Are You Raising A Good Gamer?

Katie Salen Tekinbaş
December 2, 2020

If your tween is like most these days, they are spending a lot of time playing video games online. In video games like Minecraft, Roblox, and Among Us tweens are creating and connecting with others while sequestered at home with their families. Many players report having positive experiences, reinforcing existing friendships and making new ones. Others, however, experience bias and harassment that can make video game communities feel exclusionary and toxic. 

As a parent, you might feel caught in the middle—hoping for all of the benefits of video games while also fearing the harm they might bring. This is, of course, the reality of parenting: we know that children must take risks to grow and that it is the job of caring adults to try and prevent them from coming to harm. This is no different in the digital environment than any other, according to 5Rights, a UK-based foundation focused on the digital rights of children. In a recent report they show that digitally literate children take more risks and come to less harm, including in online video games. Other research on video games and violence found that when players are exposed to video 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: What role might parents play in supporting their tweens as positive, digitally literate players who are able to take risks while also keeping themselves and others, from harm? How might we raise our tweens to be “good” gamers, players who are helpful, respectful, inclusive, and caring?

As a mom, researcher, and a gamer I have been preoccupied with these questions, which is one reason I co-founded Raising Good Gamers at UCI with Susanna Pollack and DJ Moreau of Games for Change. The project aims to change the culture and climate of online play for youth. One goal of the initiative is to support parents in taking an active role in supporting the online play life of their tween. 

Understanding something about the developmental needs of 9-12 year olds, which center around the increased influence of friends and other peer groups, can help. You may have noticed that your tween spends a lot more time with friends than they did a year ago and that they are more aware of social pressures and expectations. If they have a digital device (which is pretty typical for kids of this age) they are probably starting to use games and the online environment to explore and develop their self-identity. Yet while friendships and peer groups will continue to grow in importance, tweens still rely on family as an important source of influence. As a parent, there are some specific steps you can take to nourish this interest while also teaching your teen how to be a positive presence online. Here are 3 ways to support your tween in becoming a good gamer: 

1. Reinforce and Reward Helping Behavior

Tweens are helpers. A recent Cartoon Network report on cyberbullying showed that about two-thirds of tweens are willing to step in to defend, support, or otherwise assist those who are bullied at school and online when they see it. According to the report the importance of helping behaviors need to be reiterated, reinforced, and rewarded as early in life as possible so that such actions become habitual instead of based solely on emotions in the moment.

2. Learn about Community Guidelines

Most video games have community guidelines, basic principles that youth are encouraged to follow in order to contribute positively to the platform. Community guidelines that support prosocial behavior might include principles like “share what you know,” “report troublemakers,” and “don’t be a troll.” Read through the guidelines together with your tween. Discuss the policies and ask questions, such as: “Do you think these rules will be easy or challenging for you to follow?” “How might you help other players in the game?” “Can you give me an example of how you would ask for help if you needed it?” In general you want to work with your tween to identify video game communities whose guidelines include norms encouraging players to be responsible, supportive, positive contributors.

3. Be on the alert and communicate with your tween about their play

Talk to your tween about what happens online, and be on the alert for any issues that might arise in their play. Make sure they know not to ask for or share personal information with another player. This includes information like their full name, their address, the school they go to, and their phone number. Ask specifically about any behavior they felt was mean or disruptive: what happened, why did they think it happened, how did they respond? While disruptive and harassing behavior in video games does occur, some of it can be due to misunderstandings, differences in perspective, and inexperience. Talking through any incidents will help your tween better understand how to be a good community member and how to recognize when truly problematic behavior occurs. Referring back to the community guidelines can help.

Last, don’t forget to model inclusive in-game behavior yourself. When you’re playing an online video game, either by yourself or with the young people in your life, think about the kind of online community you want to create and the kinds of spaces you would like the young people in your life to join.

Written by

Katie Salen Tekinbaş

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California at Irvine, a member of the Connected Learning Lab, and Chief Designer and co-founder of Connected Camps. Her work focuses on meeting kids where they are at in order to design engaging, play-based experiences that transform youth futures. She is co-leading Raising Good Gamers, a new initiative in partnership with Games for Change. Her current research focuses on the integration of social emotional learning into online learning experiences for youth as a way to build social competence, amplify youth voice, and diversify participation. She is founding Executive Director of Institute of Play, a founding member of the Connected Learning Research Network, and led the design of Quest to Learn, an innovative New York City public school. Her books include Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning, Rules of Play, and The Game Design Reader.