Let kids be kids, let them play video games

Instead of stopping kids from playing, lay ground rules and guide their choices

A boy plays a video game at an electronics retail shop. PHOTO: AFP

I could tell you about the educational benefits for your children of playing video games .

For instance, it improves reaction time, hand-eye coordination, cognitive development, and even social and negotiating skills when your children buy and sell virtual items in the game.

If your child is a clan leader who is organising successful 40-man raids on the most secure dungeons, he or she is probably a child prodigy who has great people-management skills and is a master of operational efficiency.

If he or she is playing Minecraft non-stop, you would probably have read 101 articles on how the game - in which players mine materials from the environment to create buildings in all shapes and sizes - helps the child with creativity and problem-solving.

There is even a study that shows that video gamers make better surgeons.

But you don't need me to tell you all these. Just Google "video game benefits" and they will all show up.

What I really do want to talk about is the issue of video-game addiction. As long as parents are afraid that their kids will turn into mind-warped zombies who do nothing except sit in front of their computer screens - and mobile phones these days - all day long to grow vegetables, shoot monsters and conquer castles, the fear of addiction will outweigh any benefits one can think of.

For psychologists, addiction is a dirty word because it stigmatises a child believed to suffer from this problem, and it is hard to define at what point a child becomes addicted to video games.

One child can be playing five hours of video games every day and not be an addict if it does not interfere with his or her ordinary responsibilities in life.

Another child can be gaming for the same amount of time, and forgoing sleep, studying and even meals. It really depends on each case.

So a child who spends a lot of time gaming may not be an addict, though the many hours of game time may perhaps be better spent on playing sports to improve health or visiting museums to learn more about the history of Singapore.

Addiction - I use the word loosely here to mean the spending of too much time on playing video games, from a parent's point of view - is not something that happens overnight, but once a child is engrossed in a game, it is often difficult to get him or her to stop.

As someone who has been an avid video gamer since I was a child, I can understand how easy it is to be sucked into virtual worlds.

I almost failed my first year in law school because I was spending almost all of my waking hours in front of the screen. I skipped lectures because I could not wake up in time, procrastinated on assignments because I was too busy conquering China, and started studying for my final exam just a week before the dreaded day.

I have not stopped playing video games. Even now, with a hectic work schedule and three young kids to manage, I still put in an hour or two of video gaming on average every day.

For many years of my life, I felt lousy about myself.

I felt I could have done a lot better in my law course had I spent more time studying.

I knew I had the potential.

When I scored an A in law of trusts - only one of two students who did so that year - my classmates couldn't believe it and my tutor said it was a "pleasant surprise".

I felt I could have been fitter had I spent more time playing sports.

I can't remember when it happened but, over the years,

I have learnt that video games were the easy culprit to blame for what I now see was a lack of discipline and self-responsibility when I was younger.

The truth of the matter is that playing video games is just another activity.

Undergraduates will also miss lectures if they had spent the whole night partying and drinking alcohol instead of playing video games.

My second daughter spends a lot of time doing other things instead of studying.

At one time, it was playing video games.

When I stopped her, she turned to reading grammatically horrifying fan fiction on her tiny smartphone screen.

My youngest daughter, who is just four years old, doesn't play video games, but she can watch cartoons on Netflix until she falls asleep on the sofa.

My eldest daughter spends very little time on video games, turning to pursuits such as building electrical circuits and drawing manga in her free time.

But these do not affect her studies because she is naturally studious and hard-working.

It would be unreasonable in this day and age to ban your kids from playing video games.

Gaming used to be limited to just a group of kids in my time but, these days, kids who don't play video games are not the norm, especially if they are boys.

I still remember my friend calling me a couple of years ago, desperate for advice from the video-game guru on how to get her son immersed in video games because the other children on his school bus thought he was weird and were avoiding him.

More importantly, playing video games is extremely fun (apart from the benefits mentioned earlier), and it would be unkind to deprive your children of what is one of the most enjoyable things to do in their free time.

Almost every child will want to play video games. As they are so engaging, leaving your kids to play them unsupervised is definitely not a good idea.

But banning them is also a bad move because it will just encourage your children to play behind your back, to taste the sweetness of the forbidden fruit.

Parents should learn about these games and steer their children away from certain games that can be more addictive than others.

Watch out for many of the "free-to-play" games, which are deliberately designed to suck your kids into the games. The business model is to give out the game for free to capture a huge audience of gamers, of which 5 to 10 per cent will become so glued to it that they spend hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars on it.

Look out, too, for those games in which gamers can pay real money to get a chance to gain advantages, such as powerful "weapons" or the ability to complete tasks immediately instead of having to wait for hours and days. These are the ones that can wreak havoc with their savings and their lives.

A game for a single player that is over when he beats the final obstacle is a good option because there is an end to the game, like a movie. I like card-strategy games, such as Hearthstone and Magic, which encourage competitive play and require the use of brain power to beat the opponent.

The most important thing is balance. Teach your child to balance playing video games with other pursuits, such as watching movies at the cinema, doing sports, eating ice cream, cleaning up their own mess and finishing their homework.

As my 13-year-old daughter put it: "Playing video games is okay. You just need to manage your time and be responsible to yourself."

Wise words indeed. I'm going to play a game of Magic. And it is a lot more fun to do that, now that I have finished my homework for the day.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline Let kids be kids, let them play video games. Subscribe