For me, being a parent often feels like you have to keep saying no. No, we cannot take Kinder eggs for breakfast. No, we cannot buy a horse. No, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only met her once, you still can’t wear a bathing suit to Aunt Ethel’s funeral. Although the latter was my husband.
Now that my eldest son is six and has discovered video games, there’s a new no to add to the list: no, we can’t sit around playing Crash Bandicoot in our pants all day. Even though that’s how I spent the whole of the 90s, and that’s what I would be doing now if I hadn’t had two young children.
I manage to play a little, largely because it’s part of my job. I write about games for a living and also appear as a gaming expert on Dara O Briain’s Go 8 Bit TV show. So I can tell you all kinds of fun facts about when Space Invaders was invented and why Mario has a mustache.
I’m less confident when it comes to parenting – I may be able to run the first level of Sonic the Hedgehog in under 45 seconds, but I haven’t quite gotten a little kid put on your shoes in less than 25 minutes. Nevertheless, other parents often ask me how to manage their children’s games. This is the question I hear the most at the school gates, apart from: “Did you not know it was World Book Day? and “Is that wine on your pants?” So, for what it’s worth, here are my top tips.
‘What games should my child play?’
Like movies, all video games carry age ratings, and it is worth paying attention to these. If you’re not letting your child watch an 18-rated movie, they shouldn’t be playing an 18-rated game. Fortunately, it’s a myth that all games are about pulling stuff. There are 18,000 titles on Amazon with an age range of 3+. Some of them are even good.
What would I recommend? Well, you might want to look for games that encourage kids to create, such as Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet, Lego Worlds, or Super Mario Maker. They can use their imaginations and you feel a little less guilty for not playing the violin and learning fractions. If you have a tablet, Toca Boca makes beautiful, interesting games for young children that won’t have you crying from boredom in 30 seconds.
PRO TIP: If you’re a former gamer, consider introducing your child to some of your old favorites – that way you can have a nostalgic conversation and beat them as well. These days, there are swish remakes of classics like Ratchet & Clank and Crash Bandicoot, plus new installments in fondly remembered series like Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart. Don’t bother with the original games; they are all horribly tough and look like they are made from Ceefax.
Otherwise, try to find kid-friendly versions of games you enjoy playing anyway. If you like Grand Theft Auto, try Lego City Undercover; if you’re a Doom fan, introduce your kids to Splatoon. That way, they might be able to turn pro at age 13, guaranteeing you a nice retirement fund.
‘How long should my child play?’
Ideally, my kids would spend their days building driftwood rafts and catching trout while giggling in the sun. Unfortunately, we live in the real world. Catford, to be precise. Plus, they hate that kind of stuff.
I make sure they spend time outdoors and enjoy other good things like reading books, attending music lessons, and building elaborate weapons out of old cornflake boxes. But I also allow them to play video games, because kids need downtime. It’s a balancing act – I don’t let them play games all day, just like I don’t let them eat Kinder eggs with every meal. Unless it’s Easter. Or we’re out of fish sticks.
PRO TIP: There are no official UK screen time guidelines. the The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 18 months, followed by a maximum of one hour a day until age five. There’s no suggested number of hours for children aged six and over, but, you know, doing anything for more than a few hours a day probably isn’t a good idea – 90 minutes are often considered a reasonable upper limit.
There is, however, a lot of convoluted research on this subject, which tends to be reported inaccurately – often when the tabloid press runs out of stories about Kim Kardashian. Earlier this year, a group of scientists wrote an open letter asking that screen time advice be based on real evidence, and that playing games is not inherently harmful. And who am I to argue with scientists?
‘What’s the best way to keep children away from a screen?’
It can be easier to get kids off their consoles if you agree on a time limit at the start of the session. Give them a five-minute warning before the timer runs out, so they have a chance to save their progress. Be firm, but reasonable; if they really need an extra minute to finish the match or beat the boss, be magnanimous. Hell has no fury like a child whose mother pulls the plug just as they are about to finally defeat the Blargio Snagglebeast. The nuclear option is to tell them that every minute they spend playing after the timeout will cost them five minutes of their next session. This may require a spreadsheet and a calculator.
PRO TIP: For young children, use a kitchen timer to set the agreed limit and place it where they can see it (don’t reach it – they may be unable to tell the time, but they’re not stupid .)
‘What do you do if their friend is playing Grand Theft Auto V?’
Dealing with your child’s exposure to play in other people’s homes can be trickier than escaping the cops after robbing a Rockford Hills jewelry store and running over a pimp. It’s a social minefield: how to tell another parent that you don’t think your child should play games that their child is allowed to play, without making them feel like you’re judging them, which you are ?
It’s better to be honest, but not too honest. Focus on your child – explain that you are concerned about their maturity, ease of influence, developmental state ready to see a Nazi zombie beaten to death with a rusty pipe, etc. Chances are the other parent will be understanding and wait until you’re out of earshot to laugh at your lily-liver Guardian reader sensitivity.
PRO TIP: There is a lack of conclusive evidence on the link between video games and violent behavior, and much debate. A small amount of exposure is unlikely to turn your child into a murderous maniac. The important thing is to maintain an open and honest exchange of dialogue. Or if you have teenagers, do your best to interpret eye rolls.
As with most aspects of parenting, managing your children’s play is all about making informed, thoughtful decisions and inventing them as you go. Arm yourself with facts – know the Pegi grading system, and learn how to use your console’s parental controls (the Xbox One, PS4 and nintendo switch all have them, just like tablets and phones – the Internet Matters site has a handy guide). You know your child better than anyone, so trust your instincts to know what’s right for them.
Most importantly, remember that video games are awesome and can be great for kids. They can teach us to create, to play and to lose. They are exciting, inspiring, scary, beautiful and hilarious, sometimes all at once. Above all, they are fun. And kids and adults could use some of it these days.
- Ellie Gibson appears on Go 8 Bit by Dara O Briain, Mondays at 10 p.m. on Dave. Her book Scummy Mummies, co-authored with Helen Thorn, is out now.