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ASU Studies How Computer Games Can Strengthen Families

Dr. Elisabeth Hayes (left), Arizona State University

I have fond memories of growing up in the 1990s, when our whole family – Dad, Mom, and boys – would gather around the computer after dinner to play Myst, followed by its sequels Riven and Exile. Like going on an exciting adventure, this was something that we all looked forward to doing together, each of us offering our input on how we might overcome obstacles and solve the puzzles. Within the context of the games we were able to share in disappointments as well as successes, and even at times when we weren’t playing, it provided a common interest that we could talk about. Today, studies confirm what many of us already know: families bond over video game play.

For some parents it may seem counterintuitive; however, the computer games that they think distance them from their adolescent children could actually bring them closer together. Indeed, Arizona State University researchers who study the educational aspects of video games suggest that a shared gaming experience can enhance communication among family members.

Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy and professor in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and Sinem Siyahhan, assistant research professor in Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, have been studying intergenerational play using commercial, off-the-shelf video games. Early last year, the researchers conducted focus groups at ASU Preparatory Academy campuses across the Valley to find out how parents view video game play with their children.

“Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids,” Hayes explained. “Often parents don’t understand that many video games are meant to be shared and can teach young people about science, literacy and problem solving.”

Siyahhan noted that typically elementary school youngsters transitioning to middle school want to develop greater independence from their parents, so these “digital natives” may retreat into solitary video game play. Parents can effectively open the communication lines by engaging their children in family-friendly video games played together.

“Video game play becomes a point of conversation, not a point of conflict,” Siyahhan said. “On the flip side, it’s nice for the child to be able to teach his or her parents about gaming. Our research is finding that sharing this experience cultivates family bonding, learning and well-being.”

According to Hayes, the media attention paid to first-person shooter video games in some cases has colored parent perception of the entire gaming genre. She hopes to bust that myth as she and Siyahhan organize more and more family game nights to show parents that games can promote positive relationships and critical thinking skills.

Siyahhan says, “I deeply care about family well-being and learning. I am convinced that we cannot improve education and hope for social change without supporting families. That is exactly why…I paid particular attention to providing opportunities for collaborative discussions and sharing between parents and children. My goal is to create a shared conceptual play space between parents and children that results where the intergenerational play activity is not only educational but also transformative for the entire family.”

The Center for Games & Impact offers a library of impact guides for parents designed to help facilitate conversations with children about their game play. These guides, based on popular commercially available games such as Minecraft, Portal 2, and SimCity, can be downloaded at http://gamesandimpact.org/impact-guides.

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