Apr. 21, 2020

By Robert Denton Bryant, director of the Video Game Development and Animation Program, St. Edward’s University

AUSTIN, Texas— The global pandemic has changed so much about the way we think about everyday behavior — including how much time should be allotted to playing video games.

Just two years ago, we in the video game industry were concerned that the World Health Organization (WHO) officially designated “Gaming Disorder” as a real disease.

But last month, the WHO teamed up with a consortium of more than 50 leading video game publishers and endorsed the #PlayApartTogether campaign, which encourages the playing of video games as a means of maintaining social connections and staying busy during quarantine.

Even with stay-at-home mandates, parents often feel guilty about letting their kids play video games. My own parents worried about my sister and me watching too much TV. Parents worry. It’s their job. Games are like any other medium. There can be negative effects of overindulgence. But there can also be positive effects, such as lowering stress levels, making social connections and allowing us, even as adults, to feel a sense of achievement.

No matter the circumstances, children yearn for autonomy and agency. They want to make their own decisions at a moment’s notice — beholden only to their whims and curiosity. They want to change their minds. They want freedom from planning. They need the boundless playground.

That’s where video games can help to bridge the gap. The most common parenting concern since smartphones became ubiquitous in our culture is that kids have too much “screen time,” and risk not being able to engage with “real life.”

But that’s exactly the point. In a recent New York Times op-ed, gaming experts Andrew Przybylski and Pete Etchells cited their own research showing “that two hours a day of screen-based leisure is associated with improved peer relationships and increased sociality.”

Like books and movies, games allow us to distract ourselves from ourselves. We can get lost in trying to corner the turnip market in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in slaying the monster du jour in “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” in simply racing classic cars around Great Britain in “Forza Horizon 4.”

The video game screen is now many children’s only playground. The good news is that it is literally boundless (as long as you have power or batteries). Even before the pandemic, the reason it seemed impossible to pry kids away from screens is what that screen represented: a world in which they could make some choices, however trivial, and experience, in whatever tiny or virtual manner, the consequences of those choices. We all crave autonomy, agency and freedom — even 7-year-olds.

So, of course, all things in moderation. But the next time you feel guilty about your kids spending “too much time” playing video games, relax a little. Let them enjoy the boundless playground while they can.