Choosing appropriate video games for kids: A parent's guide
Video games for kids—it’s one of many topics that divide the internet. Whether you’re 100% anti-video game or playing Fortnite and Minecraft right alongside your kid, you can bet that someone, somewhere on the internet thinks that you’re doing it wrong. But there are no one-size-fits-all rules for video games at home—every kid is unique and will react to games in their own way, and no two families are alike. So let’s take a look at what video games bring to the table for kids, explore the good parts and the bad parts, and talk about how your family can make informed decisions about video games for your kid that are custom-tailored to your family and not someone else’s.
5 Positives of Video Games for Kids
1. Video games can teach kids about teamwork
Many multiplayer games can teach kids to work with their friends to solve puzzles, defeat the big bad Boss, or build a cool structure. Older games that have a split-screen multiplayer mode, or “couch co-op,” are perfect for siblings to practice working together to achieve a goal. Newer games are often connected to the internet so your kid can play with their friends, whether they’re in the same room or not.
2. Kids can experience physics fundamentals and other STEM learning
In recent years, games’ physics engines have gotten more and more realistic—OK, some games have gotten more realistic! Obviously, it’s important for your kid to know that they shouldn’t try to hop around like a Smash Bros character, but some games have great takeaways about how objects move through space. Take the Portal series for example, where the physics of moving through portals is a key part of gameplay. Your kid can gain an intuitive understanding of acceleration, gravity, and other basic Newtonian mechanics. While it’s no substitute for book learning, it can spark your kid’s interest and get them excited about STEM learning.
3. Video games can give kids a larger sense of community
Whether your kid is watching their favorite player on Youtube or Twitch, watching the yearly updates at E3, or simply taking part in an online forum about their favorite game, these experiences foster a sense of community. It can make your kid feel like a part of a group and can even be a talking point when making new friends IRL, especially if the game is multiplayer or is popular for their age.
4. Video games can teach kids to be good digital citizens
Many connected games have chat features, either text, voice, or both. Even if your kid is too young to talk via voice chat—Common Sense Media recommends waiting until your kid is 13 or has equivalent maturity level¹—text chat with other players can be a good way to practice being kind and civil online—especially if the game allows mean comments to be reported or censors bad words. And if you kid plays a game with friends online, they can always use their Relays instead of public game chat (bonus!)
5. Video games can teach kids moral lessons
Many video games follow the traditional “good character wins, bad character gets their comeuppance” story model. And lots of newer story-based games have more complicated decision elements where kids get to see the varying outcomes of the decisions they make in-game. In this way, they can see the negative consequences of poor moral decisions as well as the positive repercussions of good decisions. The immersive aspect of video games makes these moral lessons hit a little closer to home than seeing them in a TV show or movie. They can also be a jumping-off point for a parent-child conversation about what they are seeing or doing in-game.
5 Negatives of Video Games for Kids
1. Time spent playing video games is time not spent moving around
A child’s time is a zero-sum game—that is to say, every minute they spend doing something (like gaming) is a minute they can’t spend doing something else (like playing outside.) One common complaint about video games—and about screen media in general—is the correlation between sedentary behavior and obesity.² To avoid that, kids should ideally have a good balance between game time and get-up-and-move-around-time.
2. Video games can hinder imagination and creativity
When your kid is playing a video game, they are enjoying someone else’s creative work. They don’t need to come up with their own ideas in order to make the game interesting and fun—the developers and writers already took care of that. Most games are very structured—they have rules, dictated outcomes, a set plotline, and invisible walls to keep you where you should be. Even larger “open-world” games have structure, albeit a much bigger one where the player can complete tasks in a different order and customize their experience. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Some games with creative elements, like structure and character building, can provide an outlet for creative expression in-game.
3. Video games can be hard on the eyes—and hard on bedtime
If your kid is gaming for hours upon hours a day, they may strain their eyes³, and that’s no fun for anybody. And if they play too much in the evenings, it could either delay their bedtime (just one more game, pleeease!) or prevent them from falling asleep at bedtime due to the light from the screen or the excitement from the game. As with other screen media, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time such that it doesn’t interfere with sleep or other healthy activities.⁴
4. Video games can contain microtransactions and ads
A microtransaction is a purchase that can be made inside a game for real money. Often, like in the popular online game Fortnite, you can pay real money for in-game currency to buy costumes, perks, and other fun things. As well, if your kid plays free games, especially on smartphones and tablets, they can be exposed to periodic advertisements. It can be tempting for kids to fall prey to ads and microtransactions, and it’s definitely worth having a talk as a family about where you stand on the subject.
5. Violent video games—need we say more?
Sometimes it’s gory. Sometimes it’s bloodless. But violence in the video game world has been occurring since Frogger first tried to cross the street and it isn’t going away any time soon. Luckily, there are plenty of great weapon-and-violence-free games that still fulfill many of the pros listed above. The degree of permissible game violence for your kid depends on your opinion most of all, as well as your kid’s age and maturity level.
So should you buy your kid a game?
When deciding which video games, if any, are right for your child, we highly recommend taking a look at Common Sense Media’s game reviews, which go in-depth about multiple content categories and tend to be more accurate than the age-ratings on the video game box. You can also take a look at our interview with Caroline Knorr, Senior Parenting Editor at Common Sense media for some quick tips around video games, screen time, and media. Most importantly, we recommend talking to the whole family so everyone is on the same page.
Click the picture below for a printable guide covering some topics to discuss with your family about gaming and whether it fits in your household.
- Kievlan, Patricia Monticello. “Kid Reviews for Discord – Chat for Gamers | Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, Common Sense Media, 24 Mar. 2017, www.commonsensemedia.org/app-reviews/discord-chat-for-gamers/user-reviews/child.
- Robinson, Thomas N., et al. “Screen Media Exposure and Obesity in Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Nov. 2017, pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/140/Supplement_2/S97.
- “Give Your Child’s Eyes a Screen-Time Break: Here’s Why.” HealthyChildren.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, 28 Aug. 2017, www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/What-Too-Much-Screen-Time-Does-to-Your-Childs-Eyes.aspx.
- “American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Childrens Media Use.” Aap.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, 21 Oct. 2016, www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx.