This email came through today:
Some friends have an 11 year old who is heading towards uncontrollable gaming addiction. He plays Mine Craft, and eg last night quietly got up after the parents went to bed and got the iPad before it closed down to the unknown pin and was found playing MineCraft at 3.30am by his dad.
Do you have any thoughts or suggestions? Would you think that a “big brother” relationship with someone like you would help? I gather he is already a wiz with the computer and it looks like being a career orientation.
This is a preadolescent boy who is in the middle of the crisis of facing high school.
Here’s my response (edited slightly):
That’s a really hard question… I honestly don’t know an answer. I can emphathise with him, having experienced that sort of pull myself in the past (and still do at times!). I have some thoughts, I’ve separated under headings to try to make it slightly easier to follow.
General gaming addictions
Usually there is an aim, a goal, something that you want to achieve or get to. You don’t play games simply for the sake of playing, there is something in it that compels you on. It’s a lot like an addiction, in terms of stimulus / response. You get to point A, you celebrate briefly, then the let down means you then want to get to point B, etc. There is never contentment, never an ability to say “I have enough”. The “best” games are the ones where there is pretty much never an ending, there is ALWAYS something else or someone else to beat.
The beginnings of a strategy to deal with this problem could be to have a conversation (probably a longer one over a series of conversations, not just a one off “sit down talk”) helping him to articulate what those goals are. What is it about this particular game that compels him to play? What is the end point? Where does he want to get to? What items is he trying to collect / empires build / enemies defeat / etc? This will usually be either impossible to achieve, or only a subset of what it is possible to achieve in the game (ie, once he has reached that point, there will be another he will want to then reach). Of course, an 11 year old may very well not be able to articulate particularly well what is creating the drive, but it should at least be a beginning.
Unfortunately, a game like minecraft is entirely a sandbox game (that is, it’s just a big world where you do whatever you want), and so there isn’t an “end point” as such (there isn’t really a “Starting point” either!). He will probably have his own goals (probably inarticulate ones) that he is trying to achieve within the game. However that flexibility can also be a part of the solution. It can be used for example to recreate real world objects / places / machines. I know of friends who do outings with their kids, and then go home and get them to recreate the outings on minecraft. This helps create a slightly more healthy balance of interaction between real and virtual worlds.
I think its fair to say that it is too much to expect that he will ever quit playing games for good. This next generation (and perhaps me included in it) has their brains wired in a different way… This is how they are, for good or bad. The kind of stimulus they receive is what they expect to receive. I wouldn’t expect there to be a way to get him to quit for good, rather the conversation should be about
a) managing life
b) learning the appropriate place and use for video games
Within that conversation I would ENCOURAGE video gaming. While that may sound quite strange, I think that simply forbidding or banning games ignores the reality that they will be a part of his life. Furthermore, like all things, it can be good in moderation with thanksgiving. Encourage and support him in his passions, while teaching him their place in life.
This approach may have some real benefits, however for it to be particular successful I would think that you need someone who can meet with the child in real life, as well as play games with them. To have a purely virtual mentor (in the sense of only having online contact) to my mind would be counter-productive.
* Conversation: as mentioned, get talking not about whether he should be playing, but get him talking about what he is playing and why. Make it a positive conversation where he tells you about his goals. They will be awkward at first (not least because the parents won’t have a clue what he’s talking about), but should get easier over time.
* Encouragement: Encourage him to play games. Set aside time to do it, and support him in that time. Make it a really positive time for him. However, set firm boundaries, so that gaming happens in gaming time, not other times.
* Play with him. This is probably the strangest point, but potentially the most effective. Having a conversation about it will be much easier if you know what goes on in the game. Setting boundaries and achievable goals is much easier if the parents are part of that process – they can set common goals. Minecraft is particularly well suited to this. Have regular gaming sessions together, which are primarily about having good fun together, but in which you teach and train as necessary. I would generally recommend this anyway as a child protection issue.