Video games – children love them, but you’re not so sure. Here you can find out about the risks and benefits of video games, plus some ideas for choosing appropriate games and managing your child’s interest in playing them.
About video games for kids
Video games are electronic, interactive games that come in many forms: DVDs, internet downloads, online games and apps.
You can play video games on a personal home computer (PC), television or electronic hand-held device.
Many games (including online games) are multiplayer games – this means several people can play them at the same time.
The big name brands for video games are Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo.
The best video games for kids
The best video games for kids have some learning value and some positive messages.
Ideally, games for kids should:
- explore real, everyday activities
- reveal fantasy worlds in creative, imaginative ways
- teach your child that playing fairly is better than winning
- give your child opportunities to take turns and play with others as a team
- have different levels of difficulty, so the game can evolve and your child can progress through its stages
- be interactive and involve decision-making – this way your child gets an increased sense of control and independence
- be able to be played by several players
- not feature violent heroes, sexist stereotypes or characters with unrealistic body images.
Video game ratings
If you’re wondering about the best video games for your child, you could start by looking at ratings.
Video games are classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) using the same classification system as for movies and videos:
G rating: there is very mild violence in games rated G. Content with this rating is produced for a general audience. It’s still important to check out games with a G rating yourself.
PG rating: parental guidance is recommended for content with this rating. These games are generally appropriate for children older than eight years. They come with a standard description of violence or sexual content, language and themes.
M rating: games classified M (Mature) contain content of a moderate impact and are recommended for teenagers aged 15 years and over. Children under 15 may legally access this material because it is an advisory category. But M-classified games might include classifiable elements such as violence and nudity of moderate impact that are not recommended for children under 15 years.
Video games are classified but downloadable games and mobile apps are not classified in this way.
Ratings and classifications are helpful. But in the end it’s up to you to decide whether content is appropriate for your child.
Making the most of video games for kids
The best way for your child to learn from video games is when you play together. An added bonus is that you’ll spend some time with each other and have fun!
Here are some ideas for making the most of video games with your child.
Set ground rules about
: screen time is the time you spend each day watching TV, DVDs, computers and other screens. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more one hour of screen time a day, and children over five should have no more than two hours in front of screens each day.
Aim for balance in your family activities: make sure that everyone has a go at physical activity, creative play and social games. Talk with your children about getting the right balance between indoor play time, outdoor fun, homework and time spent with friends.
Get involved: asking your child to show you how a game works is the best way to tune into what he’s learning. Make a mental note of the kinds of games he enjoys and finds challenging. If he’s really enjoying a game about dinosaurs, for example, you can broaden his knowledge by finding books or movies on the topic.
- When you have time, play a game all the way through with your child.
Talk with your child about the video games she’s playing. Ask her what she likes or dislikes and what she’d change or add to make the games better. This kind of talk helps develop thinking skills.
Be informed: read reviews of the games you think might be suitable for your child. Make sure you carefully read the blurb on the game’s cover, and don’t forget to check the game’s rating – games rated G or PG are more likely to suit young children.
Borrow before buying: if possible, borrow games from a library, DVD store or a friend before you buy them. You might find that your child isn’t interested in a particular game, or you don’t approve of the game’s content or concepts.
Benefits of playing video games
The benefits of video games for kids depend on game content, the amount of time kids spend playing games, and whether games are single-player or multiplayer. Some games can have developmental benefits. For example, they might improve children’s:
- hand-eye coordination and motor skills
- problem-solving, strategy and planning, decision-making and logic skills
- ability to set and achieve goals
- ability to do several things at once
- self-esteem as kids get better at games and move through higher levels
- time management skills.
Social benefits of video games can include improving children’s ability to:
- play in a team and work as a member of a group
- play fairly
- take turns
- interact positively with others online.
Video games can have some educational benefits too, which include helping children get better at:
- remembering things
- thinking about things
- recognising and understanding visual information
- understanding concepts they’re learning at school, such as maths
- learning new words.
A 2013 study found that teenagers who didn’t play video games are closer to their families, more involved in activities and more attached to school than teenagers who did play video games. They also had positive mental health. Another study found that video games featuring helping, sharing, cooperation and empathy helped young teenagers develop these qualities.
Problems of playing video games
Moderation is the key to avoiding most problems that can come with video games. Problems tend to come up when children spend too much time gaming.
The most common physical side effects of too much gaming are eye strain, headaches and repetitive strain injuries (RSI). A very small number of game players have experienced epileptic seizures, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
Social and emotional side effects of too much gaming include obsessive behaviour – that is, children want to play them all the time.
Children who play violent video games for long periods of time might be less empathetic. This is especially true for boys.
Bullying can happen when groups of children are involved in multiplayer games such as Minecraft. For example, they might deliberately harass other players and or even try to exclude them from the game.
Children who don’t like group activities and classroom instruction very much tend to like single-player video games, which might make them even more antisocial.
Children who play video games for long periods spend less time playing outdoors and more time sitting indoors. Excessive screen time is a major contributor to rising levels of childhood obesity
Violence in video games
Playing violent video games can have negative effects in the short term and long term. These effects might include increased aggressiveness.
Here are some questions you can ask if you’re concerned about violence in the video games your child is playing:
- Does the game involve some characters trying to harm others?
- Is the harm rewarded in any way?
- Does harm occur frequently in the game – say, more than 1-2 times in 30 minutes?
- Does the game show harm as funny?
- Are non-violent solutions absent or less fun than violent ones?
- Does the game show what would happen in real life if people behaved in these violent ways?
If the answer to two or more questions is yes, it’s worth considering the messages the games are sending about violence.
Talking with your child about violence and games
You can reduce some of the negative effects of violence in video games by talking with your child about it. Here are some questions you could talk about with your child:
- Why do video games sometimes have violence, and how is real life different?
- In real life, how do we cope with anger or people who upset us?
- How are men and women and people from different ethnic backgrounds portrayed in these games? Are women always victims? How often are they main characters?
- Is it a good or bad thing to be a bully?
Children are less likely to play violent video games and behave aggressively if their parents are more involved in their play time.
Worried about video games and your child
If you’re worried about how much time your child spends gaming or you think that video games are having a negative influence on your child’s behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with your child. Together, you can decide on a reasonable amount of gaming time and what types of games are OK to play.
If your child seems more aggressive than usual, starts withdrawing from friendships, or wants to play video games more than his friends, it might be a good idea to get some professional advice. You could start by talking with your GP or school counsellor.