Games +1, ‘gamification’ -1, and parenting gamers

Why don’t we find out why our kids love games so much and support conscious self-regulation rather than trivialize gaming?

By Anne Collier

Dean O’Donnell, who teaches at Worcester Polytechnic Institute – one of the Top 10 videogame-design programs in the US, according to the Princeton Review – recently told Robert Lehrman at the Christian Science Monitor that he hates the term “gamification.” I really don’t like it either. It’s about people or companies trying to gamify life or manipulate other people into doing things they’d otherwise avoid. It also trivializes games and gaming – something that engages 183 million Americans (25% of them over age 50) and a whopping 97% of US teens (Pew Internet researchers say), that 300 US colleges and universities now offer as a major (game design) in their course catalogs and that “might help a pilot fly, a kid learn algebra, or a wounded veteran, back from Iraq, deal with injuries,” as Lehrman put it.

So what is it about games that we love so much, why are they not just “gamification,” and how is it that they – especially as apps – are multiplying more exponentially than rabbits? Another great article about games, this one by Sam Anderson in the New York Times Magazine explores those questions as a gamer’s journey (though maybe a little too self-deprecatingly) as well as a reporter’s. Here are my takeaways from that, Lehrman’s thorough report, and my own experiences: Games…

* Transport us for a little bit – divert us (or our attention) from weighty things or the pressures of everyday life. In other words…
* Help people endure tough situations or conditions. In fact, they were quite likely invented for that purpose. In her book Reality Is Broken, game designer Jane McGonigal, PhD, cites Herodutus’s account of how the ancient Greeks (like 1,000 years before him in the 5th century BC) invented ball and dice games to help them save food and endure an 18-year-long famine by fasting and playing games one day, then eating the next day (see this in Wikipedia). Hmm, are they helping humanity deal with a profound paradigm and media shift, i.e. endure the very conditions brought on by technology’s advancement?
* Fill in-between spaces. By that I mean the spaces we’re all pretty aware of, like riding the bus home or sitting in a waiting room, but also more abstract in-between spaces. For example, in his piece in the New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson points to the spaces between “conscious problem-solving and pure intoxication” or between “this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself” and addiction. Which suggests that they present us with an ongoing opportunity to choose or find the former and self-regulate (and help our children do so, as suggested in this post of mine in January).
* Support friendship. One young gamer told me, “I really don’t like playing videogames alone. I always play with my friends. If they’re not on, I usually don’t get on [Xbox Live to play a game].” He was referring to local friends he sees at school but later added that gaming also helps him stay in touch with friends out of state, buddies he used to hang out with on a near daily basis. So this is collaborative game play as well as hanging out and keeping up with friends and relatives – very “real world,” deeply social, far from “gamification” of either life or friendship. [See also this on a mom and son playing World of Warcraft together.]
* Can be the “experiential” part of “experiential learning.” That doesn’t mean that all games are automatically experiential learning. To complete that equation, players need the reflection or articulation [or “learning”] half of experiential learning, which is where parents can come in – watching their kids play or playing with them and getting them to articulate why they chose this move or strategy (see “Why kids love games & what parents can do about it” for more on that).
* Present us with opportunities to learn about ourselves. That probably sounds way too deep, but – like mirrors – games make us, as Anderson put it, “more conscious of [our] habits, weaknesses, desires, and strengths.” In fact, “part of the point of letting them seduce you,” he writes, based on an interview with game designer Frank Lantz, “is to come out the other side a more interesting and self-aware person.”

That last one is what Anderson was doing in the process of reporting his article, it seems. I found it fascinating. Here’s a guy who delayed getting an iPhone as long as possible (4 years) so he could avoid being as addicted (his word) to the latest gaming wave as he was to console games as a kid in the early ’90s. Then his wife got her iPhone, got into the Words with Friends game, and soon – in conversations with him – started looking away often when he was mid-sentence, he writes. So, I guess in self-defense, he finally got his iPhone and, “once I formed the habit of finding reliable game joy in my omnipresent pocket-window, my inner 13-year-old reasserted himself.”

Some thoughts for fellow parents

One thing to remember, fellow parents: The writer clearly turned out OK. And our kids will too. They are not as easily influenced and victimized by technology as they are portrayed to be, entirely too often almost everywhere we turn and wholly disrespectfully of them. Sam Anderson writes that he self-regulated. “At some point late in my teens, in a spasm of post-adolescent resolve [I suspect he’s a little more self-deprecating than he needs to be], I decided to renounce video games forever” (or until he had even more self-regulating power, after he got his iPhone).

Anderson doesn’t mention any role his parents played in all that. Certainly parents can have a regulatory role. But I think it might be more helpful to our children and their futures if we play more than purely a regulatory role. In a time of unprecedented and rapidly increasing need for self-regulation, we can be a resource for discussion – loving guides for the self-regulation process. How to be/do that? For starters, it’s probably not the best idea to let things crumble into a wholly adversarial set-up like “Parents vs. Gaming.” Maybe the young Sam Anderson’s parents went there and gave up? Not good, but he figured his way out of that stuck place himself. A way for parents to get unstuck might be to get our kids to help us turn “Parents vs. Gaming” itself into a game. It can definitely be done – see Jane McGonigal’s description of the seriously fun game “Chore Wars” that actually (truly) gets chores done on p. 120 of Reality Is Broken. We can also enlist our kids’ participation in an ongoing family discussion (open-minded and -hearted on the part of all parties) about the pluses and minuses of gaming, based on the bulleted list above. The goal: to support conscious self-regulation (and self-knowledge). But remember it’s a goal – doesn’t need to happen yesterday – and a little calibration between self- and parental regulation is often needed in the learning process toward it.

Related links

* For examples of how technology can help regulate gaming (just help, not replace the self- or parental kinds), see Microsoft’s page about Xbox’s robust parental controls at and Sony’s page for parents about controls for PlayStation Network, PS3, and PSP. Microsoft and Sony are members of the Gamer Safety Alliance, part of the international trade association the Merchant Risk Council. The MRC describes itself as “uniting online retailers and gamers, card brands [e.g., cards like Visa and MasterCard used in and for Xbox Live], law enforcement agencies and solution providers to make the internet a preferred and safe place to shop and play.”
* How Xbox is increasingly as much a system for consuming entertainment as playing games
* Our “Tips for Smart Videogaming” at
* My post last week about a game that helps teens beat depression

Correction: I originally referred to the Monitor piece as having been written by Scott Armstrong. My sincere apologies to Robert Lehrman!

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