So, you’re raising a gamer!

Gamer

What All Parents Need To Know About Video Gaming

In the twenty odd years that passed since you were a teen, the world changed.  Gaming now means video games and online activities, not Monopoly on a Saturday night!  So, if you aren’t the type to settle in for an evening of Mortal Kombat, you probably aren’t familiar with the intricacies of gaming and, more importantly, the risks.  Surprisingly, it’s hard to get the right information on the dangers (and benefits) of gaming, so we thought we’d share!

First, gaming is not all bad!

Online gaming and video games in general get a bad rap, but there are also a number of benefits that can help your child’s development. With problem solving, logical and considered thought, analysis and creativity, gaming can provide improved cognitive development.  Similarly the speedy use of controls can benefit hand and eye coordination.

Online multi-player gaming environments can also be a great way for your child to engage with others without feeling the social pressures, which can be a great way for shy kids to find friends with similar interests.

It’s also a great source of entertainment for very little investment and gaming is done, for the most part, at home.  If you’ve got a teen, the alternative activity on a Saturday night may be experimenting with alcohol or other undesirable activities!

So, are these games really addictive?

With its growing popularity, video gaming has also generated some concerns around its potential for addiction. Indeed, this has become such an issue that it is now listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Given its generally isolated use and its opportunity to create a ‘different self or identity’, gaming needs to be carefully monitored to avoid unstable or excessive use.  Thankfully, although it does still hold cause for concern, the addictive behaviours of gaming are generally less detrimental than those of more extreme addictions of drugs, alcohol or self harm.

Online stranger danger, every parent’s new greatest fear

At some point, “Stranger Danger” was turned up to eleven. It is imperative parents keep a close eye on their child’s interactions online to avoid any opportunities where a child may be approached by an older stranger. Keep rules simple and across all online activity:

-          Parents must approve all new friends

-          All passwords to be provided to a parent

-          If a stranger strikes up a conversation, the child must alert the parent for monitoring

-          No adults are to become the child’s ‘friends’ (even if they are known)

-          All chats are to be agreed upon with a parent and the parent will regular monitor

Online gaming content

All gaming should be thoroughly investigated by a parent to ensure it is age specific and does not contain any inappropriate content. Visiting fan pages and online reviews is a quick and simple way to assist in your assessment.

Although there are elements of online gaming that need to be considered carefully, it can offer a number of benefits – particularly for children who may be shy or struggling to create friendships in the playground. Allowing them to have the time to consider their responses and feel less intimidated by the social pressures of face to face interaction can be positive. Similarly the opportunity to join in multi-player quests and activities can also prove to be a great method for improving self-esteem and building social skills.

As with new activity, it is important for parents to establish clear guidelines around the expectations and accepted behaviours associated with gaming. Parents should communicate the risks and dangers of gaming, whilst identifying set rules around its use. Encouraging children to have a positive and open relationship about their participation in online gaming and use of online content generally will result in far better outcomes and will reduce their susceptibility to being preyed upon. Keeping the communication honest also allows you to identify if gaming starts to become a problem or if boundaries are being crossed.

Some dangers hide within…..

There is a whole other world of “gaming lingo” that signals some of the dangers that a young and inexperienced gamer may face. “Easter Eggs”, “Cheat Codes” and “User Generated Expansions” are some of the most common yet there is little information available for parents.

Easter eggs

“Easter eggs” are extra things that a gamer may find while playing – often hidden beyond obvious sight and easily missed by an inexperienced first time player (such as a parent who may be testing it out for suitability).

Whilst these can be innocent and simply release an extra character feature, a change to a background or additional access to other parts of the game, they can also be more sinister. In higher rated games (M, R and AO), “Easter Eggs” can become far more explicit. An example of this was the popular (but AO rated) Grand Theft Auto where an Easter Egg allows the gamer to watch graphic sex scenes.

Cheats

As their name suggests, cheats are methods for a player to gain advantages within a game that will allow them to progress further (often without completing basic stages of the game). This could include providing a line of code that then gives them access to levels not yet reached, or a far greater amount of points/money than the player has actually achieved. Though many cheats are relatively harmless, as with any game for your child, it is important to check the level of content and its suitability for your child.

A particularly relevant example of this is the EA Games best seller, “The Sims”. While the game does have an M rating, this can be somewhat forgotten through its advertising as a game centred around building families, houses and creating a life with pets, clothes, school classes and a career. This can seem simple enough and is particularly popular with younger children who thrive on the notion of ‘playing adult’. However there are in fact ‘implied’ sex scenes with this game, and with the addition of a game cheat “Censor Grid”, a player can view “mock” nudity and with other cheats even kill characters in strange and quite sadistic techniques.

User generated expansions

User generated expansions are a far more difficult element of gaming to manage and review as these are developed by gamers themselves. Created as an additional aspect of the game that can be downloaded via fan websites, these are generally not supported by the game developers however they remain difficult to regulate.  They’re almost exclusively found on PC based games.  If you are allowing your child to visit fan sties, forums or other game related websites, be aware of expansions. Past expansions for games such as the online “The Sims” game included sexually explicit scenes, anatomically correct characters and an ability to perform violent acts. To discourage the likelihood of your child accessing this content, set an automatic block on downloads that are deemed inappropriate via a parental lock software package.

Physical safety when gaming

It comes as no shock that gaming can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle – one that is contributing to the growing obesity epidemic in Australia. Keeping an eye on how much time your child spends sitting in front of the computer/game console is very important and should be coupled with bursts of exercise or activity outside and away from the gaming area. This will also prevent muscle cramping and/or pain which can result from sitting in one position for long periods. Investing in ergonomically correct furniture or special player chairs can be worthwhile, and ensuring your child’s computer/console is at a correct eye level height is also important.

Though there are benefits in using some of the more active consoles that encourage sports participation and dancing, such as Wii, these again need to be monitored carefully to avoid incident. While it is “just a game”, many of the latest editions of sporting focused games require significant physical activity and, as with any sport, it is important your child has done some basic warm ups before commencing. Similarly they should be encouraged to have fun without taking it too seriously or causing themselves harm by overzealous participation.  Clear the area where they’ll play to avoid spills and stubbed toes and get them to rotate their wrists and rest their hands regularly.

Keeping an eye on your child’s involvement with physically based games is just as important as ensuring their physicality does not deteriorate as a result from too many hours sitting still. Watch for signs of RSI, bad posture, constant twitching or squinting – all can require further assistance from a doctor or optometrist and should be carefully monitored.

The gaming phenomenon is a continually growing part of our technologically intrigued society. There is very little chance it will decrease so rather than hiding your child away from it and its positive uses, rather encourage their knowledge, understanding and respect for the cyber world.

*(Guest Blog by Ngaire Stirling. Ngaire Stirling owns Brisbane Kids – Brisbane’s largest parenting community and is a well respected authority on tackling the big parenting issues, head on! Ngaire’s website is visited by over 100000 people per month and around 1 in 10 Brisbane families regularly rely on it for advice and up-to-date information on things to do in Brisbane with kids)