Raising good gamers: a how-to

I spend a lot of time thinking about what sort of people my kids will grow up to be. We try to impart the values of kindness, inclusion, and dignity in everything we teach them. My kids are avid gamers, and I’d like to prevent them from growing up to be hateful trolls who spend their time harassing women on twitter and threatening to sleep with their opponents’ mothers.

This five-point plan will help to raise gamers that won’t make you reach for your headset’s mute button. The object here is for long-term personality growth, not short term rule-following. It’s simple to enforce temporary behaviors that only last as long as the kids live with you; it’s harder to mold the type of person you want your kids to become. 

Decide on Your Gaming Values

You can’t encourage positive behavior in your kids without defining what positive behavior means to your family. Take inventory of your values and how they relate to the way you want your kids to behave online long-term. Maybe you want to discourage hateful language while they play online. If you’re trying to teach your kids non-violent problem solving, consider games that reward bloodless solutions to problems, like Life is Strange or Dishonored.  In our home, the kids aren’t allowed to play games that allow the player to kill sentient beings, but they are welcome to massacre hordes of robots, because robots are everywhere and they steal old people’s medication for fuel.

Once you’ve defined your own values, talk to your kids. Let them know what you expect from them, and give a detailed explanation for why it matters. If your kid is old enough to follow the plot of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, they can understand your rationale for not spitting venom at their Overwatch team.

Model Your Values

Kids learn from watching their parents. If your kids have ever seen you rage-quit a match or let fly a stream of colorful language after dying for the 80th time, they’re going to think that behavior is acceptable. Pay close attention to your actions while your kids are around. If they see that you follow the gaming rules, it will normalize that behavior. If they think that being nice to people online is something kids do but adults don’t, you’ll have a harder time making the habits stick.

Remember, the point is to build good behaviors that they’ll carry with them through their lives. You want to encourage responsibility, not obedience. You don’t need to be a paragon of your ideals; if you slip up and get too graphic in your trash talk, address the mistake with your kids. Let them know that you don’t expect them to be perfect, but that you do need them to make an honest effort to be respectful.

Pay Attention

Check in on your kids’ gaming habits, especially if your kids play games in their rooms, in the basement, or any location where they might not expect you to be aware of what they’re doing. Sharing your values with your kids is just the beginning; when they’re awash in the warm glow of their favorite game, your lessons are likely to vanish like Tetris pieces. If they’re being hooting jackasses, wait until after they’re done playing to talk to them about it; they won’t be receptive to what you have to say if you interrupt their game to lecture them.

Following up with your kids goes beyond their active gaming time. If your kids spend a lot of time watching gaming-focused Youtube shows, watch a few videos from their favorite Youtuber. Some Youtubers are excellent, positive broadcasters. Some are terrible, nasty human beings. All of them sound like they’re trying to have a conversation while someone is using a hairdryer, so unless you listen to an episode or two, it’s hard to tell the difference between the Youtubers who were simply born without an indoor voice, and the hate-spewing garbage people.

My 8-year old was picking up some bad habits (and two-girl-one-cup references) from a particularly unsavory Youtuber that we had to ban. That being said, this isn’t just about pointing out the negativity; highlighting when the Youtubers are demonstrating positive behavior legitimizes the behavior for kids who want to be just like their favorite Youtube stars.

Eliminate Exclusion

One of the ugliest thought-lines in gaming is the belief that being a gamer is an exclusive club with specific criteria for membership. The rhetoric that “girls can’t be gamers” or “you’re only a real gamer if you play x type of game on y console” is absolutely toxic. If you hear your kids talking about people who aren’t real gamers, or subjecting other gamers to purity tests (“Oh, if you’re a real gamer, name five games you’ve gotten 100% at” etc. etc.), call them on their bad attitudes.

My two daughters play video games for hours each day. They don’t happen to be interested in the shooters or brawlers, but they are both forces to reckon with at Mario Kart, and they’ll play Minecraft until their eyes bleed if we don’t intervene. The first time I heard one of their older brothers say that they weren’t “real gamers” because they didn’t want to smash robots, I made it clear to all the kids that they’re not allowed to define other people’s labels. If my daughters want to call themselves gamers, then they’re gamers– full stop.

There’s something so attractive about being part of an in-group, especially if you’re on the outside in your normal life. But the root of so much negative gamer behavior lives in being the gatekeeper for gamerdom. If you don’t shut it down right away, you normalize it. Let your kids know unequivocally that you won’t tolerate misogyny, racism or bullying.

Play With Your Kids

This is probably the easiest advice in this article, because it eliminates the choice between good parenting and getting to play more videogames. Play games with your kids at least once a week. Play the games they like, even if they’re awful. Have them play the games you like, if you think the game is appropriate for your kids. Play old games that you used to play when you were their age. Introduce them to new genres, help them get past a part of the game they had a hard time with, show off your NES-honed platformer skills.

This is your opportunity to tie the other steps together. You can model good gaming habits while you play with then. You can gain an understanding of their gaming interests, and how they interact with others while they’re playing. Perhaps most importantly, you can teach your kids that videogames are not the sole territory of teenaged boys.