As parents, we often focus more on potential dangers than potential benefits. This is especially true for video games, with news stories linking gaming to everything from too much sitting to anti-social behavior. Certainly, not all video games are right for children; that’s why we have game ratings. But there are many video games that (played in moderation) could boost your child’s educational, social, and physical development. Here are a few examples.
Life and school skills. Many video games make planning and problem-solving central to the story, especially plot-heavy role-playing games. Players must search, negotiate, and try different approaches to advance. Games don’t have to be labeled “educational” to educate: helping children learn to make decisions, use strategies, and anticipate consequences.
Series such as Civilization and Age of Empires can spark interest in world history and international relations, which shrewd parents can cultivate via books or museum trips. If your child isn’t much for books, you can boost his skills by choosing games that involve reading.
Video games are also a sneaky way to teach kids to tolerate frustration and delay gratification. These skills are strongly associated with success in school and beyond. If you watch a child play, you’ll see her try, fail, and persist through many mistakes and setbacks to keep the game going and eventually win. (Be sure to choose a game at the right level of difficulty for your child—not too easy or too hard—to get these benefits.)
Social skills. For most kids, video games are a social activity, not an isolating one, and help structure the time they spend hanging out together. Games are also an opportunity to build communication and collaboration skills. As one dad told me, “Most of the interaction my son has with his buddies is about solving situations within a game—how do you go from this place to that place, or collect the certain things that you need, and combine them in ways that help you succeed.” Video games create common ground for kids to make friends—especially helpful to children who have physical or learning disabilities, or have just moved to a new school.
Physical skills. Want to get your child off the couch? Choose active games such as the Dance Dance Revolution series, which some schools use in gym class. My research found that playing sports-themed games, such as basketball and skateboarding, often inspires kids to try new sports and spend more time exercising. As one boy said, “When I play videogames, sometimes I can learn from it. Like basketball, if I see someone in the game shoot a three pointer and make it in perfectly, I would want to practice my three pointers until I can be just like that.”
Finally, video games can bring parents and kids together. Many newer video game systems are easier to learn and more fun for novice players. When I watched a friend’s 10-year-old daughter teach her how to play Guitar Hero, it was wonderful to see the daughter become an expert and share skills with her mom—a reversal of the usual parent-child roles. And because this version of the game featured hit songs from my friend’s teen years, she was able to share those with her daughter.