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Beyond "Turn that thing off!"
Elevating the gaming conversation between parents and kids
Photo by Cloud Age Photo
I (Kara) had taken out the trash thousands of times as a teenager, but this time was unique. In the midst of the banana peels, eggshells, and milk cartons lay some of my most prized possessions: my cassette tapes (yes, I am that old). [[This article is an adaptation of a chapter by the same name in a forthcoming book entitled Halos and Avatars: Playing (Video) Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010). We are deeply indebted to Noah Lau Branson for helping with the research for this as a high school senior.]]
As a teenager, my mom hated the music that I listened to. I hid many of my cassette tapes and records from her so that she wouldn’t know how much I actually had (for you younger readers, records contain music and are shaped like really big CDs). My mom used to complain about the “loud, stinkin’ secular music” that came from my bedroom stereo (which was the size of a large suitcase). She begged me to get rid of my “secular” music for years but I stubbornly refused.
The turning point came not from my mom’s pleas, but during a teaching series our youth pastor did on music and its influence in our lives. During those several weeks of teaching, I heard a well-reasoned, balanced, Biblically-inspired approach to selecting and listening to music that made sense to me. As a result, both my brother and I decided to sort our records and cassette tapes and throw away albums that didn’t align with the love, joy, peace, and hope that come from Kingdom living.
My mom was thrilled, but also a bit mystified. Why had we all of a sudden become critical music listeners? How had we moved from arguing that “the music doesn’t affect us, we just like the beat” to analyzing the lyrics of every song we owned?
Something clicked in me as a high school sophomore, and over twenty years later, I still find myself constantly analyzing both songs and their effects on my feelings, thoughts, attitudes, and even behaviors. What I gained from my youth pastor was not a narrow list of bands to be listened to and bands to be avoided. Instead, I gained a broader vision of how God wants me to interact with music in such a way that my mind is stretched, my relationships are strengthened, and God is glorified.
The parallels between my process as a fifteen-year-old grappling with music and today’s teenagers grappling with video games are many. Whether you’re a parent or a youth leader who cares deeply about the kids in your ministry, you can play a part in helping teenagers thoughtfully interact with video games.
Deeper interaction with kids and games: A process overview
As practical theologians, we are committed to a thorough exegesis of current practices, a diligent examination of relevant research, and a broad survey of adults doing exemplary work in the lives of kids. Similar to FYI’s premier book Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, in this article we’ll follow a four-step methodology called the Deep Design. [[For a more thorough explanation of the Deep Design, please see Chap Clark and Kara E. Powell, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World: Not-So-Secret Findings About Youth Ministry (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2006).]
The first step of the Deep Design invites us to consider ways that adults are now trying to engage with kids and gaming. Having understood the strengths and weaknesses of our current approaches, the second step calls us to consider new and more effective ways of engagement. In order to flesh out these new ideas, the third step profiles parents and leaders who are already a few steps ahead in living out the new paradigms. Finally, the fourth step provides a series of prompts that help us identify how we will now interact differently with the kids we care about.
Step One: Now—Balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme
Across the country, parents and mentors are following my mom’s example and are begging their kids to play fewer video games and shelve games that glorify violence and sexual objectification. More often than not, these adult pleas fall on fairly deaf ears.
Yet on the other end of the continuum are parents and mentors who figure video games and any negative messages they promote are “here to stay.” They figure that trying to curb their influence in kids is a bit like standing under an umbrella during a tidal wave. The umbrella inevitably breaks, leaving you all wet despite your best intentions and efforts.
One group of adults shouts themselves hoarse. The other whispers and mumbles, never to be heard.
One of my life mantras is that balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme. Wise adults who want to engage with gaming kids will keep in mind both the opportunities and the costs of gaming. Instead of silence or screaming, they’ll have real conversations about gaming with kids they care about. They’ll move beyond despair at one extreme, and denial at the other, into a healthier middle ground of true dialogue.
Step Two: New—Ask questions, don’t lecture
The well-known philosopher, Dallas Willard, writes, “But now let us try a subversive thought. Suppose our failures occur, not in spite of what we are doing, but precisely because of it.” [[Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), 40.]] Now that we understand mistakes we’ve made in the past, it’s time to identify new paths of engagement with kids.
The most importance sentence we will share in this chapter is this: Never explain something to a kid if you can ask a question instead.
Why is this so important? Picture the teenager(s) who are on your mind and in your heart currently. Do they know what you think about video games? Do they know what you would want to say to them about video games? Odds are good that the answer to both questions is “yes”.
Because they already know what you think and what you’d want to say, they will likely close their mind as soon as you open your mouth. One noted psychologist who is also a dad recently relayed the story of talking to his sixteen-year-old son about a behavior that the dad felt should be changed. After the dad’s long and well-reasoned list of reasons the son should change, the son shrugged and said, “Are you done yet?” Note that the question was are you done yet, not are we done yet.
So instead of lecturing teenagers, ask questions.
Good questions to ask
As we have surveyed teenagers and parents and asked them about ingredients of good conversations, a common theme is non-threatening questions. Here are some great springboards that parents, youth workers, or adult mentors can use to dive into deeper conversations with kids:
- What are your favorite games? What do you like about them?
- What characters do you tend to become? Why do you choose those characters?
- Who do you like to fight against? Why?
- Do you prefer to play against just one competitor or lots? Why do you think that is?
- Do you like to compete with a team or on your own? Why?
- How is video game competition similar to sports competition? How is it different?
- How does gaming make you feel? What different feelings do different games raise in you?
- How do you feel when you win a game? What about when you lose?
- If I asked your parents about the effects of video games on you and your relationships, what would they say?
- What do you wish your parents or other adults realized about video games?
- How would your life be different without video games?
- In what ways do you think gaming impacts your life with God?
Raising issues without lecturing
But what if you want to raise a specific issue with a gamer? Perhaps you notice that your teenager tends to be moodier after playing games and the open-ended questions we suggest above aren’t likely to lead to a conversation about moodiness.
When that’s the case, try phrasing the question this way: “I’ve heard that video games can make kids your age really moody. What do you think about that?” Some kids will be able to identify and admit their moodiness at that point. Others will deny that gaming affects their emotional state, and at that point you as a caring adult would likely want to volunteer what you’ve observed. But you’re sharing your observations in a spirit of dialogue, not lecture. And remember that often conversations about touchy subjects often need to move forward in baby steps, one talk at a time, rather than attempting a marathon on day one. [For more insights on communication theory and the “art” of persuasion, see Mark Maine’s article ]
Step 3: WHO—Insights from a parent and a youth worker
In order to understand how these principles are lived out in a parent/teenager relationship, we interviewed Mark Lau Branson and his son, Noah Lau Branson. Mark, who has spent almost 40 years in ministry in churches, education, student work, and community outreach, is a professor of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Noah, the older of Mark and Nina’s two sons, is a church pianist and a university freshman, with a double major in psychology and music. We caught up with Mark and Noah while Noah was still a senior in high school. Here’s what we learned:
Q: Noah, in what ways did Mark and your mom help you navigate through technology as a younger child, as a junior higher and now as a high school student?
Noah: When we were younger, we wouldn’t have much screen time compared with all the other kids that I would go to school or church with. But we were still watching about an hour a day after school, and during the weekend we would maybe watch a family movie. But in fifth grade, our parents decided to limit us to one half hour of screen time during the week and an hour during weekends, and that’s ended up being mostly computer and video games. Now we’ve added more time and we watch more movies around the weekends.
Q: So listening to Noah talk, Mark, it sounds like there has been kind of an evolution in how you have set limits. What was behind that shift for you and your wife?
Mark: The main concern for us was how sedentary their lives could be and what they would become interested in or have time for. And we wanted them to give more energy to pour into other aspects of their lives, other kinds of recreation, even other time with friends. We knew that if their first agenda after school was to head for the TV, that would cut into their creativity. We also noticed that their emotional moods were often unhelpful after screen times. Once we made that change, they both became engaged readers.
Q: Noah, in some of our previous conversations we’ve talked about a point at which your parents did get a little bit more involved in your online conversations. Can you talk about that?
Noah: Yeah, as I started getting more into email, IM, MySpace, and Facebook, I was asked to give my parents passwords so they could have access. That wasn’t actually a real problem for me because they didn’t talk about it at dinner like, “Oh you were talking about this online…” so for the most part I just really didn’t notice. And I always could talk on the phone or at school when I needed more privacy.
There were times when my language would get out of control and I’d start swearing and so my Dad would just note that and say, “Is this who you really want to be?” And I would say, “No.” And so, as I’ve gone through high school I’ve really worked on that.
Q: Mark, when Noah started swearing, how did you try to approach that conversation with Noah? What were your goals?
Mark: We had already verbalized, “We know you have private conversations. You can do that at school or on your cell phone.” Those conversations were not monitored. So we were only monitoring part of his communication by using access to his pages and our protective internet software.
In that conversation with Noah after reading a lot of IMs, I noticed a number of times that his language raised questions for me. I just wanted him to be able to say, “That’s who I want to be. That’s the language I want to use.” Or to be able to say, “No, that’s not who I want to be.” I was interested in the dialogue more than in saying, “If you keep doing this, you can’t have IM.” I don’t think I would have done that. His response was terrific. He said, “No, that’s not what I want to be.” We already had a good relationship for being able to discuss topics.
Q: Noah, I know that you have friends and a brother who are more into video games than you. What are some of the positive effects about gaming on other kids or your brother that you’ve seen?
Noah: I think the biggest thing is it that it just brings people together. It’s something to talk about. It’s something to do while you hang out. Since we got an X-Box recently and my brother and I have been playing that, we actually do more together. It can lead to arguments, but usually it’s a really good experience. In excess, though, they can be a problem. Like yesterday I found myself sitting there for two hours without anybody else, just playing.
Q: Mark, from your perspective as a parent and as one who studies culture, what are some of the positives about gaming? And what do you look for in a game?
Mark: We were always most positive about software games that pushed creativity, problem solving, and narratives, or that allowed for some interaction other than clicking your fingers and yelling at each other.
Early on we were aware that we wanted the games that pushed narratives because we learned the more arcade-ish or battle-oriented they were, that after the game both of our sons were less capable of good relational dynamics. So they were more apt to get in fights with us or with each other after gaming.
One of the most frustrating issues for us is that so much of game creation goes into violence, especially human violence. It’s been good to hear from both my sons that at times they get bored with that. We have sometimes set limits on violent games, although we are aware that when they are at friends’ homes, there are limits we can’t set. We may ask them about it, but we don’t set limits on what they can do if they are at a party. Part of it is knowing what makes for awkward socialization, especially for boys. To be at a party among friends and say, “Sorry, my mom and dad won’t let me play this,” just doesn’t work. We would much rather either of them of their own accord say, “I don’t like that game. I’m going to do something else for a bit.” For them to figure out, as we all have to do, how they want to embody their values as they go out into the world.
Q: Noah, what do you wish parents, not necessarily your own, but parents in general, knew about gaming?
Noah: Part of it is just that kids are not going to go crazy because they are playing these bloody games. And a lot of kids are moving away from those and playing more Guitar Hero or sports games. I think another thing that could really bring understanding between kids and parents is just playing—both the parents and the kids playing together even if the parents don’t totally understand what’s going on.
Q: Or like it.
Noah: Or like it.
Step 4: HOW—Action steps to move forward
1. Setting and keeping game boundaries
All this talk about talking is helpful, but what if you’re a parent struggling to figure out boundaries and practical issues like “Is it okay to game until 2 AM on the weekend”? Here are a few concrete suggestions for setting house rules about gaming. But one huge caveat: Be sure to talk with your kids about any drastic changes in the way you approach gaming in your home before attempting to actually make those changes. Get their ideas and suggestions for livable alternatives that both respect their desire to game and your desire for more balance and health.
- No gaming consoles in their bedrooms so your chances of observing their true gaming habits are improved. Set up gaming in a central family location instead.
- Limit daily and/or weekly gaming time.
- Let gaming time be a reward for completing homework, chores, or for good attitudes around the house—and give permission cheerfully!
- Do your homework on games (check game ratings and online reviews from more than one source).
- When possible, encourage multiple-player games since they foster more social interaction. [[A 2008 report indicates that teen gaming typically involves social interaction and is even connected with civic engagement. In fact, most teens say gaming is an important part of their overall social experience, and a majority game with others or around others. Those who play games with others in the room seem to be more engaged in civic awareness and participation (volunteering, giving to charity, political action) than others who game primarily alone. Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” released September 16, 2008. See www.pewinternet.org.]]
- Play with them—not just when they are little, but as teenagers, too. Usually adolescence brings with it more violent and racy games. Yet unfortunately, parents seem to be relatively out of the picture when it comes to teen gaming. Sixty-nine percent of parents report rarely or never playing video games with their children. [[Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” released September 16, 2008, 37-38. See www.pewinternet.org.]]
- Give them other outlets for fun and creativity. Game together, but also go out to eat or for coffee, and give them ways they can do creative and active things on their own that don’t involve staring at a screen.
2. Talk, talk, talk
By now you have probably placed yourself somewhere along the continuum of reactive versus avoidant adults when it comes to helping kids think harder about video games and faith. The questions below can help you move toward a more balanced approach in your conversations. Talk about them with teenagers, with your ministry team, with a friend or spouse, or with other adults who also care about kids and their gaming practices.
- What am I doing well in the way I am interacting with kids about gaming?
- What might I need to begin to do differently?
- Do I agree that I should “never explain something to a kid if I can ask a question instead”? Why or why not?
- Which of the questions given earlier would be best for my next conversation with a teenager?
- If you’re a parent: How do you feel about Mark Lau Branson’s idea that he was more interested in a dialogue with his son about the language he was using on technology than prohibiting his son from using that technology?
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