Podcast 44: Is gaming bad for my child?

Welcome to today’s Question of Gamification, the podcast by An Coppens. And today we have a guest, Andy Robertson, who also goes by the Twitter handle @GeekDadGamer, and he’s a video game journalist and the author of the book Taming Gaming.

I’m delighted to have Andy with us today because we’re going to address the question of: is gaming safe for my child? And it’s a funny story how we actually met and how it came about, with me tweeting and re-tweeting some information that I sent out around #GetSetGo, a campaign by UKIE, who is the organization supporting the games and digital entertainments industry.  I was basically quoting that, “Is gaming safe for my child?” Is probably the most frequently asked question I receive at the end of seminars or webinars when I speak about gamification because my audience tends to be adults.

Andy, welcome to the podcast.

Andy Robertson :

Hello. Thanks for having me.

An Coppens :

Yes, delighted to have you. So, let’s delve straight in. Is gaming safe for children these days?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, it’s a hot topic, isn’t it? And particularly during this period where the amount of games that children are playing is on the increase, and the amount of screen use. And so, often that comes with a bit of baggage, and so usually I’ll start to try and unpick it. There are various places we could start.

Gaming classed as a disorder

An Coppens:

Yes, exactly. And I suppose the one place that triggered the conversation for a lot of parents in my view is when the World Health Organization classed gaming as a disorder, and definitely, that’s when I saw the increase of questions in this regard, “What should I be watching out for? Is my kid going to be addicted? Should I stop them?” So, do you see that the same way as the World Health Organization? What’s your take on that?

Andy Robertson :

I think it is a complex topic. And I’m not against having a gaming disorder clarified so we can talk about it. But I think the challenge is that some of how it’s reported was just like, “Now, finally, kids who game too much can get a diagnosis from a doctor and can be sent to clinics and can be fixed, and can be labelled”, rather than actually looking at an individual child and thinking, “Okay, what’s working for them and what isn’t?”

I think the downside was that the danger is that it granted permission to us as parents sometimes to just label an issue that a child might have had, rather than actually taking a step forwards into the games they play and asking them questions, and spending time with them playing to understand what it was and why they were playing.

But that said, if you look at the detail of that gaming disorder criteria that the World Health Organization has specified, I don’t really know anyone with a child who would fall into that. We’ll often say at the school gate, “My son’s addicted to Fortnite”, but we don’t really mean addiction as the World Health Organization means it, because they talk about if a child is playing games so much it’s detrimental to other parts of their life, so they wouldn’t be going to school, they wouldn’t be eating properly, they probably would be washing properly or taking part in family activities.

And not only that, but once they noticed that and had been told about that, they would then carry on doing it, they would be unable to stop in spite of those negative consequences, and then that would continue for around about 12 months, and then only then do you start falling into this clinical criteria.

So, it’s a really extreme end of the spectrum, which I think is actually quite helpful to help us reserve that language of addiction to clinically addicted children, which is in the minority, rather than a label we can apply widely.

Gaming as a passing fad

An Coppens:

I think it’s a great explanation, some children, and myself included as a child, I used to love playing a specific game, and I would play it until I fell asleep. And if I got away with it, I played it under the covers. So, I think that’s actually just, I suppose, a passing phase for most of us is, that we have a favourite game where we must play it, and play all the levels, and then we move on to whatever the next best game is. Is that how most kids operate in your view?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, they’re quite faddy in the games they like to play, and they’ll be playing the games that their friends are playing. But I think because if we thought about this as a child staying up under the covers playing a video game it’s like, “Oh, that’s not right, there’s a problem”. Whereas, if you thought about a child staying up doing that with a torch and a book under their bed, it’s kind of this sentimental, “We know that books are good in general”, we don’t even think about what they’re reading often, that’s a secondary question. But when it comes to games we don’t have that kind of underlying understanding of what the benefits of games are as a piece of media, and so we then quickly go to, “And what were they playing? Was it violent?” And those sorts of concerns.

So, I think we treat it differently and that … it is different, but also we need to engage in a similar way with games than we do, really, with books and films and other media.

What are the benefits of games?

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly. And it brings us to a good point because I do think children learn a lot from games and there are benefits that I tend to see from people that have gamed to people that have never gamed in the way that they approach work, in the way that they see work. So, is there benefits that you see, that you’ve come across in the research that you’ve been doing for the book?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. So, I think historically, particularly people who’ve wanted to justify video games as something positive have often pointed to the hard skills, the hand-eye coordination, the problem solving, and in terms of the science that I’ve had access to and have talked to people about that’s harder to prove, and how transferable those hard skills are, seems to be in question. And there is definitely a benefit, you have the general developmental thing going on.

But what seems more transferable and more understood are the softer skills, the social, the interaction, the finding some calm and the time out of your day, the wellbeing, mental health side of it. And at the moment, I think particularly in this period, that’s often what children are doing: they’re staying in touch with friends.

If I sit next to my kids while they’re playing, the things they’re talking isn’t about what’s in the game, what’s happening, they’ll be talking about, “How are you doing? How is your family? Is anyone locked down? Are you doing the homework?” The sort of stuff that would just be part of playground chatter comes up as they’re playing. And as well as that, it does give them a chance to unplug from quite a chaotic world and enter a space that they’ve got a bit more control over and they can find some peace over that.

The issue is that if we don’t realise that as parents, and we just think, “You’re on that game again, you’ve got to stop”, and we make them stop, and if they had been using that game as a coping mechanism for what’s happening in the world, and then they become upset because we’ve taken it away, then we often will point to it and say, “Look, you’ve got cross when I’ve told you to stop. Look what that game’s doing to you.” When in actual fact, that game was a solution to another problem and we’ve missed a chance to understand our child and what the problem was that the game was solving because we’ve labelled the game as a problem.

I think it’s those sorts of benefits which run a bit deeper and I feel like that it’s this, children then take with them into a future that will be digital, and into a future where they probably will always play games in some way, it won’t be the same games, but I think game playing will be part of the future of most children’s lives.

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly. It’s interesting because, most of the time, when I speak to parents that ask me this question, if it’s safe for my child, they would never even consider the idea that it could actually be a coping mechanism, or it could actually be a place where they have control and find calm because most parents see games as there are loads of things happening and you have to manage all these things at the same time, it’s very intense. And I don’t think they understand that concept of finding your peace.

Are most games violent?

And there’s also, I think, a preconception that all games are violent. What would you say to parents concerned about that? That all games are violent?

Andy Robertson :

I think it’s understandable because the games that are popular and you see on bus stops are often the games aimed at older teenagers and do have guns in them. That’s quite a popular thing because it’s kind of quite an easy thing to do as a game, the play loop’s quite predictable.

As a developer, there’s some safety and they know that’s popular. And so, it’s completely understandable, but what’s exciting and exciting about creating my database of games for parents, the Family Video Game Database, is that I have a chance to uncover the wide breadth of games. And we’ve got about 800 games in the database, and probably only a very small proportion of them are games where the main thing is shooting. There’ll be some of them because that is part of the wider games spectrum, but the range of what you’re doing, whether it’s exploring a different world, or running a train system, or swimming under the sea, all those sorts of things, you can do all these sorts of things in games as well. And the issue is the discovery and helping parents to discover those games.

And that’s the challenge, I think. I think we need to do a better job of helping parents find games which match their children, and that’s where the idea for the database came from.

An Coppens :

Great. And where can they find the database? Because of course we’re going to link those in the show notes, but in case somebody’s desperate to find it right now?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. Well, you could just Google Family Video Game Database. Or if you go the URL TamingGaming.com, which was the name of the book that I wrote, that will be out in January, and the two sort of go together. You’ll see on the database they’re branded in the same way. And so, the book looks at the issues we’ve been talking about, looks at violence, looks at addiction, looks at gambling, looks at online strangers, but then tries to say, “Here are some ways to take positive steps as a parent, what you can do.” And part of that is playing games together.

Another thing the book says, which is more unusual, I think, and maybe a little bit less popular, is to say if you’ve got a child who loves playing games, a really powerful thing you can do as a parent is to find some games that you want to play yourself. And I’m often saying that at school meetings, and things like that, that I run for parents, and someone will stop me and say, “I love what you’re saying, yeah, I can get it that games can be positive, but can I just stop you? Because I’m never going to play a game, they’re not for me, they’re for kids, and I’m too busy and I’ve got too much else to do.”

It’s completely understandable because we see games as this thing that children do and they’re just entertainment, and why would an adult play them? And so, there’s a portion of the database, and there’s a chapter in the book which is squarely aimed at helping parents find games that they might want to play themselves, and these are games that are short, or easy to access on devices they’ve already got, and about topics that might interest an adult. We’ve got games about parenting, we’ve got games about falling in love. There’s a particular game which is quite popular about a Syrian migrant and helping them get to Europe and the trials of that journey.

You start to introduce a different view of games, and they no longer see it just from the corner, really. The idea is then they can then go to the database, look at the games that I’ve introduced and that they’ve played, and then find lots of other similar games. So, on every page, at the bottom of every game page, there are 10 or so other games which are similar and offer a different experience, to try and help parents find something. And you don’t have to spend a long time doing it, but as soon as you are doing that, you’re suddenly in the room with your child and you can talk.

Playing games to broaden your children’s diet

I often say how we’re keen for children to have a broad diet of what they eat.

An Coppens:

True.

Andy Robertson :

And we want them to eat vegetables, and so we make a point of eating our vegetables at mealtimes. With young children we might even make yumming noises as we eat, “These are lovely.” Because we’re just like, “You’ve got to eat your vegetables.” If we had never eaten vegetables, our kids would very quickly understand, “I’m not eating vegetables, Mom and Dad don’t eat them so why should I?”

An Coppens :

Exactly.

Andy Robertson :

Because they pick up on that, don’t they? And so, in a similar way, if we want them to enjoy games as a mature thing with a wide range of different experiences, it really does help if we play them ourselves. And I understand that that’s a difficult thing but I’m here to help people do that.

An Coppens :

Yeah. And I think that’s an amazing concept as well, because I heard a story of one dad who basically was worried about his child playing Fortnite, and decided to join him in the game, and he said his relationship with his child actually improved immensely because they finally had something they could talk about together. His child never had been interested in sports but was really big into all sorts of games, and he didn’t understand as a dad what to do, so I thought it was fascinating to hear his side to say, “Well, actually, I could have a conversation about the things that matter to him.”

And he totally agreed with what you said earlier where, in effect, the conversation is typically not about the game in the game chatter, it’s often about the very things that are going on with that child at that given moment in time. And I’ve had a few people come up to me as adults as well who said, “Well, I met my partner in a game”, because they were playing games together and then they eventually met in the real world and had a connection from the game, so there’s definitely something there that I think is super important for parents to take away, and to have your own set of games and playing regularly.

I mean, you’re obviously talking to the converted, me and my partner play games, we’re both in our 40s, so we play games regularly. We bring a Yahtzee pad on holidays, and there’s a year-long Yahtzee tournament, for example, in our house. And board games are just as useful as video games, in my view, for that family dynamic.

Where do you start as a parent or adult?

So, what would you say would be the starting point? Because if somebody has a real issue with video games, where would you have them start? The database is one place, what else would you have them do to introduce games into their life as a parent so that they can encourage their children to widen that spectrum of games to play?

Andy Robertson :

I think the first thing I’d want to do would be to say: I’m not here to try and convince them that games are good or bad, what I’m after is just to help them have an appreciation of the breadth of games that are on offer. And that isn’t about trying to change how they’re parenting or to try and change their view of the world, it’s to say, “I want you to parent your child in the way that you know best, but I want you to do that in an informed way including about video games.”

So, my hope is that by understanding and experiencing those games first-hand, it won’t necessarily lead to a parent saying, “My child plays more games now. They might end up deciding to let them play them less, but they’ll do it from an informed perspective …

An Coppens :

True.

Andy Robertson :

… rather than just assuming something’s happening. And they’ll do it with the child, it won’t just be something that they’re doing to them but there’ll be a collaboration, and that the conversation in the home would change. And that’s, I think, what we’re aiming at, is to change it from the child saying, “I want more games, I want older-rated games”, and the parents saying, “No, you must play less, you must play younger”, because that’s not really a conversation, it’s just a back and forth, and that just is why it either leads to arguments, or a common solution is that games get banished from the family space into bedrooms and become this thing that then competes with the family, rather than being anchored as a normal part of family life where they can both benefit the family.

And also games benefit from the same sorts of questions and conversations that we ask about the films that we watch, and the books that we read, and the …

… walks that we go on. And so, I think that’s probably the first … it’s a really good, important thing to say, because I think parents can often feel like they’re just having their finger wagged at them, or there’s another thing they’ve got to try and get right. And really, just have some fun, and the database is there, and there’s a list of games that are on the database that are specifically for people who’ve never played games or haven’t played them recently. And they’re there, it’s simple to play, you can play them with other people, finding games you can play together.

If you’ve got someone in your family who knows about games then treat them as a resource.

Talk to other families who’ve got kids of a similar age and find out what they do, and the book is there. If you can’t do that, then the book is kind of … its idea is it’s like it’s a sounding board, really, to be those other experiences if you don’t have access to them.

What inspired the title of the book: Taming Gaming?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, I think so. And I often reflect on the title because it’s slightly strange, because I love the wild, untamed nature of games, as these experiences that I encounter as an adult, and they take me places that I don’t necessarily expect to go, they help me think about topics like parenting, or anything, really, in ways that are exciting.

And so, they are in some ways this fragile world, like a piece of art, sort of thing, but at the same time I understand, really, and this is who the book’s aimed at, that that is not how they function in a lot of families, and a lot of moms I talk to in particular, not only moms but that was the main sort of respondents were saying, “I’m a good mom, I’m a really good mom to my boys”, particularly moms of teenage boys. “I know what they need, and we’re really good friends and it’s just great.” And you hear their voice change as they say this, “But when it comes to games, I just don’t know what I’m doing. And actually,” they’ll say, “actually, I feel like I’m losing them and I just don’t know what to do. And actually, it’s quite worrying.”

It’s trying to help those people who feel like the games are getting away from them and do need taming so that they can actually then do something good with them, get a grip of this thing rather than just all flailing around. And so, it wants to address the fact that games aren’t just happy go lucky and easy, they’re quite a big deal in a family and they’re hard to get right if you don’t pay attention.

But then, taking that experience in a positive direction, really, and essentially saying, “If you approach it this way, you really can turn that corner where games go from being the thing that causes arguments when it’s tea time to the thing that you all look forward to, and you have a Sunday afternoon to play a particular game and all of your family sit down together and it becomes like a mealtime, really.” But like mealtimes, you do need to do the shopping, do the menu planning, plan when you’re going to eat, and all that, and someone’s got to cook, so there’s a lot of effort being put into that, and we’re used to that with food but we’re not used to the benefits we might do if we got that with games, and so the book is supposed to be a way to help parents do that.

An Coppens :

Agreed. The book is on pre-order, right? At the moment.

Andy Robertson :

That’s right. It’ll be out in January 2021. It should have been October but it was delayed because of the printing delays at the moment. But the delay meant that the database, the website that supports the book, this Taming Gaming website, has kind of grown to fill that gap.

An Coppens :

Yes, which is great.

Andy Robertson :

So, when we were first in lockdown we had a very rudimentary little site and it became hugely popular, and we ended up on BBC Breakfast, and places like that, because people were really looking for, “Well, what games can I play with my family?” And so, with a little bit of funding from UKIE we got it up and running, and it’s grown and grown, and it had 60 games at the beginning, and I thought that was going to be it. I wasn’t expecting it to be like this. And it’s now become this big resource.

An Coppens :

How many games have you on it now?

Andy Robertson :

I think it’s about 830 at the moment.

An Coppens :

Oh wow.

Andy Robertson :

And it goes up.

An Coppens :

That’s amazing.

Andy Robertson :

Because there’s so many games that we’re keen to add. We’re not adding every game, it’s not trying to be a library of every game there ever was, we only add games that we’ve got a specific reason to recommend. And that might be, “This is a great game if you’re got a four or five-year old”, you know?

An Coppens :

Right, yes.

Andy Robertson :

“This is a really good game if you’ve got … ” And that’s what the lists are about. There’s this gap sometimes between PEGI-12 games and PEGI-16 games, so the child’s grown out of Fortnite, but they’re not quite ready for Apex Legends and these older shooting games …

… or Call of Duty, so what do you do in that gap? And so, there are lots of lists that try and help parents navigate that kind of gap.

What is a PEGI rating?

You touched on the PEGI rating there. What is that? What does it stand for? For those parents who have no idea what that means.

Andy Robertson :

So, the PEGI rating is a label that goes on every game sold, and it’s the little age rating on the front of the box in the UK and in Europe. And you get different colours, it’s like a traffic light system. So, three and seven, that’s obviously ages three and seven up, and that’s green, and that’s just advisory. Then 12 and 16, then that is orange, and both of those ages are legally enforced, so if you were to buy a game in the store or a physical game from an online retailer, they have to know that you’re those ages or older to sell it to you or it’s illegal.

An Coppens :

For you to be able to buy, yes.

Andy Robertson :

And then, 18 is in red, just to signify that it’s for adults only. And it’s about the content of the game. Sometimes there’s some confusion that people think, “This is how old you should be to enjoy it”, but it’s not, it’s about the appropriateness. So, a good example would be Formula One racing game would be PEGI-3 because there’s no content that would be upsetting to a three-year-old. But equally, a three-year-old probably wouldn’t enjoy that Formula One simulation that much, not without some help, and so that’s what it is.

And then, additionally, you have the descriptors, and these are little smaller labels in black and white that show you why the game got that particular rating, and it might be for violence, it might be for sexual content, might be for language, might be for fear. And so, as a parent, you can make quite an informed choice just by looking at the front of the box or the back of the box. Or if you’re online on those online stores for the Switch, or for Xbox or PlayStation, will have the PEGI rating and will have those descriptors.

And you can get more information as well on a couple of websites. There’s AskAboutGames, the website that I run with UKIE, and that takes particular games and sort of, I guess, fleshes out why it’s got a particular rating. And also, the VSC, the Video Standards Council rating board in the UK, they rate the games through to 12, 16 and 18, and they write a little examiner’s report about the games they’ve rated.

You can get an awful lot of information. If you’re concerned about Call of Duty, for instance, you can see the age, you can see the descriptors, and you can actually see what the examiner wrote. They will say something like, “During this game in the campaign your character will do something graphic”, which I won’t say now depending who’s listening.

An Coppens :

I think we appeal mainly to adults.

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. “Do something which will cause some blood, and that means that it’s going to be this rating.” And so, with probably five minutes research you can find out the detail of the game. And that’s one of the things that the database brings together, it takes information from these different places and puts it onto one page and links back to these resources, which are important as well, the AskAboutGames site and the VSC site along with PEGI.

These are just really good, reliable tools.

An Coppens:

Very helpful. Because I think it’s the lack of knowledge and the lack of knowing where to find help is often what’s missing for parents, I think. And knowing what hose ratings are and what they stand for is important, knowing that you have a database that you can consult and look for games that maybe suit you or maybe suit your children.

What about games for children with disabilities?

How about families with children with disabilities? Because we, as an organisation, we often support Special Effect, who basically are a charity who adapts game consoles and game systems so that they can be played by children with disabilities. Do you have those kinds of games in the database also?

Andy Robertson :

That’s a really good question. I like that question because I’ve got a good answer. Once the database was up and running, I was approached by an organisation called The Playability Initiative, who were making a game for individuals who have a motor impairment, and their game will be played with just one button. And that sounds like it’ll be simple and no fun, but actually there are loads of games that you can play with one button that are actually really challenging and just great fun, and I think their game’s going to be amazing.

But they wanted that to be the first step into discovering this wider range of games, particularly for parents or advocates who had a child with maybe some sort of impairment or disability, or cognitive need. And so, together, and along with a whole bunch of accessibility experts and some input from Special Effect, and Able Gamers, and people like that, we created a whole load of fields on the database that you can show as part of the search to find games that have a very specific set of features.

And so, that might be a game that has just been designed with a particular person in mind. So, if you’re designing a game in an inclusive way you might think, “Okay, if I’ve got somebody who can’t see as clearly as everybody else I’ll make sure that the enemies are outlined in white or something. Or I’ll make sure that the text on the screen can be changed in size.”

It may be a game that’s been designed like that and, at the same time, it may also be a game that offers a particular setting, to either adjust the size of subtitles or to turn on some visual feedback instead of sound. For instance, Fortnite’s excellent at this: if you have a hearing impairment or if you can’t hear you can put a visual wheel on the screen which is a visual depiction of where the sound’s coming from. And in that game, the sound is really important because you need to hear the footsteps and the gunfire from the people around you, and so you have this visual representation which means that your child could enjoy that game like other children.

And in some ways, that’s quite significant because games can be a real leveller, so whereas it may be hard for them to be on a level playing field in a playground, online they can do that. And again, removing that barrier of discovery can be really empowering for parents, and they can suddenly discover, “There are all these games”, and of course because they’re on the database they’re all interlinked, so you can put your search in for whatever you’d like. You can also combine that with saying … so, maybe you say, “My child’s got a cognitive need, they want some low-pressure games so they’re not up against the clock.” But then you could also say, “They’re seven or younger, so I’ll do PEGI-7”, and you could say, “I’ve got a Switch”, and then click search, and then it’ll give you 10, 20 games that would match your criteria.

We’ve had lots of really positive feedback and some great conversations about that with parents who just will come to us and say, “I didn’t know.”

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly.

Andy Robertson :

“I didn’t know these games existed.” And actually, even for me, I didn’t know lots of these games existed and I really enjoy playing games in different ways and, again, expanding the breadth so that you could always … I’ve learned as much, I think, like anything else by engaging with a whole range of experts and people with impairments.

Can games be therapeutic or even calming?

Yes, and I think that’s fascinating. And I also think it ties in with the other developments that we’ve seen in the US, I believe, where games were prescribed as ways of even dealing with ADHD. And I thought that was interesting to see that it can actually work as a supplement to therapies that the children are going through in that case. And I thought that’s a nice counterbalance to the original gaming disorder qualification, and then also then now seeing it as therapies going forward, which I think is a positive development as well. Do you have therapeutic-style games on the site that people could look at?

Andy Robertson :

Yeah. So, the way we categorise games on the site is through a series of lists. And so, these are a little bit like Netflix in terms of when you’re using something like that it’ll notice what you’ve done and it’ll pop up, “Because you watched this particular film, maybe you’ll like these”, or, “Quirky British humour”, or, “American blockbusters.” And so, in a similar way, we’ve got lots of lists of games to help people discover them on the site. And some of these might just be great games to play together, great games to compete at. And one of the ones, like I said earlier, games to be your first game.

But also, as well as that, we’ve got games that have been seen as being very useful if you want to find a bit of calm, so games that invite you into space, that either you do something that’s quite systematic and calming, and there’s this rhythm to it, or maybe you’re just floating underwater. And you’re doing something in the game, it’s still a video game, but there’s really not a lot of pressure and it really is about just spending time in that.

And you can go from there. Some of the lists we’ve got about games that actually help you engage with your emotions, and are good to play because they’ll bring up emotions as well. And again, if you’re playing with a child and you pick those appropriately it can be a great way to process things.

We did a list with a charity about grief.

An Coppens :

Yes, and that’s important given the COVID-19 climate around us.

Andy Robertson :

We wanted to find games which would help you process things like that. And so, the list we’ve got there is games that create space for grief, which was with the charity Gaming the Mind. And so, together we looked at games that offered that. Some of them have been designed to help somebody through the process of grief, there’s a game called “A Part of Me”, which is designed to help children voice and put words to what they’re feeling.

But other games, it’s just that something happens in the game or the game world where it lets you process loss and the changing of seasons, and it can be quite a helpful, therapeutic way to do that, and very different from doing that by talking therapy, or by watching something or reading something. It’s not done to you, you’re embodied in the game and you’re in control of how fast that happens.

So, you’re not just watching a film where someone else is taking you and taking control of what you’re seeing. If you don’t like it, you can just stop and wait until your emotions catch up with you. And so, I think there is a lot to be said for those sorts of games. Of course, you need to understand the child and the situation.

An Coppens :

Yes, exactly.

Andy Robertson :

That isn’t where I’d point someone to start with, but …

An Coppens :

No. For sure not.

Andy Robertson :

… they can become a really valuable tool, and quite a nice, valuable part of day-to-day life and a way of coping with the world which sometimes isn’t exactly how we’d like it to be.

An Coppens :

No, exactly. And I think as a regular, casual game player today, I mean, I used to play more immersive games when I had more time, but I play a little game called Diggy’s Adventures, it makes you think sometimes, make you solve puzzles and problems, but it very much is a very daily, I have to remove so many blocks, and it digs its way out towards a treasure and out of a hole, and fights all sorts of creatures.

And for me, it is very much relaxing, and very much and end of the day and start of the day fun thing, but it takes me away from, let’s say, the news, the daily grind, the daily everything. And it’s important for children to also have that space, because especially now when they don’t have their friends on the doorsteps in a lot of places in terms of lockdown, and they can’t go and see them, the game space may be the replacement place for what you would normally chat about with your friends in class or playground, or even at sports because a lot of those things are limited right now.

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, I think that’s true. I think often this conversation goes hand in hand with the safety side of things as well. I’m often in school talking about E-safety and wellbeing, and I like the way that those two marry up, and so usually alongside this, I’d be talking also about how you can set up the technology so that you can be confident that the child’s going to have an appropriate experience, and that there are some healthy limits around it, so that then these other experiences can happen and you can focus on that, rather than pestering about stopping, and stuff like that.

Andy Robertson :

So, all the modern consoles, and the most recent ones do it even better, have really good settings for specifying how much children can spend, how long they’re playing and who they can talk to and what they can share. So, it’s kind of nice other parts of that conversation.

Where do I find the safety settings of a console or gaming device?

And where would they find that out? Is it from each console? Or is it from a specific website that you would recommend parents to have a look at to say, “For safety, make sure you check out that website because that’ll tell you what to do or what to look for”?

Andy Robertson :

All the console creators have their own family settings, instructions, advice, and parental controls. But we’ve done some writing on AskAboutGames on this, which is a slightly higher level just to introduce the sorts of things you should be expected to do when you get a new console, because usually it’s the same sort of thing. And also, just getting into the habit of when you get a new piece of technology, just spend half an hour to an hour before it’s wrapped up and put under the tree, or whatever it’s for, so that you have a chance in a calm and collected way to set up in the right way.

And one of the key things is that you set up a user for yourself as the controlling person, and the parent in the room, and then you set up separate users for each child. And then, for those children, you can then specify a bit of pocket money maybe, you can specify how old the age ratings are, how long they play. You could even say, “My son can play Fortnite for an hour, and the has to play something else”, you can even go down to that kind of level and do that with them, those sort of conversations, so that they know and they agree on those kind of limits.

Top tip: update the console before Christmas even if it’s a gift for Christmas

And that also is a chance, if you’re doing it ahead of gifting it, it’s a chance then to plug it in and make sure it’s updated, because modern consoles usually when you plug them in will have an update. And if you wait and do that on Christmas Day, unfortunately, you probably won’t be playing it on Christmas Day, it will be Boxing Day if you’re lucky, because everybody’s doing that at the same time. And so, by switching it on, plugging it into the interesting, or using your WiFi it will update. And equally, putting in any game codes so they download, put any discs you’ve got in in case there’s updates for the game, it’s kind of that batteries not included moment so you don’t have it unwrapped on Christmas Day and then it’s like, “I’ve got to wait a long time.”

An Coppens :

Yeah, a big disappointment.

Andy Robertson :

Yeah, exactly. So, it’s kind of a few things in one but a key thing is just getting it set straight, because if you don’t do that you do it in a rush on Christmas Day in terms of the users. If the child starts using your account, the main account to play on, their saves and stuff and progress will be associated with that user account and then it’s harder to disentangle that and turn them into a child user on the system. And the systems are set up that’s how you limit them and that’s how you control things is via that child user, so you really do need to get into that situation.

The last thing that’s worth saying is that, actually, it’s usually much easier than you imagine, and these days all you do is download an app on your phone and the console will update, and while it’s updating you can then do the settings on your app, you don’t have to keep waiting for it. And also, that means then any notifications or updates come to your app so you don’t have to go onto the console to check things, it will tell you …

An Coppens :

That helps.

Andy Robertson :

… “This is what your child’s been playing this week. He got some notifications from these friends asking to play, or someone’s asking to be his new friend.” And then you can approve or reject that particular aspect, so you’ve got a much easier way of just being in control.

Andy Robertson :

And really, that’s a great way just to have to lots of little conversations, like “So and so popped up, who’s that? Is that someone from school?” And it stops it being like, “Oh my gosh, who are you talking to?”

An Coppens :

Exactly.

Andy Robertson :

That kind of coming in and policing it. It turns it much more back into a parenting conversation, or a parent or carer.

An Coppens :

Exactly. And I think that’s where games can find its place in a family and be part of family life. I wish for a day where every family has a game night. I mean, that might just be an illusion in my world, but I think it’s healthy, I think it’s a good thing. And I know my parents definitely have game afternoons now that there’s grandchildren, and they would never have been big fans of games when I was growing up. But no, but there’s grandchildren in the house, they’re learning about all sorts of games and tapping me for information, “What should we do next?”

Andy Robertson :

I think that will happen. As the media becomes more familiar, it will be accepted and we sentimentalise it as well, and it becomes the norm. And the worry and the moral panic around it is really because it’s new rather than because it’s hugely different to what’s gone before. And I really think that give it 10 years there’ll be something else that’s new and we’ll be saying, “Why can’t the kids just go and play Fortnite like they used to? Why are they doing whatever the new thing is? Can’t they just play that lovely … They used to talk to each other, and they interacted online, and they had teamwork.”

An Coppens :

Exactly.

Andy Robertson :

In most of the same ways now we sentimentalise listening to the radio, or reading books and things like that, it’s just the media is new and so it’s unfamiliar.

An Coppens :

Exactly. I think this has been really helpful to most parents. I mean, even people that aren’t parents but are maybe worried about grandchildren or nieces, nephews, et cetera, because I think it’s definitely something will all have to, at some point, get our heads around where do we stand on the games that people play around us? And how can we encourage them to be used in a good way? Because I do think there is lots of scope for positives to this industry, for as much as the bad rep is also out there.

An Coppens :

I really appreciate taking the time, Andy, for coming on the podcast.

Andy Robertson :

My pleasure.

An Coppens :

If I can ask you your, I suppose, your top final tips for any parent that is still wondering, “Is gaming safe for my child?” What’s your, let’s say, your top three things that they must do?

Andy Robertson :

I think if there’s something you’re worried about then to take action about it. So, if you’re worried about them talking to someone they don’t know, or playing inappropriate games, take an evening and spend half an hour to an hour just setting up the console so you’re taking back control. It’s not as hard as you might imagine.

I think the second thing would be to find some games that you might want to play yourself. And I know that sounds almost a bit crazy and difficult, but there’s really no better thing to gain the trust and the recognition from a child in this space than to actually have played something yourself, particularly if they catch wind of like, “What are you doing, Mom?” “Oh, I’m just playing my game.” “What do you mean you’re playing a game? What are you playing?” And it can really transform a conversation. And to do that, if they go to TamingGaming.com, we keep that list of my first video games at the bottom of that page, it’s always there, and it has about 20 games, so just have a look and they’re all games that you could probably play on a smartphone or any device you’ve already got.

And I think, finally, that third point would just be: find some games to play together. If you’ve got a child who’s into games, say, “Is there a game that you’d like to play with me? Or perhaps you’d like me to watch for half an hour?” I think it’s easy as a parent to think, “It’s their thing, I don’t understand it, I don’t want to intrude”, but my experience almost every time, when a parent offers to spend time watching or playing a game with a child it becomes the favorite moment of the child’s gaming week when Mom or Dad is there with them, and they’re very welcoming, and they want to talk about it.

So, I think those three things can make a really big difference, and a first step towards changing that conversation in the home.

An Coppens :

Absolutely. I think that’s great advice. Great advice. So, thank you, Andy, for taking the time. Where can people find you the easiest?

Andy Robertson :

If you’ve got questions then @GeekDadGamer on Twitter is a good place. AskAboutGames.com has an ask-a-question button that sends an email straight to me and we answer those quite quickly. And if you want to find out more about the book and the database, then TamingGaming.com is the URL, or just Google Taming Gaming, and the top hits are always my site, so you’ll find it like that, yes.

An Coppens :

Well, I’m looking forward to reading the book when it comes out, I have put my pre-order in, so I recommend anyone else listening to do exactly the same. And yes, I’d love for our listeners to like and forward this podcast session to whoever you think should be listening to it, because I think there’s plenty of parents that might want to hear what we’ve discussed, and we’ll be making all the links available in the notes on the Gamification Nation website. So, thank you for listening, thank you for being on the podcast, Andy.

Links:

The book: Taming Gaming by Andy Robertson

The games database: taminggaming.com

AskAboutGames

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