Did you know that kids who play a lot of video games often have better social skills than those who don’t? That they are more confident in their intelligence and abilities, have more friends, and are more willing to talk to others?
Researchers analyzed the results of a wide range of studies on video game play and found consistent evidence of these positive outcomes. Given common beliefs that gaming is antisocial, these results may be surprising.
I’m a gamer and a game designer and even I was a little surprised. I chalk this up to the fact that I’m a new mom and hence, a new worrier. (Already) I worry about how I will manage screen time or choose the “right” games for my twins to play. And I worry about them making friends and being kind and not having to sit by themselves in the lunchroom at school.
Beyond a worry about their safety, I worry about them being social.
The good news, for a gamer mom like me, is that the research is showing pretty consistently that playing games has social benefits worth paying attention to. This doesn’t mean that gaming is always beneficial. It does mean that the right kind of gaming helps kids become socially well rounded.
For example, research on video games and violence found that when children are exposed to games that encourage positive social behaviors, they are more likely to behave in kind and helpful ways in the future. Another study on the implications of teamwork in video games demonstrated that cooperative play has social benefits: it leads players to think helpful behaviors are valuable and commonplace.
This research made me wonder: Could we raise a whole generation of kind and helpful children by worrying less about how much our kids are gaming and more about how and with whom?
Both the mom and gamer in me think “yes,” and here are some thoughts on how.
Unleashing Your Kid’s Social Superpowers
The work of being a kid is intense. Kids have to learn new things constantly, and they have to do it in front of a bunch of people who are happy to tease them if they don’t get it right on the first try (siblings, for example). Supporting and organizing ways for your kids to play games with friends can nurture some of the social skills they’ll need to make it through.
Go for cooperative play
Playing games with friends, either in the game or in a living room, gives kids a chance to be social in a group context. Team sports are great for kids for the same reason. When trying to reach a goal (whether it is building THE MOST EPIC CASTLE EVER or crushing their in-game nemesis) kids quickly discover how useful it is to have a helpful partner.
Playing on a team is awesome because it exposes kids to the idea that people with different skills can work together to solve a problem. “In online games, [players] don’t necessarily choose their teammates, so they have to negotiate whose strengths are used at what time,” says Kathy Sanford, a researcher who has studied the social benefits of gaming. “These are not one-off strategies. Some of the participants have talked about the usefulness of their leadership skills in running a guild in a game, and then going into a high-school classroom and navigating that structure.”
Look for games that explicitly reward teamwork and collaboration. Sports games are an obvious choice (Madden, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, for example). But games like Castle Crushers, Minecraft, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Monaco, Portal, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Journey are other excellent options. If your child likes puzzles or adventure style games that only come in single player mode, up the social ante by adding a friend or sibling to the mix. Kids can share a controller or keyboard or just keep each other company as they play.
The more practice kids get at strategizing with each other, negotiating moves, sharing observations, and celebrating great game play the better the chance they’ll be able to summon their social superpowers when needed.
Join an online community
Kids make friends and learn how to get along by playing together. This is true for online games as well. The key lies in finding the right gaming community for your child, as not all online communities are created equal when it comes to supercharging social skills. You’ll want to look for gaming communities where kids have a chance to collaborate with and learn from more expert players, for example. Getting better at something provides the perfect context for social interaction: your kid is not only motivated to learn but they have a ton of cool experts to talk to!
If you have younger kids or kids who are new to online play look for communities that are parent run or that label themselves as kid friendly. This can help to limit exposure to inappropriate content or language. It also gives kids a chance to test out their online social skills in a welcoming environment. Minecraft servers like Blocklandia, Intercraften, or our very own Kid Club server are great places to start.
Host a gaming playdate
If you’re a truly adventurous parent, why not host a gaming playdate for your child and their friends? Playdates are a great way to support the social benefits of gaming and give you an up-close look at your young one in action—sharing expertise, strengthening bonds between friends, building self-esteem, and well, being super social!
Minecraft Playdate 101
Here’s an example of a gaming playdate to try.
If you’re the parent of a 4-12 year old you probably have a Minecraft PE player in your house. Minecraft PE is the mobile version of Minecraft, the wildly popular game that looks and acts a lot like virtual Legos. Minecraft PE lets kids connect their devices to a local wi-fi network and enter a shared virtual world.
You’ll have living room full of kids laughing and playing together, both in-room and online. It’s a bit like having your cake and eating it, too.
So how do you run a Minecraft PE playdate? It’s easy, and here’s how:
1 Kid, 1 Device
Minecraft PE works on all kinds of mobile devices (tablets and phones). Both the iOS and Android versions of Pocket Edition have the same gameplay, so it doesn’t matter if every kid plays on a different kind of device. If one of your young guests doesn’t have a device of their own, almost any mobile device you have available will do. The game is easy to download and install and costs $6.99.
Minecraft PE allows up to 5 players to play together in the same world when they are on the same wifi network. This is both awesome and super simple. Here’s how to set it up:
- Within each kids’ game settings, toggle the “Local Server Multiplayer” switch to on.
- Have them decide whose world they want to play in and load up that game on that person’s device. This device will now be the host. You can always play eenie-meeny-miny-mo to select the host if the kids can’t decide on their own.
- For the other kids to join, they must tap “play” and select the new world (highlighted in blue) that appears at the top of their list.
And that’s it, they’re in!
Brainstorm Cool Things to Do Together
Have the group brainstorm a bunch of things they could do together in the game. This gives everyone a chance to contribute their ideas and gives you a go-to list if one of the kids gets bored. Here are 10 idea starters for your list:
- Build a roller coaster
- Go fishing
- Plant a tree in the nether
Build a dream Minecraft houseBuild pixel art!Build things from real life
- Make 10 cakes
- Build a 50 x 50 castle with at least 3 or more floors
- Run around
- Build a museum and showcase your favorite items
Serve Creeper Cupcakes
Kids love cupcakes so why not serve up some that are Minecraft themed?
Create a Cooldown Activity
Be prepared for some grumbling when it’s time to power down. Create a cooldown activity like having everyone share what they’ve been working on, or giving them a 5-minute speed build challenge. Review the results together and celebrate a playdate well done.
One final fact. According to a large study on the social benefits of playing video games children who engaged in social interactions while playing video games were more likely to take an interest in civic engagement once adults. At a moment in history when civic engagement seems more important than ever, I say, let them play games with friends.
Image credit: Photo by Sarah Phlug @Burst