Podcast 44: Is gaming bad for my child?

Welcome to today’s Question of Gamification, the podcast by An Coppens. And today we have a guest, Andy Robertson, who also goes by the Twitter handle @GeekDadGamer, and he’s a video game journalist and the author of the book Taming Gaming.

I’m delighted to have Andy with us today because we’re going to address the question of: is gaming safe for my child? And it’s a funny story how we actually met and how it came about, with me tweeting and re-tweeting some information that I sent out around #GetSetGo, a campaign by UKIE, who is the organization supporting the games and digital entertainments industry.  I was basically quoting that, “Is gaming safe for my child?” Is probably the most frequently asked question I receive at the end of seminars or webinars when I speak about gamification because my audience tends to be adults.

Andy, welcome to the podcast.

Andy Robertson :

Hello. Thanks for having me.

An Coppens :

Yes, delighted to have you. So, let’s delve straight in. Is gaming safe for children these days?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, it’s a hot topic, isn’t it? And particularly during this period where the amount of games that children are playing is on the increase, and the amount of screen use. And so, often that comes with a bit of baggage, and so usually I’ll start to try and unpick it. There are various places we could start.

Gaming classed as a disorder

An Coppens:

Yes, exactly. And I suppose the one place that triggered the conversation for a lot of parents in my view is when the World Health Organization classed gaming as a disorder, and definitely, that’s when I saw the increase of questions in this regard, “What should I be watching out for? Is my kid going to be addicted? Should I stop them?” So, do you see that the same way as the World Health Organization? What’s your take on that?

Andy Robertson :

I think it is a complex topic. And I’m not against having a gaming disorder clarified so we can talk about it. But I think the challenge is that some of how it’s reported was just like, “Now, finally, kids who game too much can get a diagnosis from a doctor and can be sent to clinics and can be fixed, and can be labelled”, rather than actually looking at an individual child and thinking, “Okay, what’s working for them and what isn’t?”

I think the downside was that the danger is that it granted permission to us as parents sometimes to just label an issue that a child might have had, rather than actually taking a step forwards into the games they play and asking them questions, and spending time with them playing to understand what it was and why they were playing.

But that said, if you look at the detail of that gaming disorder criteria that the World Health Organization has specified, I don’t really know anyone with a child who would fall into that. We’ll often say at the school gate, “My son’s addicted to Fortnite”, but we don’t really mean addiction as the World Health Organization means it, because they talk about if a child is playing games so much it’s detrimental to other parts of their life, so they wouldn’t be going to school, they wouldn’t be eating properly, they probably would be washing properly or taking part in family activities.

And not only that, but once they noticed that and had been told about that, they would then carry on doing it, they would be unable to stop in spite of those negative consequences, and then that would continue for around about 12 months, and then only then do you start falling into this clinical criteria.

So, it’s a really extreme end of the spectrum, which I think is actually quite helpful to help us reserve that language of addiction to clinically addicted children, which is in the minority, rather than a label we can apply widely.

Gaming as a passing fad

An Coppens:

I think it’s a great explanation, some children, and myself included as a child, I used to love playing a specific game, and I would play it until I fell asleep. And if I got away with it, I played it under the covers. So, I think that’s actually just, I suppose, a passing phase for most of us is, that we have a favourite game where we must play it, and play all the levels, and then we move on to whatever the next best game is. Is that how most kids operate in your view?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, they’re quite faddy in the games they like to play, and they’ll be playing the games that their friends are playing. But I think because if we thought about this as a child staying up under the covers playing a video game it’s like, “Oh, that’s not right, there’s a problem”. Whereas, if you thought about a child staying up doing that with a torch and a book under their bed, it’s kind of this sentimental, “We know that books are good in general”, we don’t even think about what they’re reading often, that’s a secondary question. But when it comes to games we don’t have that kind of underlying understanding of what the benefits of games are as a piece of media, and so we then quickly go to, “And what were they playing? Was it violent?” And those sorts of concerns.

So, I think we treat it differently and that … it is different, but also we need to engage in a similar way with games than we do, really, with books and films and other media.

What are the benefits of games?

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly. And it brings us to a good point because I do think children learn a lot from games and there are benefits that I tend to see from people that have gamed to people that have never gamed in the way that they approach work, in the way that they see work. So, is there benefits that you see, that you’ve come across in the research that you’ve been doing for the book?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. So, I think historically, particularly people who’ve wanted to justify video games as something positive have often pointed to the hard skills, the hand-eye coordination, the problem solving, and in terms of the science that I’ve had access to and have talked to people about that’s harder to prove, and how transferable those hard skills are, seems to be in question. And there is definitely a benefit, you have the general developmental thing going on.

But what seems more transferable and more understood are the softer skills, the social, the interaction, the finding some calm and the time out of your day, the wellbeing, mental health side of it. And at the moment, I think particularly in this period, that’s often what children are doing: they’re staying in touch with friends.

If I sit next to my kids while they’re playing, the things they’re talking isn’t about what’s in the game, what’s happening, they’ll be talking about, “How are you doing? How is your family? Is anyone locked down? Are you doing the homework?” The sort of stuff that would just be part of playground chatter comes up as they’re playing. And as well as that, it does give them a chance to unplug from quite a chaotic world and enter a space that they’ve got a bit more control over and they can find some peace over that.

The issue is that if we don’t realise that as parents, and we just think, “You’re on that game again, you’ve got to stop”, and we make them stop, and if they had been using that game as a coping mechanism for what’s happening in the world, and then they become upset because we’ve taken it away, then we often will point to it and say, “Look, you’ve got cross when I’ve told you to stop. Look what that game’s doing to you.” When in actual fact, that game was a solution to another problem and we’ve missed a chance to understand our child and what the problem was that the game was solving because we’ve labelled the game as a problem.

I think it’s those sorts of benefits which run a bit deeper and I feel like that it’s this, children then take with them into a future that will be digital, and into a future where they probably will always play games in some way, it won’t be the same games, but I think game playing will be part of the future of most children’s lives.

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly. It’s interesting because, most of the time, when I speak to parents that ask me this question, if it’s safe for my child, they would never even consider the idea that it could actually be a coping mechanism, or it could actually be a place where they have control and find calm because most parents see games as there are loads of things happening and you have to manage all these things at the same time, it’s very intense. And I don’t think they understand that concept of finding your peace.

Are most games violent?

And there’s also, I think, a preconception that all games are violent. What would you say to parents concerned about that? That all games are violent?

Andy Robertson :

I think it’s understandable because the games that are popular and you see on bus stops are often the games aimed at older teenagers and do have guns in them. That’s quite a popular thing because it’s kind of quite an easy thing to do as a game, the play loop’s quite predictable.

As a developer, there’s some safety and they know that’s popular. And so, it’s completely understandable, but what’s exciting and exciting about creating my database of games for parents, the Family Video Game Database, is that I have a chance to uncover the wide breadth of games. And we’ve got about 800 games in the database, and probably only a very small proportion of them are games where the main thing is shooting. There’ll be some of them because that is part of the wider games spectrum, but the range of what you’re doing, whether it’s exploring a different world, or running a train system, or swimming under the sea, all those sorts of things, you can do all these sorts of things in games as well. And the issue is the discovery and helping parents to discover those games.

And that’s the challenge, I think. I think we need to do a better job of helping parents find games which match their children, and that’s where the idea for the database came from.

An Coppens :

Great. And where can they find the database? Because of course we’re going to link those in the show notes, but in case somebody’s desperate to find it right now?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. Well, you could just Google Family Video Game Database. Or if you go the URL TamingGaming.com, which was the name of the book that I wrote, that will be out in January, and the two sort of go together. You’ll see on the database they’re branded in the same way. And so, the book looks at the issues we’ve been talking about, looks at violence, looks at addiction, looks at gambling, looks at online strangers, but then tries to say, “Here are some ways to take positive steps as a parent, what you can do.” And part of that is playing games together.

Another thing the book says, which is more unusual, I think, and maybe a little bit less popular, is to say if you’ve got a child who loves playing games, a really powerful thing you can do as a parent is to find some games that you want to play yourself. And I’m often saying that at school meetings, and things like that, that I run for parents, and someone will stop me and say, “I love what you’re saying, yeah, I can get it that games can be positive, but can I just stop you? Because I’m never going to play a game, they’re not for me, they’re for kids, and I’m too busy and I’ve got too much else to do.”

It’s completely understandable because we see games as this thing that children do and they’re just entertainment, and why would an adult play them? And so, there’s a portion of the database, and there’s a chapter in the book which is squarely aimed at helping parents find games that they might want to play themselves, and these are games that are short, or easy to access on devices they’ve already got, and about topics that might interest an adult. We’ve got games about parenting, we’ve got games about falling in love. There’s a particular game which is quite popular about a Syrian migrant and helping them get to Europe and the trials of that journey.

You start to introduce a different view of games, and they no longer see it just from the corner, really. The idea is then they can then go to the database, look at the games that I’ve introduced and that they’ve played, and then find lots of other similar games. So, on every page, at the bottom of every game page, there are 10 or so other games which are similar and offer a different experience, to try and help parents find something. And you don’t have to spend a long time doing it, but as soon as you are doing that, you’re suddenly in the room with your child and you can talk.

Playing games to broaden your children’s diet

I often say how we’re keen for children to have a broad diet of what they eat.

An Coppens:


Andy Robertson :

And we want them to eat vegetables, and so we make a point of eating our vegetables at mealtimes. With young children we might even make yumming noises as we eat, “These are lovely.” Because we’re just like, “You’ve got to eat your vegetables.” If we had never eaten vegetables, our kids would very quickly understand, “I’m not eating vegetables, Mom and Dad don’t eat them so why should I?”

An Coppens :


Andy Robertson :

Because they pick up on that, don’t they? And so, in a similar way, if we want them to enjoy games as a mature thing with a wide range of different experiences, it really does help if we play them ourselves. And I understand that that’s a difficult thing but I’m here to help people do that.

An Coppens :

Yeah. And I think that’s an amazing concept as well, because I heard a story of one dad who basically was worried about his child playing Fortnite, and decided to join him in the game, and he said his relationship with his child actually improved immensely because they finally had something they could talk about together. His child never had been interested in sports but was really big into all sorts of games, and he didn’t understand as a dad what to do, so I thought it was fascinating to hear his side to say, “Well, actually, I could have a conversation about the things that matter to him.”

And he totally agreed with what you said earlier where, in effect, the conversation is typically not about the game in the game chatter, it’s often about the very things that are going on with that child at that given moment in time. And I’ve had a few people come up to me as adults as well who said, “Well, I met my partner in a game”, because they were playing games together and then they eventually met in the real world and had a connection from the game, so there’s definitely something there that I think is super important for parents to take away, and to have your own set of games and playing regularly.

I mean, you’re obviously talking to the converted, me and my partner play games, we’re both in our 40s, so we play games regularly. We bring a Yahtzee pad on holidays, and there’s a year-long Yahtzee tournament, for example, in our house. And board games are just as useful as video games, in my view, for that family dynamic.

Where do you start as a parent or adult?

So, what would you say would be the starting point? Because if somebody has a real issue with video games, where would you have them start? The database is one place, what else would you have them do to introduce games into their life as a parent so that they can encourage their children to widen that spectrum of games to play?

Andy Robertson :

I think the first thing I’d want to do would be to say: I’m not here to try and convince them that games are good or bad, what I’m after is just to help them have an appreciation of the breadth of games that are on offer. And that isn’t about trying to change how they’re parenting or to try and change their view of the world, it’s to say, “I want you to parent your child in the way that you know best, but I want you to do that in an informed way including about video games.”

So, my hope is that by understanding and experiencing those games first-hand, it won’t necessarily lead to a parent saying, “My child plays more games now. They might end up deciding to let them play them less, but they’ll do it from an informed perspective …

An Coppens :


Andy Robertson :

… rather than just assuming something’s happening. And they’ll do it with the child, it won’t just be something that they’re doing to them but there’ll be a collaboration, and that the conversation in the home would change. And that’s, I think, what we’re aiming at, is to change it from the child saying, “I want more games, I want older-rated games”, and the parents saying, “No, you must play less, you must play younger”, because that’s not really a conversation, it’s just a back and forth, and that just is why it either leads to arguments, or a common solution is that games get banished from the family space into bedrooms and become this thing that then competes with the family, rather than being anchored as a normal part of family life where they can both benefit the family.

And also games benefit from the same sorts of questions and conversations that we ask about the films that we watch, and the books that we read, and the …

… walks that we go on. And so, I think that’s probably the first … it’s a really good, important thing to say, because I think parents can often feel like they’re just having their finger wagged at them, or there’s another thing they’ve got to try and get right. And really, just have some fun, and the database is there, and there’s a list of games that are on the database that are specifically for people who’ve never played games or haven’t played them recently. And they’re there, it’s simple to play, you can play them with other people, finding games you can play together.

If you’ve got someone in your family who knows about games then treat them as a resource.

Talk to other families who’ve got kids of a similar age and find out what they do, and the book is there. If you can’t do that, then the book is kind of … its idea is it’s like it’s a sounding board, really, to be those other experiences if you don’t have access to them.

What inspired the title of the book: Taming Gaming?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, I think so. And I often reflect on the title because it’s slightly strange, because I love the wild, untamed nature of games, as these experiences that I encounter as an adult, and they take me places that I don’t necessarily expect to go, they help me think about topics like parenting, or anything, really, in ways that are exciting.

And so, they are in some ways this fragile world, like a piece of art, sort of thing, but at the same time I understand, really, and this is who the book’s aimed at, that that is not how they function in a lot of families, and a lot of moms I talk to in particular, not only moms but that was the main sort of respondents were saying, “I’m a good mom, I’m a really good mom to my boys”, particularly to d8217;sS video gnc9nian migrant aRt would jtbend up decid-r! ed a is h?n-ahf1y, j ga we ffect, to-2 do tha;s a rharent or adult?

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