Alison Carr-Chellman offers insight into why video games are so enticing to boys and how we can leverage them for the good.
Video games are the much maligned and often annoying coin of the realm for most boys today. Don’t get me wrong, girls play games too, but far more often these are social games like Farmville and Words With Friends, and they tend to be easier to turn on and off, less engrossing, and less encroaching on everyday life.
While I do not want to encourage a lack of proper balance in life (fitness counts) and I’m not personally thrilled with the violence in the most interesting of games for boys, I have come to better understand why games are so enticing to boys and how we can leverage them for the good.
Why do boys love games?
1. Boys love to play what are called “serious” games because they are empowered inside the game. In a world where they are constantly told they are less than and told what to do all the time at home, at school, they have very little real agency in the world today. Boys, unlike some girls, tend to bristle more at this lack of power over their own futures and they dream of worlds where they are in charge—poof games give them precisely what they need. They are able to manipulate the in-game world in ways that they cannot in the real world and this is empowering almost intoxicating to many boys. After all, in most games, they can fly, who didn’t dream of flying as a kid?
2. Boys have a natural development stage, which involves deep engagement into fantasy violent play. Games feed this normal stage and allow boys to play with violence in safe and sane ways.
3. Serious games are full of amazing and fantastic technologies. The game mechanics are fun and interesting to boys—how was this put together? How does it work? How can I beat it? These are all natural questions for the boy who took apart mom’s toaster in the 1950’s and wasn’t quite sure how to re-assemble it. Now they can safely deconstruct the toy while earning benefits like coins and gems.
4. You can build stuff—in games like Minecraft and Spark, it’s possible to create whole worlds, and this is currency for impressing your friends.
5. The music and graphics are amazing. As a multi-billion dollar industry, gaming has come to its own with Hollywood level graphics, music and storylines. These games are more engaging than TV or movies because they are interactive, but they are high quality in terms of the effects. There are naturally more possible reasons why boys love games, but this gives you at least the idea why we may feel like we are constantly asking them to get off of the game they’re playing so they can do something “real.”
However, real is very different for digital natives, and so is social. Gaming is a very social experience, and a great learning experience…here are better understandings of why games are good for boys—well for all of us:
1. Games allow our boys how to be social in low-stress ways. Like athletic events, video games can help boys build relationships that will be significant in their futures—believe it or not. It’s often difficult for those of us with more traditional values (a.k.a, old people) to understand that this is as deep a social experience as many other activities our boys engage in. This is because they are sometimes not in the same physical space, but they are in the same online space. This kind of connection is different to us. What is important to understand is that it’s fun, and it’s bonding for boys even though it may seem “less real” to us. But it’s not high stress or judgmental in the ways that so many other experiences are for our boys (such as physical performance on the gridiron).
2. Game teach a lot of leadership skills, including followership. Most of the games that boys play today—the ones we’re calling “serious” games, games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty require complex missions that need a variety of players, usually made up of off-line or in-world friends, and organization to actually achieve a particular goal. There are a huge number of leadership skills taught inside of games, and more on that will be forthcoming from Robert Heim & myself in the near future. We’ll be sure to post links to that work as it emerges. We are studying this question right now, but have already come to the clear conclusion that games teach leadership in immersive and motivating ways.
3. Boys learn how to fail. This is perhaps among the most important skills that are really taught in gaming and are simply not at all addressed in schools today. We (Engerman & Carr-Chellman) have asked boys how they feel about failing in school and then how they feel about failing in games. The experiences couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. In school, it’s a one shot and done, you pass or fail the test and that’s the end of it. There’s little or no attention to understanding WHY you passed or failed, or how to improve performance next time. But in games, it is the precise opposite of this approach. You fail a hundred times before you are able to level up. Achievement is held constant, but time varies. It may take one boy five tries and another boy 50 tries, there’s no difference between them as far as the game is concerned, and their friends see their achievement as equal. Failure is not negative, much the opposite, it’s through failure and ONLY through failure that you will ever succeed in games.
4. Boys learn to manage their emotions. So much failure sounds frustrating and it is. Boys who game know how to walk away from something for awhile, so they can get a new perspective, or at least refresh themselves to go on. Anger that gets out of control when gaming often results in expensive mistakes (like throwing controllers at screens). Naturally, the consequences of this sort of temper tantrum for most boys is trying to scrape together enough money to get a new whatever it was they broke in their anger. It doesn’t take long for boys to realize that this isn’t the right way to handle themselves. This kind of mistake may be costly in terms of dollars, but it is much less costly than the life altering changes that happen when a boy hasn’t figured out how to handle his anger and gets into a brawl at school. Some media reports have tried to paint video games as a cause for concern over increased violence, but our studies and several others seem to indicate that gamers are less likely to get into trouble than non-gamers.
5. Games help boys build the most important “soft” skills. Grit, perseverance, problem solving, complex strategy—games help boys to learn all of these very important skills. In fact, there is so much good learning packed into games that boys almost exclusively play, that girls groups are becoming concerned about the girls falling behind. It’s strange to think that we might have affirmative action for girls to help them learn to play World of Warcraft, or Call of Duty, Portal or Destiny, but there are so many good skills learned inside of games like this, which girls are usually not playing, that it does sort of make a weird kind of sense.
Now that we know why they love them, and how they’re good for boys, how can we, as parents and mentors, help our boys get the most out of video games? A little gentle focus can help turn games from addictive killing machines, into exciting educational experiences…but don’t tell the boys that!
1. The most important thing you can do when trying to leverage gaming to benefit your son is to PLAY GAMES WITH HIM. I know all caps means I’m shouting—well I am. I can’t emphasize this enough. Playing games with your kids is one of the best ways to see what they’re all about, share a common experience, engage with your son and learn a lot more yourself.
2. Don’t press education into the experience, but help them to realize the education they’re getting from gaming. You should talk to your sons about games. If you’re playing with them, then it’s easy, it’s natural…”what did you think when you lost out at that quest?” “Why do you think that happened, when I tried to use the portal gun and it didn’t work that way?” “do you think it’s fair that you can buy your way into winning on this game?” and so forth. If you’re not playing with your kids—well why not? OK but if you just can’t find the time, or sufficient interest to game with your son, then you have to ask questions that don’t make it too obvious that you have figured out that this is good for them. The elicit and fun nature of games can’t be reconfigured successfully into an educational experience or kids will smell it a mile away. And this has been proven with decades of relatively unsuccessful educational games. So all learning exploration by parents should be natural, and not too obviously educational.
3. Change your perspective. If you feel like games are hateful, the boys will know it. If you’re constantly telling them to turn it off, it will become forbidden fruit. If your perspective is that these games are addictive and bad for you, your sons will surely know it, and a self-fulfilling prophecy is dangerous here. Try to understand the usefulness, and keep things in proper perspective. Remember, Congress held hearings back in the day to determine if rock and roll, and comic books were dangerous for our youth, too.
4. Make sure there is balance. Game addiction is real. If you see signs of addictive behavior take it seriously. Your son should be enjoying a balanced life with lots of other activities from physical games to field trips, scouting activities to parties. If your son is holed up for hours on end playing games in the basement, it may be time to have a good conversation and start signing him up for other things (if you can manage to convince him of the wisdom of pursuing something he’s truly interested in other than games). Structure in the schedule will keep your son from becoming truly addicted to videogames, so keep things balanced between gaming, school, extra curriculars, sports, scouts, camps, and other things your son is interested in—this is just common sense.
5. Help to scaffold the good that games bring. As you play games with your son, or talk about particular games, even if he’s just showing you what he did on the game, mention the good things—“that’s a leadership skill there”, “did you know that you had to fail 8 times before you got that? Good for you for sticking to it.” “I’m proud and pleased that you’re learning to handle your emotions better when you lose.” And so forth. These all sound platitudinous, but as you watch and game with your son, it will be more natural. You’ll be able to point out when he is using good strategy and perhaps link to some specific stuff on strategic thinking that may help him later in the game and later in life.
In the end, video games are a super fun, engaging, immersive experience that our boys love. If you want to be in your child’s life, game with them, help them game, balance the gaming and the rest of their lives. Games may feel a lot like an annoyance to us adults. And in my own family we have strict rules on when technology can and can’t interrupt our lives—no praying to the God of the DS or iPod at the table, only dinner prayers are OK there. Limitless gaming is not appropriate, but when understood through the lenses of informed parenting, gaming can be your best friend!