It has been fifteen months since my 13-year-old son regularly played video games.
He says he hasn’t really noticed a difference: “Not playing doesn’t really affect my life that much,” he told me. Then, after a little reflection, “I’m probably happier.”
“You’re a lot happier,” I said. While it’s hard for him to remember more than a year ago, it’s not difficult for me. I remember his constant talk about what he was playing, his desire to always be in front of the screen, and his quick, sometimes emotional reactions when we told him it was time to get off. I remember how video games starved the fruit of the Spirit in him, and how that fruit blossomed once my husband and I turned the games off.
That makes it sound like an easy decision, but back then, it wasn’t. We were caught between the trouble we knew—my son’s struggles with gaming—and the trouble we didn’t—would he have nothing to do and no one to play with?
In case you’re caught in that same situation, let me share some things we’ve discovered about the world of video gaming.
Video Games Have Changed
Back in the 1990s, my husband used to play games like MarioKart in his friends’ living rooms after school. But that’s not what our son was asking to do. He was asking to play different titles—games that are much more sophisticated and life-like. And he was not tied to the living room—he could play on a mobile device in the car or his bedroom or the kitchen.
Those two changes led to a third one: the time factor. In 1999, about half of teen boys in the United States spent about 30 minutes a day playing video games. Today, almost all (97 percent) play for an average of 2 hours and 20 minutes per day.
Our son wasn’t playing that much—we were strict about how much time he could spend online. But we did notice that however much we gave him, it was never enough. And then we discovered there was a reason for that.
The Economics Have Changed
Twenty years ago, it was easy to see how video game companies made money: they sold video games.
That’s no longer true. Today, video game companies make nearly 90 percent of their income from in-app purchases, or microtransactions. That’s when you can buy something small—say, a loot box, a vehicle, or a weapon—which can help you look better or progress faster as you play.
This is a significant change. It means that video game companies care far less about what you spend on the game. Some even give their games away for free. Instead, they are working hard to keep you playing the game for as long as possible. The longer you’re on, the more time and desire you have to purchase upgrades.
To that end, major video game companies have had psychologists on staff for more than a decade. Their job is to come up with psychological penalties (you can lose opportunities if you don’t log in enough) and incentives (you can gain levels, track streaks, hear triumphant sound effects, earn gold coins, and never see your score on a massive leader board. If there are too many people listed, those toward the bottom might get discouraged and quit).
No wonder teen boys are spending so much time online.
If you’re like me, you don’t keep a psychologist on staff to help your family identify and evaluate how these strategies affect your child’s brain. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. There are additional concerns around issues such as bullying, playing with strangers, and addiction, so parents would be wise to lean in to these concerns as they seek to faithfully navigate the world of video games.
Parenting Strategies Need to Change
The most helpful question my husband and I asked ourselves was: What is good, healthy, God-glorifying play supposed to look like?
We knew it should bring wonder and delight at the way God made our world (Ps. 8). When our kids play, we want them to be astonished, to be surprised at discovering something new about themselves or about God or the way things work.
Play should also engage both minds and bodies. We want our kids to think through how to get up into a tree, how to mix paints to get just the right color, or how to invent a storyline to act out. Play should be both creative and challenging.
It should also be fun. We want our kids to laugh when they play, to relax, to set down any stress they’re carrying. Play should take our kids into a different head space, one where they don’t have to worry about homework deadlines or relationship drama. Play should be a break from work, even a child’s work of growing and learning.
We want our kids to play in relationship, with a variety of friends. We want them to play as a way to build good and healthy connections and as a way to serve each other. We want them to practice chivalry and kindness, to practice selflessness and generosity, to practice hospitality and patience. We want play to grow the fruit of 1 Corinthians 13 in our kids as they interact with others.
If you can easily see how video games are growing those virtues in your child, that’s great, you are all set.
If you can’t, you might be where my husband and I were last year.
Powering Down the Games
We were at a loss. We tried tightening our son’s restrictions, but it didn’t seem to help. His video game play always seemed to leave him more stressed out, more tired, and more irritated. So we decided to take a whole month off: no video games at all.
For the first couple of weeks, he complained. But since we’d been strict with limits before, he quickly switched his attention to other things. He made cardboard targets and shot them with a bow and arrow. He read books, played board games, and played catch with his brother. He built complicated structures out of Legos, went to the gym with his dad, and was happier and more willing to help with chores around the house.
That was our favorite part—the fruit of the Spirit that we could see sprouting in him almost immediately. He was gentler, kinder, and more patient with himself and others. He was less anxious and more joyful. (To be honest, his changes looked a lot like mine after I got off social media.)
We never looked back. When the month was over, we talked with him about making the change permanent. He shrugged and said okay. I barely waited for him to leave the room before I started dancing.
For us, this was the right choice. It might not be for you. But given the changes in the industry, it’s worth asking the questions: what does God-honoring play look like? And how can your family head in that direction? With the help of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to navigate these questions alone.
If you’re interested in exploring some of the answers to these questions, we hope you’ll consider joining us for our 2023 Conference in Nashville, TN. Sarah Zylstra will be presenting a workshop on “How to Help Your Child Navigate Video Games.” We’d love to see you there!