“We absolutely had no video games in our house,” said Wendy in a parents’ focus group. “We had a ’no video games‘ rule for years. When my son was in 4th grade, we finally broke down and got a video game system, because he kept coming home from school saying, ‘I’m completely out of the conversation. I don’t have anything to talk about. I don’t have anything to add.”
Academic research on video games and kids has typically focused on games played in isolation. Yet for many young teens in our surveys and focus groups, friendship was a major factor in their video game play. Forty percent of middle-school boys and almost a third of girls agreed that one attraction of video games is that “my friends like to play.” Roughly one-third of both boys and girls said that they enjoyed teaching others how to play video games.
According to Bill, another parent, “Most of the interaction my son has with his buddies is about solving situations within a game. It’s all about how do you go from this place to that place, or collect the certain things that you need, and combine them in ways that are going to help you to succeed.”
Wendy saw a similar pattern with her son: “Jody and Alex talk constantly in the car and everywhere else about the games and the characters, so it’s part of their friendship, part of what they do and what they like to play…. And they give each other help sometimes when they get to different levels.”
Research conducted for the British Board of Film Classification found differences in the ways in which boys and girls approach playing video games. “More broadly, the social rewards of gaming—talking about how you are doing, playing together, helping or beating each other—are less a part of the attraction for females than males.”
Nick Yee’s surveys of (mostly adult) online game players also found that socializing was an important motivator. They enjoyed being part of a team, helping others, and forging solid relationships. This suggests that video games could play a role in healthy friendships for children and adults.
But what about violent games? The image of a friendless child holed up in his bedroom, practicing his sniper skills on a bloody video game is a parent’s nightmare. Our survey found that children who play Mature-rated games are not more likely than other children their age to play games alone. In fact, compared to children who don’t play M-rated games regularly, M-game players were significantly more likely to play games in social settings, with one or more friends in the same room.
According to researcher Jeffrey Goldstein, Ph.D., “Violent entertainment appeals primarily to males, and it appeals to them mostly in groups. People rarely attend horror films or boxing matches alone, and boys do not often play war games by themselves. These are social occasions, particularly suitable for “male bonding” and communicating a masculine identity to your mates.”
Boys often use rough-and-tumble play fighting to explore aggression. They aren’t out to hurt each other, but to establish dominance and a social pecking order. Video game play could serve as another arena to continue that healthy battle for status among one’s peers.
C.J., age 12, comments: “Usually me and my friends, when we’re over at each others’ houses, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll kill you in Madden NFL.’ It’s fun to beat them.”
In early adolescence, boys also use play fighting as a way to test budding relationships with girls. This could easily translate to play fighting in video games. We’d like to see studies done to explore this, and how video games might be used to promote healthy boy/girl friendships as well as same-gender friendships.
Even though “I like to compete and win”—a very popular reason for video game play—could refer to beating one’s personal best, or a computer-generated foe, challenging and defeating a real person has definite pluses when it comes to helping young teens figure out social relationships. “I like to play with a friend better because then when you win, you can gloat,” said Mike. “But then, if you lose then they gloat, too. So it’s fun, and it’s pretty even matched, when you play versus a friend. And I like playing versus a friend better ’cause you can talk. You can’t talk to the PS2 or the XBox or anything.”
Boys also gain status among peers by owning or mastering a popular game. “My 12-year-old son isn’t a particularly good athlete,” says Richard Falzone, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Boston area. “But he’s very competitive on video games. It gives him a certain social status and a certain respect among other kids. And it expands his peer group.”
Roberta, in another focus group, said, “One of my son’s biggest pleasures is to have a couple of guys sleep over, and ask me to take them to the video store and rent a game that they’ve never played. You’ll see them all sitting on the couch together almost having a conference, and they’ll take turns manipulating the figures.”
W. George Scarlett, Ph.D., a psychologist at Tufts University who’s an expert on children’s play, has two sons who are video gamers. “Video games are a foundation for many kids’ relationships. It impresses me how one kid can be playing a video game and as many as five kids can be around him and participating in what’s going on.”
In our survey, relatively few children chose “to make new friends” as a reason they played video games. But in focus groups, several boys mentioned that video games helped them structure conversations with potential friends.
“You say, ‘Do you own a system, a game system?’” explained Carlos. “If he says ‘yes,’ then, ‘What kind? PS2, Gamecube, Xbox?’ Like that.”
“When kids first meet, they’ll often ask, ‘What games are you into?’” adds Falzone. “The common language and common experience is an instant icebreaker. It allows them to be interested in somebody else and to share a part of themselves. It’s a vehicle for connection.”
We’ve observed the icebreaker role of games in our own family, at holiday gatherings. Cousins who had been apart for months (an eternity for a child) could settle in with a video game and quickly resume their friendship.
Given the role of video game play in starting and maintaining friendships, there is potential for games to help socially awkward children gain acceptance and self-esteem. Game developer John Feil described how a friend’s child, who was born prematurely and suffered a number of problems with overall health and coordination, has benefited from involvement with video games. “He had trouble walking for many years. But he’s smart intellectually. Getting him video games let him be Batman and Superman. It helped him feel empowered,” says Feil. “It also let him feel competitive, without having to develop a lot of physical strength.”