Game Plan

BC Children’s psychiatrist Dr. Tyler Black debunks myths surrounding video games  


Video games are as prevalent in children’s lives as sports, school and playdates.

But many parents, and members of the public, hold a perception of video games as inherently damaging. Often seen as the source of anything from laziness and addiction to, at its extreme, violence – games are sorely misunderstood, according to Dr. Tyler Black, medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency (CAPE) Unit at BC Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Black has immersed himself in the world of video games. Through numerous presentations and through the news media, he validates some of the positive effects on children’s minds and behaviours and offers families new perspectives that can help children as they explore their capabilities and social skills through video games.

“Saying that a child plays video games today is like saying a child breathes oxygen or eats breakfast. It’s simply a normal thing that children do.”

Parents should assure themselves that gaming is normal and healthy, and they’d do their children a favour by asking questions, and entering the child’s mindset the next time he or she picks up a handheld device for Minecraft or Super Mario Bros., or World of Warcraft.

They’re great motivation.

It’s important for kids to learn gaming is a luxury we’re allowed to do when we accomplish life’s other tasks. Real-world responsibilities need to be cleared first, and gaming can be a reward, he says. Many parents use video games as a punishment: ‘you didn’t do your homework; therefore, no video games’. Rather,

Dr. Black advises they reverse the dynamic: ‘If you finish your homework you’ll get to play your video games.’

“If gaming becomes part of a punishment, it becomes a war with parents.”

Parents can reinforce the idea that gaming is recreational, a luxury, says Dr. Black. “Parents can say, ‘you have done what you need to do, so now you can game as much as you want.’”

They can be distractions from the real issue.

“Kids will seek out video games to provide things the real world doesn’t provide,” Dr. Black notes.

Often, the plots are so involved it becomes easy for children to live in the video game, distracting them from troubles at school or among friends.

“If a child is gaming a lot, it’s because he or she is getting something from it that the real world is not giving: a sense of accomplishment or control, where in the real world, many things might be challenging,” says Dr. Black.

“They’re compensating for some lack in the real world that the game provides them—control, identity, mastery.”

Parents can ask themselves: is there an environment or situation my child is exposed to that is too overwhelming?

Can I help them get involved in a real-world activity that can help them develop skills, and lift their self-esteem?

They’re great teachers—and they can help with bonding.

“A lot of parents have a notion of primitive video games, where you’re just solving a puzzle. But the reality is, there are very diverse and varied environments online,” says Dr. Black.

“Games are social, there are helpful things, hurtful things, and plots where a child can feel like they’ve accomplished something like finishing a story or solving a game.”

When a parent plays or watches video games alongside their child, the experience will give them a touchpoint, give the child more confidence, and foster the “parent as guide” role, says Dr. Black.

In general, Dr. Black says parents might ask themselves if they’re making a moral judgment on video gaming. Labelling the pastime itself could serve to bypass issues that really preoccupy children. Also, he advises that parents and caregivers learn more about the game itself: know the ratings, play alongside, and encourage the child to vary his or her experiences and pastimes.

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