Why Parents Must Help Kids Navigate the Online Gaming World
When I was a kid, video games had two options: play with a friend on a console or try to beat the computer. The rise of the internet and smartphones has added a third option: play online with friends and strangers. It's great that gaming has become super accessible. Games are on our phones and on our computers as well as our TV consoles.
My 7-year-old son has fallen in love with "Minecraft" and "Super Mario Bros.," though I won't let him play in multiplayer modes just yet. There's a lot to navigate in those spaces. Gaming gets a bad rap from many as worthless or toxic, but parents can't apply these assumptions equally across the board. I mean, "Minecraft: Education Edition" is a thing.
But there are toxic spaces, and before my son stumbles into those spaces he needs to mature and we need to have more conversations about safe gaming. In some ways, online gaming is an extension of social media with chat functions both audible in a headset or readable in messages. Players can "friend" other players within games and choose to play with them again. But a random player can also jump online and join games spontaneously; this scenario is ripe for harassment. Players can block people too, which helps.
Parents must stay engaged in understanding what games their child is playing. I have it set up so my son can't download a new game on his iPad without my thumbprint. We have a conversation about every new game first.
"Shooter" games, where the objective is to dominate and survive, tend to portray extreme environments with overly sexualized female characters. These are off-limits for my son. Females playing these games tend to get more sexist comments. For example, if a character takes a kneeling stance for combat, girls are likely to hear, "She's on her knees again!" or something similar.
Like the movie industry, many game genres exist and your game choice can determine your experience. So many games are cooperative, narrative, world-building or simple, fun, puzzle-type games. And every game has reviews and age appropriations that help guide families as to what is best for them. We lean into these resources for sure.
When harassment does happen, it is important that kids are comfortable talking to parents without the threat of the game being taken away. There are ways to help kids without punishing them in the process, like turning off chat functions or having the game play through the house instead of the headset so parents can monitor conversations being had.
Players are embedded in a fantasy world. All a player perceives about the other players are a gamertag, an avatar, a character and maybe a voice in their headset. Kids need to understand that much of this anonymity can protect them. They shouldn't use their real name or place identifiers in their profile.
This is where background work from parents is vital. Talk with kids about how to set up their gaming account so they are protected. And talk to them about appropriate banter. Smack talk is expected to an extent. However, when it crosses the line to attacking someone's gender, race or sexuality, it becomes harassment. Kids need to understand the difference. And those conversations should start as soon as they start venturing onto the gaming scene. Games are meant to be fun, and harassment is anything but fun.
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