Cheat codes: A Quick guide to teens and video games


Art Bamford Image Art Bamford | Jul 24, 2014

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.

"Don’t you have anything better to do?"

If you’ve ever muttered that out loud or in your head toward a teenager slothing the day away on a gaming device, the next two posts in our VIA MEDIA series are for you. We will tackle a pair of questions that often arise in families when it comes to video games:

  1. How can parents get their kids to stop playing games so much and do something more “social?”
  2. Are violent video games as bad as they seem in the media?

Given how many different varieties of gaming exist, it’s helpful to narrow the scope of what we’re trying to understand. Researchers Mizuko Ito and Matteo Bittanti have helpfully categorized types of digital gaming into three distinct modes: killing time, hanging out, and recreational.[[Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., ... & Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Digital media.]]

Killing time

“Killing time” refers to those quick games of Angry Birds or Candy Crush that people play when they have a few minutes to spare between activities. Using a small personal game or puzzle to fill moments like this is certainly nothing new. App games have replaced distractions like crossword puzzles, Rubik’s cubes, the Chia pets of yesterday. We might prefer that young people used these moments to have a conversation or collect their thoughts, but we have to humbly admit that adults are as bad, or worse, than young people when it comes to “checking their phones” in these moments.

Hanging out

Ito and Bittanti’s next category is probably what many of us envision as the “typical” teen mode of gaming—hanging out. Playing games with friends and family, online or offline, as a way to relax and escape the stresses of everyday life. Here too we see that video games are not an entirely new phenomenon, but have quickly eclipsed a number of other similar activities in popularity.

In this type of gaming, parents and youth leaders start to get concerned. There is a perception that games, even when teens are in the room together, are not social because players do not have meaningful conversations or make eye contact. There is some truth to this perception, but researchers also point to the value of gaming as a relaxing social outlet for teenagers. It does require more cognitive function and interaction than if that time was spent watching TV.

Recreational gaming

The key difference between hangout gaming and the third category, recreational gaming, has to do with the reason the game is being played. If a person (teenager or adult) specifically wants to play the game—with or without others—it is recreational. The game is no longer just filling the void of “nothing better to do.”

That can be a helpful distinction: if a person or group of people is looking for something to do and chooses to play video games, it is hanging out. If they specifically want to make time for playing video games, it is recreational.

That does not make recreational gaming inherently bad, it just means this type of play indicates that it has become a more intentional hobby. And hobbies become an important part of a young person’s identity.

In research interviews, a number of teen recreational gamers spoke about gaming as an alternative to other available extracurricular options, namely sports. The good news is that gaming is now pervasive enough that it brings some measure of the same social benefits young people find from other hobbies: practicing to master certain skills, feelings of achievement outside of the classroom, and respect from peers. Gamers are no longer seen as “freaks and geeks.”

Setting boundaries

What becomes important for recreational gamers is setting boundaries. With more structured hobbies like sports or music, adults typically don’t worry as much about limiting the amount of time spent practicing and playing. In contrast, it is important for parents to set limits on how long gamers will play, and to create opportunities and spaces for groups to play together.

Some amount of playing alone is also not inherently bad within limits. But unlike activities with built-in limits (like game time or fatigue), gamers can play continuously for extended periods of time uninterrupted—and many do. Research has found that many young male gamers regularly play for exorbitant amounts of time. One study found that the average amount of time teens in the U.S. spent playing games was one hour and thirteen minutes per day, with thirteen percent of those who participated in the study reporting that they played for three or more hours per day.[[Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2013). Generation M2. Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010.]]

The type of gaming that happens with digital technology is continually evolving. What is becoming more apparent to those studying the phenomenon is that gaming can potentially be a healthy, positive recreational activity or hobby for young people who might not excel at the extracurricular activities their classmates prefer. Researchers have found that games can improve perceptual skills, visual attention, visuospatial cognition, and spatial skills, and can be “potentially powerful learn­ing tools because they support multi-sensory, active, and experiential and problem-based learning.[[McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). See also: De Lisi, R., & Wolford, J. L., (2002). Improving children’s mental rotation accuracy with computer game playing. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 163, 272- 282.; Feng, J., Spence, L. & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science, 18, 850-855.; Green, C.S. & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video games modify visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534- 537.; Green, C.S. & Bavelier, D. (2006).Eunumeration versus multiple object tracking: The case of action video game players. Cognition, 101, 217-245.]]

The most current research suggests that parents just need to be sure boundaries are set in place to prevent potential problems like social isolation, lack of exercise, a loss of sleep, and so on. Thankfully, some game developers are already taking this into account and have started creating games where players do more than sit on the couch with a controller in hand, but must physically move in order to play the game.

Assess your Teens’ Gaming Habits

You might be wondering how your teenager’s habits compare with the norm, or what steps might help in setting boundaries. Here are a few points and ideas:

1. The most recent data suggests that teens in the U.S. spend an average of 1 hour and 13 minutes playing video games, three to four days per week (13.2 hours total per week).

2. The amount of time spent gaming peaks between the ages of 8 and 13, then tapers off for most young people.

3. Researchers exploring the phenomenon of gaming addiction have primarily been concerned with gaming when it becomes disruptive to other responsibilities such as homework and chores. If a young person begins skipping these other duties, it could be a sign that their gaming is becoming unhealthy.

4. Taking breaks while playing can be extremely helpful. Researchers have pointed out that gamers can fall into a “flow” state comparable to gambling when they play for long periods of time. Some games have been designed to break this flow with things like timed levels and narrative sequences; others cater to it with endlessly continuous action. Extended gaming sessions of an hour or more should only be allowed if short breaks are taken frequently throughout.

5. Game selection is crucial. For reasons like the one stated above and the issue of violence (addressed in our next post), which games young people have access to is important. Parents should keep track of the games their kids are playing the way they would films, books, and music.

6. The system can help. Most video game consoles and devices have built-in features that allow parents to limit how long their children can play, restrict accessing the internet using the system, and in some cases can even block games above a certain content rating (e.g. “T for Teen” or “M for Mature”). Click here for instructions on how to use these settings with some of the most popular systems.

Make Gaming a Family Activity

Gaming isn’t likely to go away in most families, so why not look for ways to healthily engage it together? Here are some ideas:

1. Talk with your kids about which games they like and why. Don’t be afraid to tell them which games you prefer and why as well.

2. Have them teach you how to play so you can enjoy gaming together.

3. Try to find games that align with young people’s other interests: comic books, sports, music, science, etc. This makes gaming seem like a secondary hobby rather than a primary one.

4. Look for games that promote cooperation, healthy competition, creative problem solving, and constructive themes.

5. Ask kids what they are thinking and feeling while you play together. Similarly, ask them about which characters they prefer to be in different games and why?

6. If you’re interested in using games as a resource for talking and thinking about theology and spirituality with your kids, check out Kevin Schut’s 2013 book Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games.

What games do you enjoy playing most with your kids? Share your recommendations with other parents and gamers in the comments below.
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Art Bamford Image
Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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