By Scott Steinberg
"The family that plays together stays together.” It’s usually said in half-jest, but there’s a thread of truth in the saying. When parents and kids enjoy a video game as a group, they’re also learning good sportsmanship, engaging in communication, and just getting a chance to sit, talk, and open up to one another.
Many therapists recommend that families wind down together with at least one game night a week, though video games aren’t often credited as “healthy” activities like Monopoly or Jenga. Coupled with good gaming habits though, video games can be a fun and healthy way to bond with family. Here are a few ways for you and yours to get the most out of video games.
1. Set time limits. When you’re enjoying games as a family unit, how much time spent in front of the TV is too much? There’s no hard number: Much depends on what your schedule is like, and when free time is available. An hour-and-a-half of game time together is generally considered a good, solid number. That way, the family has ample time to get into the game, but nobody will sink into a pit of screen fatigue.
2. Try multiplayer games. Online multiplayer games can be a lot of fun for a family if the proper resources (like multiple computers/consoles) are at hand. If that’s not possible, there are lots of games that offer local multiplayer right in your living room. One extremely popular multiplayer choice is New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii, which allows up to four players to play at once. Others include Cars 2: The Video Game, Rayman Origins for Xbox 360 and PS3 and Pictionary from THQ.
3. Use free-to-play parent accounts. There are countless free-to-play massively-multiplayer online (MMOs) games on the Internet, and some of them encourage parents to play alongside their kids with special “parent” accounts. For a fun, educational online gaming experience that also makes a great bonding activity and way to span the distance between generations, try playing titles like Moshi Monsters or Herotopia with your children.
4. Provide healthy snacks. We’re all guilty of reaching for the potato chips and Mountain Dew when we game. But when kids get involved, it’s as good a time as any to practice better snacking habits. Try fresh veggies and dip, cheese, water, or fruit juice as healthy substitutes. At the very least, look for zero-calorie, fat-free, low-fat or diet options as an alternative to standard junk food and soda that pile on the empty calories.
5. Promote patience and stress relief. Sometimes we all get upset with video games. But while a little frustration is to be expected when a game doesn’t go your way, when you game as a family, you should disallow cursing, screaming, and controller-throwing. That goes for adults as well as kids! If you do get upset, simply pause, step back and take a deep breath. Taking a temporary break won’t just help you relieve stress. It’ll also allow you to approach titles with a cooler head and steadier hand, and perform better while playing as a result.
6. Engage in cooperative games. Some games only provide one save file with which to store your progress, but this can be an ideal way to play as a family. With games like Nintendogs + Cats for the Nintendo 3DS or Animal Crossing for the Nintendo DS or Wii, you can all share in the process of raising a puppy or building a town. These low-stress games are also a good way to ease a non-gamer into the digital world. Other options such as the many LEGO video games or dance titles like Michael Jackson: The Experience let you actively play together, going on sprawling adventures or rocking the house with help from the entire clan. Whether manually taking turns passing the controller at agreed-upon times or using the dedicated “co-op” modes that certain titles offer, collaborative play can be a lasting source of entertainment that brings families closer together.
7. Set up parental controls. Virtually every video game console from this generation (and presumably all of those going forward) offers parents the chance to tap into built-in controls that can regulate play time or filter out potentially offensive content. This can be an effective way to ensure that the family only plays games at designated times or options that are appropriate for all ages. Some even offer features that can block Internet connectivity, prohibit play at preset hours and restrict access to inappropriate films, giving you complete control over when, what and how your grandkids play.
8. Balance gaming with physical activity. Family game time is a blast, but don’t forget to mix things up as far as family activities go. Set aside time to hike, ride bikes, play outdoors, or start up a game of hockey or baseball. Dr. Clem Bottino from Children’s Hospital Boston encourages families to play video games together, but believes there needs to be a balance with other activities as well. “I recommend one hour of physical activity – playing outside, basketball, walking, swimming…any moving activity – for each hour spent playing video games,” he says. You might consider boosting the requirement to two hours if getting outside and enjoying nature or physical activity is particularly important to your family.
9. Don’t play too late. Dr. Bottino also warns that gaming can be an intense activity to engage in before bedtime. “Your mind should be calm and peaceful before going to sleep,” he explains. “Turning off your game at least one hour before bedtime can help maximize restful sleep.”
10. Consider active gaming. Playing video games isn’t strictly a sedentary activity. Families can really get up and moving with motion-sensing “active game” titles that engage the whole body, including games like Just Dance and Dance Dance Revolution, and games that utilize the Wii Balance Board or remote, PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect. Even better, many active games are very easy to learn, which makes them ideal for introducing non-gamers to the pastime.
High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the author of The Modern Parents Guide to Kids and Video Games, free to download on Kindle, Sony Reader, and as a PDF.
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