a break to daily routines, challenges family members into playful contests and stimulates children’s world of stories and imagination in many ways. Often this positive spirit is carried over into the gaming habits of adolescent and adult gamers.

Nuori mies hehkuttaa onnistumistaan tietokoneruudun edessä.
Professional Gamer Playing and Winning in First-Person Shooter Online Video Game on His Personal Computer.

This article was originally published in the Game Educator's Handbook or it's sequel. The article is pubslihed with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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