Engaging the digital generation: video games and kids

Creative Commons License photo credit: crimfants

Pac-Man (or if I was lucky and could find it, Ms. Pac-Man). Galaga. Caterpillar. Frogger. Donkey Kong.

These were the video games of my youth. Deprived as I was, we never had a game console (it would have been an Atari, and yes, I am aging myself). So, I was left to indulge my interest in video games at the laundromaut in Clarksville (where Galaxy Cafe now stands), the Safeway (now a Randalls) on Lake Austin Boulevard, the Texas Union (now rebranded as the Underground) and at my godfather’s pizza restaurant, Milto’s (who did something to the machine so that I didn’t have to squander my precious quarters).

These were the days before cell phones, e-mail and even personal computers.

At the risk of sounding cliche, technology is so entrenched in my son’s daily life that it’s easy to forget what life was like before the digital generation. As technology has advanced, video games have become more ubiquitous (just walk into an elementary school and count the number of Angry Birds t-shirts if you need a reminder). Video and computer game companies posted $15.9 billion in revenue (yes, that was *billion*) in 2010, according to the Entertainment Software Association. To put that into perspective, just $15 billion would pay 300,000 – 500,000 teachers for a year, cover the average national monthly mortgage payment for almost 9 million people and provide almost six months of medication for every HIV patient worldwide.

What is it about video games that make them so enthralling for kids, and how can we as parents engage our kids off-screen in ways that simulate the video game environment?

I took part in a webinar recently sponsored by Kidventure, which has been putting on summer and overnight camps in Texas since 1994 (disclosure: Kidventure has advertised on LiveMom, but the webinar was free and open to the public and LiveMom was not compensated in any way for posting this article). Patrick Biron, Kidventure’s Camps Coordinator, walked us through how game developers keep kids (and adults) coming back for more, what games give kids that they don’t get elsewhere and how we as parents can lure children away from the screens to provide them with meaningful, rewarding experiences.

Video game design
First off, Patrick made a distinction between educational games meant to teach life skills (think Leapfrog for reading) and “occupational” games, which are designed to produce a long-term pattern of desired activity from players — which, in the case of a lot of games currently on the market, is to keep playing them…a lot. Some of these games are commonly referred to as MMOs (massively multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft). The webinar focused on these occupational games and their impact on kids and parenting.

As opposed to games we played as kids, which had an end (yes, in some cases, you may have never gotten to it, but you might have known someone who did), today’s games can continue for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. Instead of buying new games, many companies now sell subscriptions to keep players paying for the opportunity to game online. Although games have become increasingly complex, there are still a limited number of “moves” in a game and so developers have to find a way keep players happy. Developers have, in essence, replicated what B.F. Skinner learned in his work with animals: a subject will repeat an action over and over again in order to receive a reward (inside the Skinner box, a pigeon would peck at a word to receive food pellets just as your avatar might receive gold coins for jumping up on a step and avoiding dangerous creatures that could injure or kill you in a game). Just like in Skinner’s work, rewards during games are random, but with enough frequency that gamers will keep going (the same psychology behind slot machines).

Patrick also talked about shaping, another technique used to encourage players to keep performing similar tasks within a game. At first, rewards come quickly, for small advances in the game. The satisfaction players receive from these initial rewards keeps them going, despite the fact that rewards become more sporadic as the game progresses.

Although children are playing video games at younger and younger ages, the allure of gaming really becomes attractive around the middle school years. Developmentally, kids are feeling disconnected from their families and the other adults in their lives. Friendships are changing and adolescents tend to lose a sense of belonging and control. Video games can often fill this void, giving our kids rewards they aren’t getting in “real” life.

Patrick suggested that video games give kids:

  • autonomy
  • complexity/purpose
  • connection between effort and reward

AdvertisementUnlike in real life, in a computer game, kids often have the autonomy to choose exactly what they look like, who their friends are, and often, what their rewards will be. Although the games are very complex, kids understand the steps necessary to advance and why each step leads to the next. There is a clear connection between effort and reward — you can see the results of all your hard work by advancing to the next level of a game and being recognized in a “public” way (Patrick gave the example of a player having a golden ray of light shine down upon advancing to the next level. This light is not only something he or she experiences, but the other players can see and appreciate the player’s accomplishment). Unfortunately, there is not always a clear connection between effort and reward in real life (despite how hard I tried, I eventually realized in high school that although I made the volleyball team, I would rarely, if ever, play in a game). As we adults know full well, life can be unfair.

Back to reality
So now that we know why video games captivate our children, what can we do about it? First, Patrick explained, we need to create a system of rewards and achievement that our kids can find satisfying. If we can grant them autonomy, complexity/purpose and a connection between effort and reward, we can set our children up for success.

Patrick offered the example of when we as parents tell our kids to clean their rooms. But, have you ever really told your kids how to clean their rooms? Oops, I found myself thinking. Have you broken the task down into simple steps that they can understand? Do your kids know what you expect to happen when you ask them to do what you assume is a simple task?

“First, please pick the books up off the floor and put them onto your bookshelf. Then, put your sheet back onto the bed. Next, put your comforter on top of your sheet. After that, please pick up your clothes off the floor and put them in the hamper. When you are finished, bring your trash can into the kitchen and empty your trash.”

Giving all of these instructions up front is too much information at one time, however. Think about small steps. Doesn’t it help you to break a large tasks into manageable chunks? Have your child check back in between each step. Patrick also stressed that we should refrain from micromanaging the process and accept that your vision of a clean room might not exactly match your child’s.

To continue with this example, it’s also important for children to understand why it’s important to  do chores — what’s the purpose? As Patrick pointed out, kids often see chores as something only parents do. As excruciating as it might be, he advised that it’s important to talk about why we fold our laundry rather than uttering the words we told ourselves pre-kids we would never say: “Because I said so.”

So, what about rewards? If you remember video game design, players receive small rewards at the outset for their accomplishments (like a virtual jellybean). You don’t always get a reward in a game, but these small rewards keep you going, and they are random enough that they are not always expected. Think about potty training. You likely had some kind of chart on your fridge. You tracked your child’s progress towards a larger goal (being potty trained) with smaller steps (pooping in the potty each day or staying dry). You know your child best. What small tokens can you provide for positive reinforcement to keep the mundane tasks that are repeated over and over more palatable?

For adolescents, perhaps the biggest struggle is for autonomy. It is no coincidence that this is the biggest source of friction with parents. Just like when kids are younger, is there a way to provide a choice, or an alternative that gives your child control (“You can choose to clean your room now or after dinner.”)? At this developmental stage, children feel risks and rewards more acutely, so is there some middle ground you can forge with your child? In a video game, there are always limits to what you can do, but developers set up games in such a way that there is an illusion of autonomy.

Patrick asserted that as parents, we build a virtual “sandbox” for our children and allow them to use problem solving skills to navigate within that space. As our kids grow up, they earn the “right to play”: once they have demonstrated they can handle “easy” tasks, you give them a bigger sandbox and bigger rewards. For example, if your child wants a dog as a pet, perhaps first he or she must show him/herself capable of taking care of a fish. These risks and rewards, although simple, make sense for kids. If kids start abusing when they have earned (for example, if a kid comes home after curfew), this “right” they have earned might be taken away for some period of time and then earned back.

Summer camp: It ain’t what it used to be
I found the information in the webinar to be fascinating. I have really shied away from encouraging my kindergartener to play video games, partly because I know he will have plenty of time to play later on and partly because I read too much about the negative impacts of our increasingly digital world on kids. What really struck me was the fact that a summer camp would delve so deeply into the psychology of kids. As someone who was a frequent campgoer and even a camp counselor, I was impressed that this kind of information was guiding curriculum development and staff training. I found myself really wanting to go to summer camp again and found myself excited about the prospect of camp for my son.

Future webinars
The next webinar about video games is open to the public and will take place on April 4th at 7:30pm and will last an hour. Another will be scheduled for the fall. Registration will be available online soon here. If you want to email Patrick directly to get on the list, you can just send him an email.

Do you have a hard time extracting your child from video games? What are your plans for summer camp for your kids this year? Do you find video games to have a positive or negative influence on your family life?

Written by: Nicole Basham


About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

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