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Dear Dr. Mark,

I recently discussed society’s view on gaming with a friend, and both of us being relatively young (around 20), we got to talking about how our parents might see our hobbies. My friend suggested that it was quite possible that our parents viewed even something as unhealthy as getting drunk as a better alternative to sitting in front of a computer for extended periods of time. I couldn’t help but agree with him.

Furthermore, it got me thinking of how society sees gaming. With how the mass media shows gaming and gamers, it mostly seems to come out negatively.

Any thoughts on why gaming is often put in such a negative light in our society?

I agree with you that the public perception of gaming is largely negative. Why should this be? It’s easy to blame the mass media, but they largely print stories they think people want to read. Some balance is getting into the press as it becomes clear that videogamers like to read about their hobby, are often intelligent and thoughtful, and aren’t all victims of demonic possession.

Well, maybe some of them are.

Some gamers obviously couldn’t care less what society thinks of them and their hobby, but it is certainly bracing to imagine that your parents view getting drunk as healthier than gaming, especially when you look at all the damage done by drunk people. You’ve put your finger on a very important source of negativity: parents and a serious generation gap when it comes to gaming.

In my work as a psychologist, I hear from many parents about videogaming and their impressions are almost uniformly sour. The simple advice is to set limits on kids’ use if you don’t like it, but parents are finding this increasingly difficult. Young kids hear about videogaming from friends or older siblings, so parents are treated to a constant chorus of nagging about it. Those who try to regulate it are taking on yet another parental policing task. If your youngster is going to play, what games or devices are best, and how do you find time in a very busy life to figure this out when you can’t even program your VCR, or don’t even know VCRs are obsolete?

Many parents end up capitulating because the fight is tiring and gaming can be much more effective for occupying kids than TV. When your kids are absorbed in play, you don’t have to entertain them and can actually get other things done, like cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, and actually talking to your spouse. As a colleague pointed out, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of total screen time per day. My experience is that many families with young children have a very hard time adhering to this guideline, and as children reach middle and high school, it becomes even more difficult.

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Gaming has become a top play-date activity, and parents have little control over what goes on in other homes. The kids with the best games and systems earn a kind of popularity, while those whose parents squelch it often feel left out. When I was a kid, we used to talk about sports, NASA, or some insipid TV show, but now, gaming is topic number one. If a kid isn’t knowledgeable, he will be left out of much of the discussion. Obviously, children who are athletes, musicians, or artists have other points of connection, but even some of them game intensively.

It’s easy for parents to feel that their lives have become infested with gaming even if they invited this babysitter into the house. As kids grow up, some parents believe this hobby robs their kids of time, attention, and energy for schoolwork, resulting in under-performing kids who seem unable or unwilling to focus in school or at home on homework. Constant battles only make it worse, leading parents to wonder what it will take to get their teen “motivated.” This can result in intense parental anxiety about the future – their children may not qualify for a solid collegiate education even though they are bright, and many parents see this as the road to “success.”

Parents also rue the loss of connection that gaming can create at home. I hear many tales about adolescents who barely talk with their parents, spending countless hours in front of the screen, occasionally showing up for meals. This is an age-old problem – the sadness and loss parents feel when their kids don’t seem to need or want them anymore – but it’s easy to blame it on gaming because it provides such a convenient modus operandi.

Many parents also worry about the effect of gaming on their kids’ health. Gamers aren’t noted for having the best sleep hygiene. It is easy to play late into the night and end up oversleeping or being semi-comatose the next day. Even though there are games that involve exercise (DDR and the Wii come to mind), we should acknowledge that this hobby is largely sedentary, so parents worry if their kids are getting enough exercise, and experts wonder if gaming is contributing to an epidemic of obesity.

Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the major bugaboos: Is the content of these games bad for kids because it is graphically violent, sexually inappropriate, or disturbing in some other way? Who are these people online and will they take advantage of my kids in some way? Will my child learn nasty language and habits that will affect how he treats others outside of gaming? I have discussed these issues in other columns and I’m sure there is more to be said about them.

Wow – that’s a lot of reasons for parents to be upset about videogaming! I’m convinced this is a big source of the negativity you perceive. I don’t think it’s only parents – health care professionals, politicians, and media pundits certainly add fuel to the fire as well, but parental frustration provides plenty of dry tinder.

What, if anything can be done about this? Videogame play is burgeoning, not diminishing, and if societal perception is that it’s a huge waste of time at best, and at worst, a public menace, that can’t be good. I’m very interested in what The Escapist readers think about this, but here are a few ideas:

I’ve known many young adults who have been able to achieve a healthy integration between gaming and the rest of life. This means they love playing, but are careful to maintain investment in other priorities, like school, work, relationships, diet, exercise, and family. Each person able to do this is a powerful contradiction to the stereotypes trumpeted in the media about gaming.

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Some families find a way to make videogaming a part of their lifestyle. It’s very common for parents to get involved in other activities their kids might choose, like sports or theater. Whether we see videogaming as an equivalent interest or not, if our kids are into it, we can make more of an effort to do it with them. I knew of a number of parent-child teams like this in World of Warcraft, where the parent’s presence had the extra benefit of providing some oversight and mediation for a teenager. Some of the parents were actually pretty good players too.

Playing games with your kids can help parents see past some of the stereotypes about the hobby. Is the violence really that much more graphic and disturbing than what kids see on TV? Do gamers really treat each other with nastiness and disrespect most of the time? I think the obvious answers to these questions would settle many parents down. I also think gaming as a way to connect with your kids, rather than simply permitting it to get a break from them, makes it less likely it will become something they do to avoid you.

Gamers and the non-gamers need to aspire to a better dialogue with more trust and mutual understanding. This means listening when someone who cares about you thinks you are playing too much. A great deal of anger at gaming is generated when such feedback is ignored. It also means understanding that the pleasures and challenges of this hobby can be a fun and worthwhile diversion, even if you don’t like playing yourself.

We parents have a long history of not accepting what young folks like to do. If something seems foreign and strange to us, we reflexively assume it must be dangerous. This is the essence of the generation gap. Something new may “destroy memory and weaken the mind, relieving it of work that makes it strong.” This sentiment captures what many parents think about technology today, but it is a statement Plato attributed to Socrates in 370 BC in the Phaedrus, and it refers to a newly popular technology of the time called writing. If youths can survive the advent of writing, the printing press, the telephone, the television, the internet, and countless other technological innovations, they can certainly survive videogaming and whatever comes after it, whether parents like it or not.

In fact, I do not believe it is folly to hope, with Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future that this medium may eventually evolve into something that continues to be entertaining, but also provides opportunities for collaborative, creative problem solving that might positively affect what happens in the real world. Now that’s something Socrates probably would never have imagined!

Dr. Mark Kline thought Char was a mild-flavored North Atlantic fish before playing Starcraft II. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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