One evening, I called my sons to come to eat — and got no response.
True confession: In anger, I marched into their room and kicked off the power button on their gaming console.
You’d have thought it was the end of the world. The boys were so mad and upset at me as their screen went blank. I brought them down to dinner, and my response to their behavior would typically have been: “You’re wasting away your life on video games.”
But that night, I chose to be curious instead of critical. I asked them: “Why is video gaming so important to you?”
I am so glad I asked. My boys were surprised, responding, “Mom, you really want to know?”
I replied: “Yes!”
They said: “Mom, everybody we know plays video games.”
They weren’t exaggerating. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 2.5 billion people on this planet are gamers. (“Gamer” simply refers to somebody that plays video games.) That’s roughly one-third of humanity.
My boys helped me discover an entire world that I knew nothing about, let alone knew how to parent. Gaming today is a connected, multiplayer, interactive entertainment experience. It’s full of competition, problem solving, puzzles, logic. Good stuff, right? It’s also full of conversations, culture, history, musical scores, art, dialogue, moral choices — stuff you actually want your kids to learn. Plus, gaming has philosophy, strategy, and amazing skill.
Imagine reading a really good book, or watching a great movie or sporting event — but this time you get to manipulate it, compete in it and interact with it. That’s modern video gaming.
The boys continued to teach me more things. For example, they told me that when I shut off the game, they get a suspension, explaining, “Mom, we have a responsibility and you keep asking us to pause the game. You can’t pause an online game. Seriously, Mom, you can’t pause a game.”
Then they said this: “You actually hurt us when you call us ‘loners’ and ‘losers’. We’re live on a headset in a multiplayer game with our friends, and we’re actually meeting new, real friends.”
That was the day I had an earth-shattering epiphany — I’m more alone in the kitchen cooking dinner than my boys are gaming upstairs. So I started embracing my kids as gamers, and this is what I yell out still to this day; “It’s almost time for dinner, where are you at in your game ?” I find out, I make the adjustment, and then we have that peaceful connected family dinner that I wanted in the first place.
One time, my oldest son Connor came to me and said “Mom, seriously, what do I need to do to get you to leave me alone after 3PM today?” I realized I could use his request to my advantage. So I made a list: Get your homework done and engage with Grandma at the table at lunch time (eye contact and all); I even added pulling weeds to the list. He got everything done. He said “Mom, this is so cool. All I really wanted to do this afternoon was rank up.”
In gaming, there are levels and leagues and rewards to be earned, so I figured if it’s important to him, it needed to be important to me too. This is exactly what Dr. Chris Haskell, associate clinical professor and esports head coach from Boise State University, says about his esport scholar-athletes. He is looking for gamers that have goals and are willing to improve in their game. In fact, many colleges now give scholarships for esports, and both the military and other industries now use video-game-type simulations in their jobs.
I started treating gaming like a sport with practices and everything. Would you go to your kid’s soccer practice or their baseball game and start yelling at the coach, “Stop everything, my kid needs to take out the trash now”? Of course not. I chose to let my kids game uninterrupted as long as they first took care of their responsibilities.
Gaming brings the entire world together with its common language and its team dynamics. Young people are watching others play video games. I used to criticize them for doing this. Well, my husband also watches other people play games — he’s a huge San Francisco 49ers fan. This past season, a game went into overtime and ended up lasting for four-and-a-half hours. Did I go lecture my husband and say, “You’re rotting your brain away and you’re wasting your life”? I chose to let him enjoy watching pro sports. When a gamer is watching another person play video games, they’re usually watching the pros and they’re trying to get tips and tricks for the games that they play.
Since I began talking to my sons about gaming, I’ve had a chance to interview some professional gamers. One of them remembered a time when he was with his extended family, and they were all going around sharing about their lives and trying to catch up with one another. When it was his turn, he started talking about video games and his love of playing. One of his aunts rudely announced to everyone: “Why don’t you tell us something that people are actually interested in?”
Everybody had a good laugh at his expense, and he’s hardly talked to his extended family since then — and that was over a decade ago. I wonder what would have happened if that aunt had chosen to be curious instead of critical?
By now you may be thinking, “Well, she didn’t bring up about any of the bad stuff about video games.” You’re right.
It’s true — there are concerns with online communication and other issues, but that’s why it’s even more important to be involved in a gamer kid’s life. In my own home, my sons and I have maintained an open dialogue about online behavior and balance. Now, years later, I know my younger son still games with his older brother, even though they’re over 300 miles apart. This melts my heart. Gaming has kept their connection close.
My advice isn’t just for parents. It’s also for grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles, godparents, good friends, school administrators and other relatives: Be curious.
Here’s a simple solution. Start a conversation with your gamer kid by asking them these three questions:
What games do you play?
Why do you enjoy playing those particular games?
Can I watch you game sometime?
If we don’t embrace gaming, we might lose connection with the people that we love the most.
This piece was adapted from a TEDxIdahoFalls Talk. Watch it here:
Cara Lane is a trainer, a motivational speaker, communication coach and author.
This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.