When Simon logs into the video game Animal Crossing, he often finds little surprises from his mom, like a giant teddy bear or a knight’s helmet that she sent in the mail when she last played. The seven-year-old and his big brother, whose characters live on the same island as their mom and dad’s, also find ways to have fun at their parents’ expense—pranking them by moving things around the island or burying old tires disguised as fossils. His mom, Brittan Ullrich, says it’s a fun environment for the family to play around in, whether separately or all at once.
“It's time spent with your kids doing something that they love to do with very little pressure and usually lots of laughs,” says the mom of two. “It also helps you share in their interests, and you can talk about it in between playing.”
This dynamic reflects a growing trend that’s seeing more and more parents powering up their computers and video game consoles to spend quality time with their kiddos.
“Today’s parents were the first generation of gamers,” explains Jayson Hilchie, CEO and president of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC). “We grew up with video games, and they were an important part of our childhood. So when our kids become interested, we see it as a fun opportunity to share something together.”
A recent ESAC survey found that gaming continues to be an increasingly social activity for those who play with IRL friends or a community they’ve met virtually. But one of the biggest surprises the survey found was just how many families are coming together to play games online or on consoles like Nintendo, Xbox or PlayStation.
In fact, 74 percent of video game-playing parents reported that they game with their children, an increase of nine percent over the past two years. And 69 percent of these parents said that doing so helps them spend more time with their kids.
“The pandemic really increased the amount of time we were spending on screens,” says David Clark, a parent who games with his two kids a few times a week. “While my son didn’t start playing until seven or eight, my daughter was just three or four—often as a distraction when she was sick or bored. There are some really entertaining and appropriate games that we’ve found for her that we can play interactively.”
According to the survey, David’s play is spot on for families of young kids, the majority of whom reported playing together between one and a few times per week.
While spending time with their kids was tops for parents, survey respondents had plenty more reasons to love their play, like stress relief, joy and cognitive development. With the latter in mind, Jayson likes to put his 10-year-old and seven-year-old in front of age-appropriate games that really challenge their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
David favours open-ended or sandbox-style games (Minecraft is a good example) for his kids. “I feel like they get their imaginations running, and the pace is a little more under their own control,” he says, as compared to more linear, goal-oriented alternatives.
In addition to developmental benefits, multi-player games can offer lots of teachable moments for parents, from lessons in empathy and conflict resolution to reinforcing leadership and social skills.
And gone are the days when gaming was a totally sedentary activity—a trend that has changed Jayson’s preferences as a gamer. “I really enjoy playing games that allow me to be part of the experience, either through motion detection or virtual reality,” whether it’s golfing on PlayStation VR or active role-playing using Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure. “My two young children both enjoy the games we can play together while moving.”
Setting rules and boundaries can help parents feel confident that their kids are safe while gaming. It’s important to take an active role in knowing what kids are playing, who they’re playing with and how much time they play for.
David’s kids only game in the common spaces of their house, where he can see what they’re playing. He pays careful attention to the privacy aspects of his kid’s games, like whether they’re collecting location data, and keeps a close eye on any online social aspects. He also monitors how much each game is pushing purchases, ads and extra investments.
“The other big rule is ‘If you can’t turn it off without a fuss, you don’t get to turn it on’,” he explains. “We really try to emphasize that gaming, while fun, should come second to face-to-face interactions.”
Brittan’s kids aren’t allowed to play any online games that involve voice chat and connecting with strangers, and she and her partner review the violence levels of any new games. “We also have screen time limits and an automatic shut-off on our devices so when the time is up the game shuts off,” she says.
There are industry resources available for parents, like the ESRB ratings system, which helps you choose games that are age-appropriate and learn to set parental controls. ESAC also has a series of videos to help parents set up controls to monitor the types of games their kids are playing and how much time they’re spending online.
Once you’ve picked a game to try, like Minecraft, Mario Kart or Nintendo Switch Sports, see if you find yourself connecting more with your littles. “Playing games with your kids can be a fun and exciting way to spend time together,” says Jayson. “It’s so much better than going to the movies as you not only talk but you work together to solve problems, compete against each other and laugh and scream all while doing it.”