Guys and Gaming

Just Guys Part II

Brad M. Griffin | Sep 30, 2009

Photo by Taylor McBride.

Gaming: A Guy Obsession?

Guys like to play video games.

Or at least, it seems that virtually all of them play video games. Recent research suggests that 99% of American teenage boys game, with younger teens (12-14) playing most frequently. [This is nearly matched by 94% of girls who also game, though male and female gaming tends to look different. See an article we wrote last year called “See Jane Navigate Technology” with a subsection on girl-gaming. The 99% and 94% statistics come from Amanda Lenhart, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Alexandra Rankin Macgill, Chris Evans, Jessica Vitak, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, Pew Internet & American Life Project, September 6, 2008, found at]

And they play them for hours on end—an average of 13 hours per week by one estimate.[Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (San Francisco: Harper, 2008), 154.] Boys play more often and for longer periods of time than girls, and boys are twice as likely as girls to report playing two or more hours a day (34% of them do so). [Pew Internet Report, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics”, 21. See]

By another estimate, the average teenage boy is consuming electronic media 600% more than he is engaging in physical activity and 1,200% more than he is doing chores or other work. [Michael Gurian, The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 122.]

So they may not all be obsessed, but the evidence does suggest that a lot of guys are playing a lot of video games a lot of the time.

Youth workers and parents alike often scratch their heads in bewilderment when it comes to addressing gaming in the lives of boys we know. While we may not be able to provide a definitive concrete solution, perhaps we can contribute some insights into the conversations you have about guys and gaming in your own context.

For Good or Evil

Beyond concerns about time, perhaps we should be more (or at least equally) concerned about content. Many video games geared toward guys reward them for violence and for objectifying women. The National Institute on Media and the Family has identified several negative effects of video games on kids including: [National Institute on Media and Health, “Effects of Video Game Playing on Children,”]

  • Women in video games are often portrayed as weaker characters, helpless and/or sexually provocative.
  • Games are often centered around plots of violence, aggression, and gender bias.
  • Many games do not offer action that requires independent thought or creativity.
  • Games can confuse reality and fantasy.
  • Over-dependence on video games, especially those played alone, can foster social isolation.

Of course, games aren’t all bad. Besides the fact that games are fun, the report highlights these positive effects on kids: [National Institute on Media and Health, “Effects of Video Game Playing on Children,”]

  • Some games provide opportunities to practice skills like following directions, problem solving and using logic.
  • Games can help develop fine motor and specialized skills.
  • Games give opportunities for social interaction among peers and between kids and parents (when played together).

In addition to the lists above, there has been a long social debate surrounding gaming’s actual influence on behavior, particularly when it comes to aggression. While the teenagers in your ministry or home may disagree, violent gaming has been shown to lead to negative outcomes, at least in the short term. There’s some research evidence that playing video games may be linked to aggressive behavior.[Craig A. Anderson and Karen E. Dill, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 78, number 4, 2000, 772-790; and Douglas A. Gentile, Paul J. Lynch, Jennifer R. Linder, and David A. Walsh, “The Effects of Violent Game Habits on Adolescent Hostility, Aggressive Behaviors, and School Performance,” Journal of Adolescence, 27, 2004, 5-22.] In one specific study, young men (ages 18-21) randomly assigned to play Grand Theft Auto III exhibited greater increases in diastolic blood pressure, greater negative affect, more permissive attitudes toward using alcohol and marijuana, and more uncooperative behavior than those who played a non-violent game. [Sonya S. Brady and K.A. Matthews, “Effects of media violence on health-related outcomes among young men,” Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, vol 160 (2006), 341-347. Abstract available online at]

Games can also disorient our sense of time and space, leading kids to inadvertently spend hours engaged in a game they only intended to play for a few minutes. According to one study, both novice and expert online game players are subject to time distortion and have difficulty breaking off from the game without interruption by others in the real world. [P.L.P. Rau, S.Y. Peng, & C.C. Yang, “Time distortion for expert and novice online game players,” Cyber Psychology & Behavior, vol 9 (2006), 396-403. Abstract available online at] And as every parent knows, gamers have difficulty breaking off from the game even when interrupted by others.

How We Can Respond

All guys may not need to quit video games altogether; but some guys might need to quit playing so much. In fact, parents and youth workers who help guys get involved in activities that require them to invest time outside of video games might discover that guys start to put their own limits on gaming. Either way, parents can work with kids to set time limits and other restrictions to help video games stay in their most appropriate place: fun entertainment, perhaps even social outlet, but not all-consuming occupation. Here are some starting points:

  • Get parents and guys talking about—and playing—video games together to help create understanding both ways. Sixty-nine percent of parents report rarely or never playing video games with their children. [Pew Internet Report, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” 37-38. See] What’s more, boys get an alarmingly low average of one half-hour of direct face time with their dads per week, but over 40 hours of screen time (Internet, TV, and gaming total).[[Michael Gurian, The Purpose of Boys, 19.]] Encourage parents to move beyond the ambivalence or criticism they may feel about gaming and invest time to become learners—of both their kids and their kids’ games. For more help with engaging teenagers in conversations about gaming, see this related article.
  • Gather parents around the topic of video games and boundaries (both time and content), and share ideas about the limits and guidelines different parents are using in their homes. Half of all 8-18 year-olds say their families have no rules for screen time.[Michael Gurian, The Purpose of Boys, 126.] Sometimes it may be because parents aren’t sure where to start or how other families are handling the issue. Perhaps you can foster a counterculture of families who respond thoughtfully—and at times firmly—to guys and gaming. Hopefully this conversation can expand to helping parents share strategies for setting boundaries around Internet, cell phone, and other technology use as well. Whenever we talk to groups of parents, these issues inevitably rise to the forefront of the conversation.
  • Carefully consider—or perhaps reconsider—the place of gaming in your youth ministry. Given that guys (and now most all girls, too) are spending so much of their time gaming already, do they really need to come to youth group and game some more? Interactive games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band may lead to some great group bonding, but they may also rob kids of opportunities to relate to one another in alternative and perhaps more genuine ways, without screens and props.
  • Get guys outside. While concerns about what kinds of video games boys are playing are incredibly valid and need to be addressed, a question sometimes going unasked is what boys aren’t doing while they are playing and the way it impacts their development. Getting guys outside regularly can help their physical, mental, and social development in ways gaming never can.
  • Capitalize on games that offer opportunities for physical engagement and team play without excessive violence, like Guitar Hero (the top game of choice for all teens in 2008) [Pew Internet Report, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” 4. See] Rock Band, or lots of options with the Wii. This year’s Beatles Rock Band release also promises some great multi-generational opportunities to play together and create conversations about popular music through different eras.

From Virtual to Real-Life Impact

The reality is that games often serve as a portal for guys to feel victorious, powerful, and successful at something. As one 14-year old guy told us, “Usually when I finish a game, I really feel a sense of accomplishment.”

As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, Just Guys: Understanding and Escaping Guyland, boys often need to be led to purpose before they can lead themselves or others in purposeful ways. They need communities of purpose around them to help them develop purposeful living. As strange as it may seem to a parent or other adult, sometimes the victory and success found in gaming becomes one of the most purposeful pursuits in a boy’s life. The fact that we know God has greater things in mind for him than pursuing the next level of his favorite game isn’t going to change the reality that he can work at it and achieve that level if he keeps at it.

Perhaps we need to start by acknowledging this accomplishment for the significant investment of time and energy it represents. It takes a great deal of focus and commitment to conquer a complex game, and that’s a legitimate feat to recognize. Chances are guys will be completely caught off guard by adults who begin conversations about gaming with admiration for the ways gaming can show how committed someone can be to something that’s significant to them. Once we’ve pointed out this commitment, kids might open the door to let us explore what other things in life they’re committed to in similar ways.

Whether the guys you know and love game a little, a lot, or way too much, approaching them with respect may help them come to a recognition that at least some of their time poured into gaming could be invested in pursuits that will last beyond the life of their game console.[See the section entitled “Leading Forward: Alternative Paths” in the Just Guys article for more concrete ideas of ways to engage guys in relationships and causes beyond themselves.]

Action Points

  1. Weigh in on the debate: Do you think video games tend to be more helpful or more destructive for teen guys? What factors contribute to “healthy” vs “unhealthy” gaming habits?
  2. How and when do you think video games should be part of youth ministry? What is your ministry’s approach, and when was the last time your team evaluated that approach?
  3. What ideas do you have for helping guys balance gaming and other pursuits, and particularly to keep guys focused on the things that will lead them to purposeful living?
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

More from this author

More From Us

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.