Q&A: Video Games

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Occasionally, readers write with questions that I know others might be able to add to or benefit from. Today we’re talking about video games, gaming systems, and how to know if and when to introduce those to your household.

Take whatever I say with a grain of salt, and be sure to add your two cents in the comments section.

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Q.I was hoping you could share with me the age your kids were when you first allowed video games? I have three boys-7, 3 and 7 mo. We homeschool. Winter is long around here and the big guy wants a Wii. Bad. Am I nuts to give in so early? Obviously the baby won’t be joining in, but I don’t see how I’ll be able to keep the almost 4 yr old away. Any advice is much appreciated!

A. Well, this is, indeed, the five million dollar question! While I would like to say that our family is immune to the mind-numbing powers of the video game, I can’t. I don’t really have “an answer”, but I’m happy to share our experience.

Our life with video games

My kids love to play video games, be they computer, gaming system, or iPad. I never had any intention of buying anything video game related. And in fact, in the early years, I didn’t.

I know first hand the addictive qualities of video games, having spent adolescent nights bleary eyed trying to beat Pacman as well as wasted adult days absorbed in Tetris or Baby Park. I can’t get those minutes back and now that every second of my life is accounted for, I want that time back! I guess we could say I have some video game regrets of my own.

It seems time slips by unnoticed when one is playing a video game. But to deny their presence and influence in our culture is unrealistic. The real question is who will control whom?

I will be the first to admit that video games have a fairly large presence in our home life. I don’t like to admit it. I think there’s an unspoken law in Parentdom that you’re a better mom if your kids don’t watch TV, don’t know a Pokemon from a Super Mario Brother, and never eat processed sugars.

While I know where we “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” that’s not always our reality. This is:

1. You want it, you buy it.

I think the saving and subsequent ownership is an important part of the equation. If you want something bad enough, you’ll do what you need to do to make it happen. And since I don’t share their love of video games, I don’t plan on paying for them.

My oldest, at about age 8 decided that he wanted a Nintendo 64. He had played a number of different game systems at friends’ homes and decided that the vintage “cassette” games were ideal, especially with baby siblings in the house. These could not be scratched or destroyed as easily as the Game Cube which was current at the time, seven years ago. (Smart boy.)

His brothers were then 5, 3, and 1. Only one of them was really capable of playing anything because back then most of the games were too advanced for toddlers anyway. Regardless, we limited game time to weekends and perhaps 30 minutes on a school night.

My oldest son and my husband shopped on ebay and he bought a used system and the games to go with. Since he had invested his money (with some help from younger brothers), it was a great experience in saving toward purchases and shopping for good deals.

A few years later, friends gave us a Game Cube that they no longer wanted and the hunt for used Game Cube games commenced, now with more boys saving money and investing in games or requesting them at birthdays and Christmas.

Inevitably, Nintendo retired these systems and the games became harder and harder to find. That is the way with technology — and marketing.

Since the Wii was/is pretty cool, the boys started to save their money. With fervor. They did odd jobs around the house. They weeded the flower beds in the summer heat to earn extra money. And they reached their goal! It was amazing to see how hard they worked.

And even though they had the cash earmarked for this special purchase, they were willing to share it when their parents were short on funds!

We ended up buying them the system — and have been known to play it on occasion. They spent their savings on the accessories and games, which add up anyway. We were so proud of their hard work and determination and their generosity. And they are still responsible for buying games and accessories.

Currently, only the boys, age 14, 11, 9,and 7, are very active with the Wii, though my 5-year old daughter occasionally joins in. Each of the boys has saved the money to buy handheld systems as well, Nintendo DS, and the Girl says she wants one as well.

She also has her eye on a Bitty Baby, so we’ll see who wins out in the end.

2. Set limits on the gaming time.

Video games are generally off-limits on school nights, and we try to have time limits on the weekend gaming. While timers have worked on and off in the past, inevitably we have bouts of too much time spent on gaming — or fighting as a result of overly competitive spirits. This is our cue to pull back.

We have called for Total Unplugging on occasion in order to curb the control that gaming has.

Our plan for the summer is to have a few windows per day when gaming is allowed. The rest of the day the games need to be powered down, and children need to be involved in other pursuits: reading, playing outside, doing chores, or playing “real” games.

Having “gaming hours” is easier for me to monitor when there are so many people playing games!

3. Playing together does matter.

I think we could live a happy existence without video games, but I also know that my kids truly do enjoy this pursuit. Now that we’ve dipped a toe into iPad apps, I realize the huge addiction/education possibilities. It’s all about balance.

And there’s the added value of time spent together. My husband has had wonderful experiences playing football and hockey via the Wii with our boys. They’ve also had great times playing real football and hockey outside. But, as you say, winter is long. Having indoor pursuits is nice. And so is time spent together.

Do I wish we had fewer video games? Yes. Do I wish I could claim the no-video games, no-TV rule that I once held to steadfastly? Sure. My life would be a lot simpler — and a lot quieter.

Would that make me a better mom? I’m not so sure.

How do YOU handle video games at your house?

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  1. Our family is similar to many of the others – my 7 year old has a DS he can use for part of multi-hour car trips and if he’s in bed on a sick day.
    Our other game systems (Wii and 360) get used an hour or so during the week and more on the weekend. Even more if the weather isn’t so great. The Wii especially has been fun for family play. My 3 year old plays her Nick games with the 7 year old and my husband and I will play Mario Kart together.
    I’m always watchful for signs that the kids are having trouble separating themselves from the video games though. At various times DS7 has thrown temper tantrums about not being able to play, being asked to turn them off, or having difficulties with a game. Any one of those three means the system gets turned off for at least a week. And that a nap might be necessary 🙂

  2. I’m not big on sitting and staring video games either, but if you are trying to make it through a long winter or rainy day, the Wii is a good way to get the wiggles out. We play as a family taking turns. We only play Wii fit and sport games, no Mario Car! We take a certain number of turns and we are done, it is a nice balance for us.

  3. We have a couple of gaming systems in our house. The Wii was a “family” gift while my son, who is 21, bought his own xbox that he generously shares with the family.

    My recommendation is to take make game time family time. We have a couple of the “Just Dance” games that we really like. Watching my husband and daughter do a dance off to Proud Mary (my husband actually beat my daughter) was absolutely priceless. We also have gotten grandma and grandpa involved in the games as well.

    Video games get a bad wrap,. As someone who spents hours before rescuing the princess in the original Mario game I can attest to the wasted hours. However, if you limit the time and then make some of the time family time you may find it’s a bonus to have them in the house.

    The flip side is if you ever need to get something done around the house you can usually snag an hour or two by “treating them” to some game time 🙂

  4. We got a Wii (for us, adults) when my son was around 3. My husband also has an xbox 360. My son was allowed to play the interactive wii games with us when he was old enough to participate. We played as a family then. Once he was old enough to understand more advanced games (age 5?) He started his own collection of wii games. He only has one xbox game and he doesn’t play it much.

    Game time or screen time is part of our allowance/commission system. He earns 1 hour of game time each week for completing our current habit goal (now: brushing teeth regularly without being reminded excessively). More standard chores earn a monetary allowance– money for personal hygeine or good manners or behavior seems odd so we reward these habits with game time. It’s worked for us. Video game day is Thursday and its something he has learned to plan for (another good lesson).

    My husband recently bought an ipod touch and I’m anxiously awaiting for the excitement of that to wear off so they won’t be so absorbed by the silly little machine!! It’s hard to tell our son he can’t play something all the time when dad is just going to take his turn next.

  5. We eased into the video game realm…for a long time my 2 older boys only had gameboys (which they still have) and my 3 boy had a leapster…he did eventually get a Nintendo DS for his birthday from his grandma. They were/are only allowed to use them w/ permission and usually on weekends and trips. About 3-4 yrs ago we got them a PS2 for Christmas. Again…not on school days, usually reserved for game night w/ Dad on Fridays and on the weekend. This past Christmas they received an XBOX 360…same rules apply. It’s been fun though to play some of the Kinect games w/ them and have friendly competition. My issue is when they start telling me they’re “bored” and that’s the only thing they want to do….then it stays off for a while.

  6. Our kids {ages 9, 11, and 13} get half an hour of video games per day, but only after all chores and schoolwork are done.

  7. I have actually been mentioning our screen time ban in my last few weekly wrap-up posts. I feel like screen time is a monster that we have not been able to tame. Limiting it works for a while, but I am not diligent enough as shown in how it grows until it is out of control. I have happily banned almost all screen time for the last few weeks and my boys are surprisingly okay with it. They get an occasional movie fix at home, and their brother-in-law has a game system that they play with on Tuesday night at his house. I have 4 adult children who were raised with very little television, no computer, and very few opportunities to play video games and they don’t seem too scarred by it- although, I should ask them how they feel!

  8. We have games, but we didn’t allow them until our boys had “learned to play”. I am a teacher and some kids don’t know how to play or pretend, so we tried to wait until we felt our kids had learned to play/pretend. Now when we say no games at least they know what else they can go do. We also chose to introduce educational leaps tee games before others. Now they have other units, so we are now dealing with we only allow E ratings at this time. It is never ending.

  9. We don’t have a gaming system, but we have started to have interest in online games (a couple of words regarding The Girl: Barbie.com). We’re still figuring it out, but it does seem unrealistic to completely ban it. Right now, it’s part of total allotted screen time — there has to be a choice, “do you want to watch a movie” (i.e., any DVD/TV show), or do you want to play computer games?

  10. Love this! I am a mama of two boys, ages 2 1/2 & 11 months so I know the day is inevitable that they will ask for video games. I too have shared in the fun but I love “old school” games like Super Mario Bros. for Super Nintendo. Anyway, I’ve often thought about my stance on them and agree that it is just not realistic to say no to them completely. I LOVE that your boys saved up to buy it themselves and then you honored their hard work. I think that is a life lesson right there! I will also try to limit the playing time to weekends and as a reward for good behavior, grades, etc.

  11. Our kids, now 13 and 11, received handheld gaming devices when they were 7 and 5 (grandparents). We laid down the rules right away, that the games could only be played on weekends for a limited amount of time. Now that they’re older, they have the same rules – no gaming on school nights.

    Our son received a PS3 when he had surgery last year (he was bed-ridden for almost 2 months) and it was a great distraction since he could do very few things. Surprisingly, he wants to sell it now because he simply doesn’t have time to play since he plays outside so much.