When Gamers Breed

Donna and Jack Kidwell’s first recruits to their World of Warcraft guild were their three children, Harrison (12), Epiphany (9), and George (6). At their home in Austin, Texas, the whole family games online together several nights a week – though, as Donna explains in her blog post “No raiding after 9 pm.” If the party waits too late to get going –

Clouds gather on the horizon, and those first warning signs appear: loud, exaggerated yawns from the eager young stealther who dares not admit exhaustion; peevish commentary regarding that one player whose addiction to the in-game auction holds up the show an extra 20 minutes; requests for “stamina potions” (I need a COKE) start pouring in, or worse yet … the dreaded “Coke, Coke Coke Coke” mantra.

I’ve known the Kidwells since they were in college at the University of Texas. We played Illuminati, Cosmic Encounter and a dozen other board and card games; I sat in on Jack’s Shadowrun roleplaying campaign. After they had kids, I saw them less often, though they kept me posted on their Magic and Legend of the Five Rings trading card game collections.

Knowing the parents as I did, I knew the Kidwell children would grow up to be, not only gamers, but also great kids. Donna and Jack discovered a fact lost on our culture’s anti-game crusaders: Gaming is an extraordinarily effective parenting tool.

This is especially true in computer games; “Kids own the environment,” Donna says. “It’s their turf. Warren Spector, I think, talked about gaming as a ‘narrative’ that you own. He’s right – children can talk about their gaming experiences for hours on end. It’s difficult to exhaust them. So what could be more ripe for pedagogy? It’s so nice to have kids creating their own myths.”

Why don’t we hear much about parents like that?

Gamer Moms and Dads: Off the Cultural Radar

It shouldn’t be strange to imagine parents gaming with their kids. The Entertainment Software Association reports, in its “Top 10 Industry Facts,” that the average gamer is 30-years-old, the average game buyer is 37, and 75% of all heads of households in America play electronic games. You’d think at least some of those people have, you know, procreated.

In August 2004, Laura Gulledge, a high school teacher in Alexander City, Alabama, wrote a WomanGamers.com article called “Confessions of a Gamer Mom.” “Computers, video games, digital music – I love it all! Should my family go camping or compete in multi-player mode on SSX3? My answer is: Why not both? There’s room for gaming in any healthy childhood. It’s up to us to find the balance. […F]or me, competing against my child on a simulated racetrack while discussing our strategies and sharing lots of laughs in the process is quality time.”

The forum topic on Gulledge’s article brought an outpouring of agreement:

” “People believe if you spend your time gaming that you are neglecting responsibilities. That is so not true. It is a matter of time management. My 17-year-old son and I play many of the same games – Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat are two – and we talk a lot about it. At the age he is, it has really kept the lines of communication open for us because I am able to relate to him. It has made it easier for him to come talk to me about other things in his life.”

” “My boys are six and three, and love to play games too, especially the six-year-old. Some of the best family fun we’ve had was pairing up with the boys (dad with one, mom with other) on our PCs and going head-to-head in Halo or Battlefield Vietnam.”

” “I think the biggest questions or comments I get as a gamer mom, whose kids game too, are 1) ‘Well, as long as the games are educational games I guess it’s okay,’ and 2) ‘What time limit do you put on how long they play?’ I think people are rather shocked at my answers. Just what does ‘educational’ mean anyway? Darkstone certainly isn’t ‘educational’ in the traditional sense, and yet my sons have learned how to add and subtract into the millions (out of necessity) [and] read long words (Dexterity, Vitality, etc). As for time limits…. again, some dirty looks occur when my answer is ‘none.’ We lead by example. […] I know I would be *incredibly* annoyed if my husband put some arbitrary time limit on my gaming, and I think it would frustrate [my children] the same. They do a really great job of balancing the time they spend on their interests.”

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Obviously these views seldom make it into the media. Instead, we hear alarmism from opportunistic politicians, talk show pundits and every busybody with a letterhead. None of them play games with their own kids, or at least none admit it. Dr. Jeanne B. Funk, psychology professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio, has built much of her academic career arguing that violent video games desensitize children to violence, and parents must closely monitor and limit their children’s play. But in her many papers on the subject, Funk never suggests parents should play the games themselves. The thought seems never to cross her mind.

Gamer Parents Are Better Parents

Donna and Jack can use games as effective parenting tools because they know and play the games. “George was behind the benchmarks for kindergarten in letter recognition and associated sounds,” Donna remembers. “So over spring break he’d sit behind me and I’d use the World of Warcraft in-game page function to send him letters and phonics combos. (I have logs that go ‘B’ – ‘f’ – ‘J’ – ‘TH.’) He was so excited, and he’d yell ’em out. After he could call out the letters really well, I let him sit on my lap and call out mobs I’d go after. He would have to spell the names of the monster before I’d shoot at it. We got killed a lot early on – WoW mobs have big fantasy names, weird unfamiliar letter combinations – but he got faster and faster. George’s teacher was very impressed with the progress we made over spring break – which is entirely due to the WoW pager function.”

Knowing the games is key, though the importance of actually playing them depends on the game type. Donna says, “For an MMOG, I would strongly recommend playing with your kids until you think they’re old enough to be alone. That’s why we guild carefully, and tell folks we know that our kids are kids. We have friends in-game who can look out for the kids if we aren’t online at the moment. Now for an RTS, it’s less important to play with them. If you aren’t a gamer, that would be painful – but if you know enough to converse intelligently about it, that’s great.

“Games, in my household at least, give new life to the humanities. My kids will know Egyptian dynastic culture because I’ll show them that stuff offline once I catch it in-game. Architecture, culture, religion, economics … If you are playing in a virtual world inspired by the real one, you have a great opportunity to make those ‘boring’ social studies classes interesting.

“Another key point for me centers around ‘identity.’ My kids have to hold their own, think on their own and be their own individuals in a world that will increasingly rely on the ‘virtual.’ How you present yourself in a game that you play for six months on a daily basis does have real impact, especially for my kids who are likely to be gaming with future employers or wives. Your real-life maturity and wisdom is (or isn’t!) demonstrated in-game. The game makes it easier to be someone you aren’t – and if you spend a lot of time being someone else, who are you, really?

“I’m very clear with the kids that their characters in-game are extensions and expressions of themselves. When we played Black and White, Harry couldn’t be ‘evil.’ It isn’t behavior he should be emulating, or aspiring to be … not as a kid.”

If more parents played games, it would expand the audience, and probably the range of subjects publishers could sell. If more people knew games as parenting tools, they could get the politicians to target some other victim. So the industry should get the word out: Parents who join in their kids’ electronic games often become better parents.

Defining the Dialogue

The side that frames the argument usually wins. As long as media attention focuses on “violent video games making kids more violent,” few parents will think of playing the games with their kids. Our worthy task is to elevate the discussion. Some early steps to take:

1. Lobby
First, the industry must quiet the “Hot Coffee” noise while it crafts a new image. Some politicians occasionally take stands on principle, but fortunately, the current anti-game demagogues are routine opportunists. Buying legislators grows more efficient (if not cheaper) with each passing administration. Publishers can shut off the Congressional heat with campaign contributions to the noisiest grandstanders. Ideally, the industry would secure and foster actual government support, in the same way the Korea Culture & Content Agency has partnered with the Korea Game Development Institute industry trade group. Currently an American equivalent seems impractical, but over time …?

2. Sponsor research
As Jonathan L. Freedman of the University of Toronto says in “Evaluating the Research on Violent Video Games,” there’s far too little formal psychological research into videogames. Freedman cites a meta-analysis paper that identifies “35 research reports that included 54 independent samples of participants. Of these, 22 were published. And of these, only 9 studies dealt with aggressive behavior. In other words, conclusions about whether playing violent video games causes aggressive behavior must be based on nine published experiments. I cannot think of another important issue for which scientists have been willing to reach conclusions on such a small body of research. Even if the research had been designed and conducted perfectly, there is far too little evidence to reach any firm conclusions. And […] the research is far from perfect.”

This slight foray into research doesn’t examine parents who game with their children. We need to hire some postdocs and fund studies.

3. Market!
A good industry-wide marketing strategy and public relations offensive can transform society. It’s easy to screw it up, as Hasbro did with its less than thrilling “Family Game Night,” but the electronic game world is stronger and more interesting than the Hasbro boardgame line. Hire a PR agency, find a celebrity spokesperson (Vin Diesel! He plays D&D!), and sponsor events and conferences.

Still, changing parenting techniques is hard. “There have been marketing efforts around ‘the family that plays together stays together,'” Donna observes. Aside from Hasbro “the same pitch is made for T-ball and peewee football. All of them have trouble. Most messages to that end (‘get involved with your kids’) are weak at best. Parental involvement is difficult, regardless – which is just tragic.

“I’d work with the notion that in games, you are in control. I’d liken it to Tivo and mobile phones – entertainment you control. Then I’d toss in a higher-level appeal to both parents and kids that says, ‘When you get to make the decisions, where do you want to go?'”

Has this industry answered that question for itself? If so, we’re ready to start asking parents. It’s worth a try.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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