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Fortnite, Minecraft, GTA: what makes online games so compelling?

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“I’m coming, just one more lap!” Then that one lap turns into many more, trying the parents’ nerves and creating tension in the family. Why is it so hard for children to tear themselves away from video games? Don’t endless hours spent at the controller lead to aggression? How can you tell if your child’s gaming habit has turned into an addiction?

Daniel Betschart, gaming expert at Pro Juventute, answers some burning questions from parents and offers a few helpful tips on dealing with online games as a family.

My son could spend all day playing Fortnite or FIFA and not get bored for a second. What’s the appeal of these games? 

Human beings are born with the urge to play. It’s how children learn about their world. Computer games appeal very strongly to this need. Put simply, they’re a lot of fun. Winning and losing, striving to keep getting better, discovering new worlds, trying new things, learning, and communicating with others...there are lots of facets to the fascination with games. Online game developers deliberately use various mechanisms to design games so exciting and entertaining that we’ll go online as often and for as long as possible to play them. For instance, rewards in the form of points, new outfits or gold coins increase our motivation to keep playing and work our way up through the levels.

How can I tell whether my child’s addicted to gaming?

First of all, the word “addicted” is overused these days when it comes to games. Not all intensive gaming qualifies as addiction. It’s true that “gaming disorder” is now a recognized condition, but the bar for diagnosis is set high. A number of symptoms must be observed over a period of months: the gamer increasingly loses control over how long and how often he or she plays and shuns other activities that offer some form of balance in favor of gaming.

Nevertheless, parents should watch out for the warning signs. Neglecting school or college, avoiding social contact, often feeling exhausted or noticeable changes in behavior or physical appearance could signal that your child has a gaming problem. That said, these symptoms might also point to a different problem, such as bullying at school or family arguments. Some children see the virtual world of computer games as a place to escape their problems in the real world. In some cases, the “warning signs” listed above are simply part of puberty.

Is gaming harmful in terms of concentration, vision or posture?

Excessive consumption of digital media can affect your health – not playing games as such, just staring at a screen for a long time, not experiencing enough variety or movement. It’s the same with watching TV or swiping your way through Instagram or TikTok for hours on end. It can lead to bad posture, headaches or even putting on weight through lack of exercise. Common short-term effects include dry, tired eyes, something we adults are familiar with from working in front of a screen all day. The flow of a game actually enhances concentration to some extent, but this effect shouldn’t be overstated.

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    Daniel Betschart

    Daniel Betschart is Program Manager for Media Skills at Pro Juventute. He was previously in charge of debt prevention and consumer affairs at the young persons’ charity, and before that he was a youth worker in the city of Zurich for seven years. Daniel is a qualified sociocultural educator and a father of two.

Do some computer games really cause aggressive behavior?

It isn’t easy to gauge the extent to which computer games make a person aggressive or trigger feelings of aggression. It’s clear that online games and their content do have an effect on children and young people. They may indeed be agitated and prone to aggressive thoughts after playing certain games, but violent games don’t make people violent in themselves. Violence in children and adults alike is usually triggered by a range of other factors, such as alienation, violence experienced at the hands of friends or family members, or psychological problems.

“Just one more lap!”: as parents, how do we make sure our children’s gaming doesn’t rule our lives?

It can be genuinely difficult for children and young people to “switch off”, which often creates a stressful situation for the rest of the family due to the huge potential for conflict. As is so often the case, it all starts with self-awareness. Adults can also find it hard to put a good book down or to stop binge-watching a gripping thriller on Netflix.  

That’s why parents should talk to their children about gaming: about how they long they play for, how they behave when they’re playing, and what’s in the games. We recommend sitting down with your children to agree rules on media use – how often, at what times or how long. If this is done together, they’re more likely to accept the rules and keep to them,

but children aren’t so good at self-control, so they do need adults to step in when it’s time to switch off. A timer or alarm clock can help here.

How do I know which games are the most addictive?

That’s often hard to judge from the outside. Some games take up vast amounts of time and are designed to keep you constantly going online, for instance to develop your virtual city’s population. In-game rewards are especially addictive. When you’re rewarded, it provides a buzz that can become habit-forming. The opposite can also be true: if you lose achievements or drop down the league table when you take a break, you feel the urge to keep playing.

Where can I found out more about which games are harmful and which are suitable for my children?

You can find a general overview of video games, complete with age ratings and content descriptions, at pegi.info, but the PEGI (Pan European Game Information) age recommendations don’t tell you anything about a game’s educational value or quality. The site spieleratgeber-nrw.de, run by the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is a more insightful resource for parents. It contains reviews by experts as well as young gamers. Parents can also get a first impression of games by watching YouTube or Twitch.

However much research you do, it’s important to observe how your child reacts to a game and talk to him or her about it. Is the child relaxed, aggressive or unable to concentrate after playing? These are good indicators of whether or not the game is suitable.

What’s the difference between games I buy in physical form and online games I download?

Almost all games are now available online. It makes no difference whether you buy them on a disc or as a download. The differences lie in the business models, especially between games you pay full price for and those advertised as free to play. Once you’ve bought a full-price game, it doesn’t force you to keep spending. It might offer downloadable content that you have to pay for later on, such as expansion packs, but the costs are always transparent. Things are very different with free-to-play titles. 

Our son’s always making in-app purchases in online games. He says he needs them to keep playing. Is that true?

That depends on the game, but it is indeed true for a lot of them. Free-to-play games start out free, but they employ various strategies to make money, most commonly by making you pay real money to progress further or more quickly or even just to keep playing. They draw you in by letting you play for free, then encourage you to make more and more small payments for in-game purchases as you go on. To make matters worse, they often use their own currencies to disguise the true cost. Some tricks, such as “loot boxes”, also involve an element of gambling that has no place in games for younger players but is sadly common practice. In most cases, you can go into a mobile device’s settings and turn off in-app purchases.

Why are girls much less interested in gaming than boys?

The difference between the sexes isn’t so clear-cut nowadays, but I think it has something to do with the evolution of games and the games on offer. In the early days, games were very technical and focused more on “boys’ stuff” like racing cars, fighting or warfare.

Since the turn of the millennium, however, women have been catching up – not just as players, but as developers too. The Sims, for example, had a higher proportion of female players, and there are now games targeted specifically at a female audience. 

My son’s 13. What’s a “healthy” level of screen time for his age?

Most parents want a screen time limit in minutes per day for each age group. This kind of guidance does exist, but there’s more to healthy media use than that. To put it into figures, you can allow around one hour of screen time per week for every year of age. That means 13 hours per week for a 13-year-old.

However, children are all different, so this might be too much for some, whereas others might be OK with a little more. It’s not just about how much time the child spends in front of a screen, it’s also about what’s on that screen, how mature the child is, and whether he or she is exercising creativity or just passively consuming media. Children need a wide range of experiences in their free time, support from their parents as regards media use, and of course plenty of sleep.

We can’t ban online games completely, so which is better: before schoolwork or after it as a reward?

In principle, digital media shouldn’t be used as either a reward or a punishment. It gives them an extra cachet that most families would be better off without. I’d be inclined to say “work first, then play,” but a quick gaming session to unwind after a stressful day at school before sitting down to do homework can be a good thing, provided it’s kept short.

One last question: are there any positive sides to gaming?

Of course there are! Gaming is fun, and lots of children and young people find it relaxing. It can also promote development in a number of respects, such as hand-eye coordination, reactions, the ability to make decisions quickly, spatial awareness, and strategic thinking.

Playing with others also improves communication skills and (to some extent) teamwork. What’s more, dealing with winning and losing can improve perseverance and tolerance of frustration.

Obviously, it’s worth remembering that anyone can achieve these things without playing video games. There are some great ways for children and young people to learn them in the real word – football, the scouting movement or even just playing outside.

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