6 min read

EGD News #186 — Gaming and kids

EGD News #186 — Gaming and kids

Joakim Achrén — July 28, 2023

Studies have shown that video games benefit players’ mental health. Still, many concerns over excessive time spent playing games, addiction, and loss of interest in other activities, are valid ones.

In 2022, the UK-based Mental Health Foundation shared a study around the mental health of gamers and what the games industry could do to look after the mental health of its players.

The foundation issued five recommendations:

  1. Tackle harmful behaviors and toxic communities
  2. Tackle discrimination by ensuring that there is meaningful inclusion and representation in the design of games and in the industry
  3. Embed mental health content in games
  4. Raise awareness of mental well-being in the gaming community more broadly
  5. Help players game more intentionally via design features

In my time as a gaming entrepreneur and investor, shielding the players from excessive gaming only came up when we felt that long session times could hurt retention. Player burnout would harm our topline. We don’t change the game based on health reasons, and even if that topic comes up, it might be brushed aside as we consider our audience capable of removing harmful activities like excess gaming on their own.

As a parent, I’ve been observing and reacting to how gaming can shape a child from a very early age. With this piece, I want to highlight my observations through a game developer’s lens and explain why it’s time to know what is happening, especially if children are playing your game.

I do not know the solutions, but I feel that the excess gaming that isn’t harming retention perse could start harming the industry in unforeseeable ways.

Here are my observations.

Do you remember your first video game experience?

In the 1980s and 1990s, games were on the excitement level of Pong, Super Mario, etc.

Over the decades, games evolved to become more addictive than ever. They became more profound and more immersive. It became socially acceptable to play games. Many modern celebrities are Youtubers who gladly display themselves playing games. In my youth, we used to play games on a home computer or 8-bit console; now kids are not only playing games on all of their devices, but they are consuming games by watching Youtube, talking about them in school or on Discord, and finding ways to get more screentime.

In the 2020s, games have become the best mouse trap ever created. And the trap keeps getting more efficient. Game developers are pushing forward, with thousands of new games coming out monthly and the most entertaining ones making billions.

Parents give their toddlers an iPad or iPhone to play games or watch content.

The touch screen device is very efficient at keeping the kid calm, as the parents want to have their leisure time, maybe have a peaceful dinner.

But the seed is planted. For the child, this should be the age of enjoying toys and developing skills in the real world. But since a device got introduced, the gamer in the kid has materialized.

As the kid grows, they get used to being entertained by games. They enjoy them so much that nothing else matters.

When the parent realizes that the kid is unwilling to do much outside of games to interact with the real world, the parent tries to reverse what is happening by removing the devices. The kid shows withdrawal symptoms. They become irritated; they have tantrums. The parent relents and gives the kid back their games.

Keeping the kids away from gaming becomes even more challenging as they attend school. As I said earlier, gaming is everywhere. It’s socially acceptable, and the kids play on their phones at school during recess. They discuss Roblox, Minecraft, Call of Duty, GTA, and Fortnite. After school, it’s playing games, and then it’s Youtube, Tiktok, full of more gaming content.

The parents suddenly have a seven-year-old immersed in gaming for the entire evening. That’s not a made-up story; that is the reality for countless households in the 2020s.

Sure, all the devices have included screentime limits and parental controls. But how can parents, who’ve gotten used to their leisure activities, sacrifice their pleasures to deal with their kid’s tantrums? For many, it’s easier not to deal with withdrawals.

Recently, China has implemented restrictions on how children can play video games. These restrictions include limiting the number of hours children can play games per week and establishing specific playtime windows. The regulations also require game companies to implement real-name registration systems to track and verify players’ ages. The Chinese authorities have claimed that these measures aim to reduce gaming addiction and protect children’s physical and mental health by ensuring a balanced lifestyle that would allow for the time allocated to study physical activity and social interaction.

Should we follow China’s example? Should Epic Games introduce child protection by detecting the child’s age and closing their Fortnite account after a certain amount of time has been played in 24 hours?

Let’s go back to the 1980s. Games were new back then, so how did the restrictions work to keep kids away from games?

An adult-themed Leisure Suit Larry had a list of questions at the beginning of the game to make sure that adults could only pass the list and then get to play the game.

Before the 1990s, video games did not have standardized ratings. Things started changing as games started to evolve on the mouse-trap evolutionary path.

One prominent example is the game “Mortal Kombat,” released in 1992, which featured graphic violence. Mortal Kombat’s mainstream success led to discussions about the need for a rating system to inform consumers about the content of video games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was established in the US in 1994. The Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system was introduced in 2003 in Europe.

But all these ratings focus on graphic violence. What about the other more influential factors that make up for that powerful mouse trap?

Multiplayer gaming became sophisticated, and we got PVP, elo ratings and won back what we lost.

The better mouse trap also got loot boxes, battle passes, and various subtle gambling mechanics.

When will age ratings start focusing on what is underneath the cute character graphics?

Then there’s the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US, COPPA, introduced in 1998, which states that websites and apps should obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children under 13: all this, and no focus on the mouse trap factor.

I think we as an industry can take pre-emptive steps to induce healthy habits for the growing population of Gen Alpha. Screen time restrictions are robust, and we can innovate more there, with user experience being more preventative before this becomes a disproportionate issue.

Jane McGonigal is an author and Ph.D. game designer, and in 2021, she was on the Knowledge project, talking about how children and gaming can be turned into positive results.

Here are some essential quotes I picked up at 00:31:38:

Host: Are there any warning signs that parents should watch out for in their kids, that borderline addiction or behaviors that. What are those?

Jane: The first thing you do, if you have any concerns, is start counting up the time that’s been playing. If it’s over 21 hours a week, I do recommend that you start trying to control it or shape it. In all of the studies that have been done on kids on all the negative impacts of games, no study has found negative impacts at less than twenty-one hours a week. Keep it for three hours a day. That’s plenty of gaming for somebody as well being. The other warning sign is if gameplay seems to increase in intensity while real-life problems are also increasing. If somebody seems to be going down a dark tunnel of addiction where it’s not that they’re neurologically addicted to the game, it’s just that everything else seems so hopeless. The game feels like the only place where they can make any progress or have any meaningful connection. You need to work with [the child] to put their attention on other things as well so that there is a hope of improving school or work or their body or their friendships, relationships, whatever they need to repair.

Jane later says: “You have to be in conversation with your kids around what they’re playing.” Parents should be more involved in their children’s hobbies, even if it’s a video game.

Final words

If you feel that there is a need for change in how we shield children and adults alike from excessive gaming, and we need to be more informed about what games can do to our players, please share this piece forward.

(Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative)