Critics often accuse videogames of being bad for kids, but for many volunteers with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, gaming has been a valuable way of reaching out to children and providing them with much-needed role models, mentors and friends.

“Playing videogames was important when we first started to go on outings,” says Matt, 31, a volunteer Big Brother from London, Ontario, who has been partnered with his 15-year-old “Little,” Patrick, for more than five years. “It gave my Little an opportunity to do something he enjoys and let his mind drift off being nervous around a new person. We were also able to chat casually while playing and avoided any awkward silences during conversation lapses.”

Since those early gaming sessions, Matt and Patrick’s relationship has grown into a strong friendship based on shared fun.

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Big Brothers volunteer Mike, 29, also bonded with his Little Brother, Timmy, through gaming. Since February, the pair have taken advantage of Mike’s home theater projector to play GameCube on a 100-inch screen or partnered up for RPG sessions on his PC. Mike says gaming was crucial to getting the boy to open up. “He saw that I was just there to have some fun with him, so he could let his guard down and be more relaxed. He was a little shy at first, but now I can’t get him to shut up!”

Having a Big Brother or Sister can make a big difference for a child, says Steve Bevan, Communications Specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. Littles range in age between 6 and 16 and come from a variety of family backgrounds – not just single-parent homes, as is commonly thought. Volunteers spend time with the kids enrolled in the program – as little as one hour a week – and act as a friend, confidante and all-around guide to the world of growing up.

The program’s benefits are tangible. According to the BBBSC website, children who were Littles graduate from high school at a rate 20 percent higher than Canada’s national average. Former Littles are more likely to attend college or university than others their age. And 78 percent of the Littles who come from a family on social assistance no longer have to rely on that income when they’re older.

“Sometimes it’s not even obvious to the volunteers at the time, but many years later, the Littles come back with stories about how much it helped guide them or gave them something special to look forward to and how they hold those memories in high regard as adults,” Bevan says.

Big Brothers volunteer Brian, 23, is also from London and knows what great memories the program can create, having been a Little himself. “My time as a Little Brother was very memorable,” he says. “My Big Brother Rob was and still is a great guy, was always a ton of fun to be around, and always made sure I had a blast while hanging out with him.”

Matched with 10-year-old Kyle three months ago, Brian says plenty of laughter and smiles have resulted from their Mario Kart and Smash Bros. playtime. “I think it makes communication easier, because when you’re having fun with someone, you tend to be more open with that person, I find,” he says. “And if both people are enjoying the activity, then there’s common ground established from the get-go.”

Fellow Londoner Joe, 25, says he’s also found gaming to be a great way to strengthen his friendship with Cody, his 13-year-old Little of four years. During games of Wii Sports or Rock Band, he says, “there are always relationship-building skills at work through basic communication. Many times our conversations will be about school or friends or life in general. … As long as we are playing the game to have fun and don’t take it too serious, then sometimes the more difficult conversations can become much easier because we are also occupied with the game.”

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“Videogames have for some time had a bad reputation, but I, on the other hand, find them a way for children, youth and adults to relate to one another,” Joe said

Gaming has provided opportunities for conversation and learning between Bigs and Littles, but it’s also just a great way to have fun. “I think [Timmy] was surprised that an adult could be into kid’s activities, so he saw that I was a fun guy to be around,” says Mike, who finds himself too busy to game alone. “I can now suggest outdoor activities, or things that are new to him, and he will have a good time because his fun Big Brother will be there.”

All of the Big Brothers interviewed told stories of exuberant high-fives, friendly competition and the joy of seeing a usually reserved Little start whooping and hollering when he conquers an objective that once seemed impossible. Many also shared stories of moments when they realized the kids were starting to get better at the games than themselves, the seasoned veterans.

“It’s like they have sprouted extra fingers to handle these massive game controllers,” Mike says in defense of getting trounced consistently by Timmy.

“I used to have an advantage when we’d play competitive games,” Matt says, “but now [Patrick] beats me at almost all videogames.”

Tyler, 28, of Maple Ridge, British Columbia is more blunt: “After two weeks of [Josh, my Little,] owning Guitar Hero, he was playing on expert, making me look like a tool.”

Tyler’s been a Big Brother for three years, watching Josh grow from a quiet, reserved seventh grader into a more confident 10th-grade student with good grades. Along with gaming on Tyler’s couch, the two golf, swim, paintball, watch movies and “go for drives with the music way too loud.” Like the other Big Brothers, Tyler makes sure gaming doesn’t take over his Little’s life. For a while, he had to cut out gaming altogether, he says, as it was all Josh wanted to do.

As well as monitoring the amount of gaming the kids do, Big Brothers like Tyler can provide knowledgeable supervision when a Little wants to play a game aimed above their age group. “[Josh] asked to borrow my Grand Theft Auto when he was in Grade 8,” Tyler says. “I told him to ask his mom. We did talk about the extreme violence in that game, sexual content and such and how he felt about it. He explained that he doesn’t think he is one of those kids that really gets affected by videogames, but could see how playing a lot of a game like that could perhaps elevate aggression in some of his peers.”

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Tyler says he’s enjoyed his time as a Big Brother and, like all of the Bigs interviewed, would strongly recommend participating in the program. “It allows me to be a kid again,” he says.

Matt agrees. “Being a Big Brother gives you a chance to enjoy a second childhood,” he says. “This has been, without a doubt, the easiest, most fun volunteer opportunity I’ve ever had. If you’ve got the time, the commitment and a solid moral compass, I would definitely recommend becoming a Big Brother.”

Joe says volunteering for Big Brothers has been a life-changing experience. “I not only found a friend for myself,” he says, “but it was amazing to feel that I could have such a strong impact and connection with a child who was just looking for someone he could rely on and feel trusted around. I would recommend Big Brothers Big Sisters for the experience of sharing some time with a child who appreciates it, but also so that we again can be the kids we are deep down. This program not only can impact the Little’s life, but also our own tremendously.”

To volunteer as a mentor or find out more about mentoring programs, please visit www.bigbrothersbigsisters.ca

Chris LaVigne is a freelance journalist who once ran game-brains.com and has written about videogames for Maisonneuve, PopMatters and the Vancouver Courier.

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