Video games are often a cause of worry for parents and carers. How much gaming time is too much gaming time? What are these violent games doing to fragile young minds? Who are our children talking to online? If you have ever had any of these questions, Andy Robertson will put your mind at rest, or at least will try…
The usual response to these questions is to ensure we keep video game time limited. Games are a helpful way to entertain children between the more important parts of family life, school or church life, but we need to be careful they don’t take over.
Such advice was ringing in my ears when I started writing my book, Taming Gaming. I wanted to get to the bottom of what advice parents, carers and youth workers really needed about video games.
What I discovered was a lot of confusion, misreporting and scary headlines. There wasn’t a lot of actual guidance about what we should do to keep these things healthy. Worse than that, there were a lot of stories that confused correlation and causation.
Anxious young people might play more video games but this is as likely a symptom as a cause. Teenagers prone to angry outbursts may be drawn to older rated games, but there is little evidence to show that the games make their behaviour worse.
Reading this may seem to go against our common sense when a child made to stop playing gets angry, or we watch children playing games where they shoot each other. I didn’t want to sidestep these issues in the book, but I did want to be careful about what was actually happening here.
What I found was that understanding what it’s like to play a video game was the most powerful thing any adult who is responsible for children can do. I know this sounds ridiculous. You don’t like shooting things and would struggle with the controls. But if you can find a game you actually want to play yourself you are suddenly an insider on this world rather than a confused outside observer.
Taming Gaming takes time to layout the worries: violence, addiction, gambling and online dangers. But then there are chapters designed to open your eyes to what is so attractive and beneficial about video games, before offering suggestions of games many Christian parents and carers I work with have enjoyed playing.
You can read the first chapter of the book on the Taming Gaming website. Along with this, I have created a Family Video Game Database of game suggestions for Christian parents and carers to find games they want to play and want to play together as a family. You can choose your first video game, a game that calms you, ones that offer hope or even video games that explore being a good Samaritan.
This approach to video games – of engaging rather than limiting – creates a very different conversation in the home. It anchors games as part of family life so they can powerfully contribute to the attachment between children and parents. In many of the families I’ve worked with, children regularly ask parents for help finding a new game. The video game database is there to find something really healthy to play.
This helps parents be attuned to their children. This is crucial for our love to have the impact we long for in our children’s lives. When we are attuned to who they are and what drives them, we are in a powerful position to guide and care for them.
Along with these worthy outcomes, it’s also a lot of fun. There are loads of games that we can play together as a family – games that nurture imagination, get us talking and working together, games that get us shrieking with surprise, games that end up with us in heaps of laughter.
This approach to video games starts to treat them like media. Video games tell stories by creating spaces for us to enter. Often these are tales of adventure and daring, but there are just as many games about being generous, hopeful, charitable, kind and loving.
The second half of Taming Gaming is laid out like a Jamie Oliver recipe book. I took about six months to pick the best 60 or so games I’ve found to work well with families. These are then presented on full-colour spreads that tell you what they are like, what (tech) ingredients you need and some serving suggestions for how other families have enjoyed them.
This starts with simple games to get you started but grows with you to provide suggestions for more ambitious experiences. Many of these games I’ve used in church settings. As I outline in the book, some of the spaces that games create offer a new way to encounter God.
In Exeter Cathedral and other churches, I’ve worked with pastors and clergy to put together services where the game was a central element. We pick games like Abzu, Flower or Journey, that are accessible to people even if they don’t play games. Then we make sure we integrate our readings and worship with the theme of the game.
The result is that we bring our worship of Jesus right inside the game. It sounds like a novel idea, I know. But more than a novelty, each time I’ve done this I have been struck by how people have met God in a new way. The game offers a context that welcomes our expectations of drawing close to God.
When I talk about these services, most people think they are designed to engage youth groups and children. However, these services have had an average age of around 50 years old! These people started with suspicion or concern that the games would be too much of a distraction but largely came away with a fresh understanding of both video games and worship.
This has a secondary benefit of working as a powerful intergenerational context. With the help of suggestions from the database, younger members of a church can guide and help those who are older to discover something new in the media of video games. In turn, the older members of the congregation help youngsters interpret and find space in the community for their games to be appreciated.
Taming Gaming and the Family Video Game Database are designed as tools for you to use, rather than to dictate how you involve and play games in your context. I don’t suggest whether parents should rush to have games in the home. It’s not up to me to say how and when your children play. And, of course, not every church needs video games in their services.
Instead, my hope is that with the knowledge from the book and the database, you can a fresh perspective on video games that is empowering. It’s simple information that can transform the conversation you have with children about the games they play. It’s a set of suggestions for how games can contribute to many areas of life.
Most of all, it’s a call to listen carefully to children who love playing video games so we can guide them with care and attention.