If you’re a parent of a gamer kid, you’re not alone. Around 97% of kids in the US play video games. Rapid expansion of gaming apps as well as cheaper and more powerful gaming consoles leaves a lasting impact on the market.
Due to the rapid expansion of the industry over the last two decades, many misconceptions have arisen and not necessarily faded away, despite the scientific evidence that’s been produced.
If you’ve ever experienced the uphill battle of convincing your kid to go exercise instead of playing games, this article is for you.
To convince your gamer kid to exercise, you have to understand what video games mean to them and the psychology behind it.
Back in 2011, we as a species spent 3 billion hours a week playing video games. To put that into perspective, we spend over 342,000 collective years-worth of time devoted to video games every single week.
Many people have been wondering whether all of this collective game-time is ultimately good or bad for us.
Gaming, if left unfettered, can become a serious addiction. And we know that any serious addiction can lead to some serious consequences.
People have even died because they played too many video games. While death amongst gamers due directly to gaming is extremely rare, it doesn’t make it any less shocking.
So are video games actually bad for your health?
Negative effects of video games:
We’ve all heard it one way or another. Violent video games cause people to be more violent.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has garnered the lion’s share of flack from the public for influencing young minds. Many people believe this because of the subject matter of the game: guns, theft, drugs, extreme violence, etc.
The American Psychological Association (APA) published a study in 2016 that claimed, “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
In response, more than 200 academics and professors from around the world wrote an open letter to the APA stating there are other causal factors that lead to increased aggression. Some of these other causal factors include gender, the competitive nature of games as opposed to violent content. Many of these academics also pointed out that measureable violence amongst youth was at a forty year low.
In fact, a report from the Huffington Post points to an Oxford University study that claimed, “Children who play console or PC games for an hour or less per day tend to be more social and satisfied with life than kids who don’t play any video games at all.”
However the same report stated, “Once a child is spending three hours or more in front of their Nintendo, video games begin to take their toll. The researcher found children playing that much every day are more likely to be less happy than non-gamers, as well as more likely to have problems with hyperactivity, attention and relating to their peers.”
The underlying tone of many papers and key findings suggest that balance between video games and real life is what makes a well-rounded human being.
Do video games make you fat?
Whether or not video games cause weight gain is another hotly debated topic. It is unclear whether video games actually cause any weight gain. One study shows that gamers tend to have a higher BMI (body mass index). A higher BMI usually indicates higher levels of fat in the body. However the same study claimed:
Although the findings of this study help illuminate the health consequences of video-game playing, several caveats should be acknowledged. This study uses a cross-sectional design and conclusions about causality cannot be made. The fact that the sample was drawn from a population concentrated in western Washington State and from an Internet-based panel may limit generalizability of the results. However, the data revealed important patterns in health-related correlates of videogame playing, and highlighted avenues for future research.
While evidence has yet to set forth causality on the matter, stereotypes of overweight gamers still exist.
Good things about video games:
It’s easy enough to figure out why video games might be bad for us. They can remove us from physical presence with friends and family, it’s mainly a sedentary activity, and the morals and ethics of video game plots and characters, at times, can be dodgy at best.
However, studies have shown that:
- Playing video games can increase grey matter in the brain.
- Playing video games can improve eyesight for people with cataracts.
- Playing video games can increase your attention span.
- Playing video games makes it easier to track multiple objects at the same time.
In fact, when it comes to some of the more enlightening factors to the goodness of video games, I recommend a Ted talk delivered by Jane McGonigal,, an experienced video game developer and analyst. During her speech, she shared the fundamental character components of gamers:
- Urgent Optimism – Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and continue to keep trying.
- Social Fabric – We like people better when people have beat us in games and gaming can actually help build social bonds.
- Blissful productivity – Gamers are willing to work hard if they are given the right task. This is part of the reason so many hours are spent globally on playing games.
- Epic Meaning – Gamers like planetary-scale stories. They like being a part of something bigger than themselves.
“Gamers are people who think they are individually capable of changing the world. But not the real world, the virtual world,” said McGonical.
So how does this relate to getting kids to like exercise?
The latter quote from McGonical brings up an important psychological concept, Self Determination Theory (SDT). “Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined,” according to Wikipedia.
“Deci and Ryan claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:
Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
Humans have inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically”
This ties into video games in the sense that there’s an outside force (the video game platform) that pushes the gamer in a non-judgmental fashion. Humans naturally want to get good at something, and video games allow this natural tendency for betterment to take place.
“Within the SDT model is [the] human need for autonomy, the idea that we need to be the masters of our own destiny. In gaming this need is obviously addressed very well, with choosing what paths or maps we take in the game, or with our characters,” according to a report from The Telegraph.
We don’t necessarily have that much control of our own lives. Whether we like it or not, many factors in our lives are completely out of our control, which makes the ability to have near total control in video games extremely appealing.
In video games, you level up. Meaning every time you play the game well or achieve a victory, you essentially become more powerful in the game. Leveling up in games often occurs instantly, where as in life we don’t get a counter telling us we’ve leveled up for things like intelligence, strength, or luck.
We can’t always directly see our progress. This lack of clarity is what stops us from pushing forward with our studies, workouts, diets, or other changes we’re trying to make.
But here’s the secret:
Our inherent need for autonomy and advancement can be transferred from the digital world to the real world. We can give epic meaning to our lives by transferring what we enjoy from video games to our lives.
How to get your kid to stop video games and start exercising:
First, you need to figure out if your kid is actually playing an unhealthy amount of games. Have them keep a log (which you might need to accomplish yourself) of time spent playing video games. Many experts agree that 1-2 hours a day should be the maximum level.
Here are some warning signs from WebMD to consider regarding video game addiction:
- Playing for increasing amounts of time
- Thinking about gaming during other activities
- Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
- Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
- Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming
If you’re concerned that your child has an unhealthy attraction to gaming, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
However, if you believe your child isn’t clinically addicted, but unmotivated to try other tasks, you can try to play video games with them. It may seem like counterintuitive advice, but you’ll learn a lot about your child and why they choose to play games.
Playing games with your kid can also increase the bond you have with your offspring. I always remember playing games with my dad early on Sunday mornings before we watched football together. We’d usually go on hikes afterwards. It was that kind of balance that kept everything in perspective, and I often think about it to this day.
Also when I think about it, traditional sports may not be the best for your kid. They definitely weren’t for me. Your kid may not like to play team sports because they aren’t getting the proper psychological support.
Using some concepts from SDT, we can start to understand why. “For example, while a given sport activity may be highly interesting to an individual, a controlling coach who pressures and orders about his or her players can easily diminish a person’s interest and joy of engagement. Similarly, conditions in which one faces non-optimal, overwhelming challenges can lead to feeling incompetent and disengage.” (Ryan, Williams, Patrick, Deci, 2009)
Individual sports and activities may be the key to getting your kid to getting more exercise. Trampolining is an excellent option to consider. In fact, six minutes of jumping is equivalent of running a mile. Other activities to consider include:
- Skiing and Snowboarding
How to get your kid to enjoy exercise:
Sometimes it’s not necessarily the right activity, but the mindset. Use the tenets of gaming such as urgent optimism and epic meaning to give exercise the weight that a difficult video game level offers. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be extremely fun.
Here are a few different ways to look at exercise that might help you get your kid off the couch or computer chair:
- Treat exercise like a game: Create a fitness contract for your kid, yourself, or the family. Adding milestones and creating reward systems continues the mentality of leveling up.
- Make exercise fun: Adults often forget that exercise can be fun, extremely fun. When’s the last time you went jumping on a trampoline? I bet you’ve forgotten how fun it can be. Here’s a great article on how to stay fit using trampoline exercises.
- Slip in Exercises while gaming: There’s often a waiting lobby in multiplayer games that counts as a perfect opportunity to slip in some pushups, crunches, or jumping jacks. You can also do this if you lose which acts a motivator not to lose in-game and gets the blood pumping during otherwise sedentary activities.
- Try playing exercise based games: There’s a reason why the Wii was invented-so make use of it! There’s also a myriad of apps and games that you can use on exercise bikes or jogging.
- Make it a competition: Some kids are extremely competitive. There are some great attractions at Rockin’ Jump to help settle some of those competitive cravings. They have dodgeball games, the vertical climbing wall, or the jousting arena. You can use these areas to nurture that competitive nature on exercise instead of using it in a game.
- Start small: As in any game, no one starts out as master. Make incremental steps to getting fit. The goal should always be attainable.
You can give epic meaning to your child by letting them know that they’re only leveling up in their own lives. Having control over diets and exercise routines make you better able to handle tasks in the real world.
While many of us limit ourselves by what “we can’t do,” but we often forget that we have control over more than we imagine. As the boundaries within virtual frames are contrived, so is our own vision of what the world is and can be.
If life were truly like a video game, what character would you rather be: The character that’s stuck to a room and less willing to explore the rest of the map? Or the explorer who takes risks and gets rewarded in the long run?