Video games a family affair

Let's all play: Mallory Bogle sets up "Skylanders" in her family's Exton home.
Let's all play: Mallory Bogle sets up "Skylanders" in her family's Exton home. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2014

Julie Bogle, 10, and her sister Mallory, 7, are mean Skylanders players.

But surprisingly, so are parents Jeff and Jill. In fact, video games are the Exton family's favorite pastime.

It started about three or four years ago when the girls received a Nintendo Wii and had trouble managing the controller and "nunchuk" at the same time, so the parents paired up to help them.

"It was fun and quickly became a tradition," recalled Jeff, 38, who says their family now plays together at least once every other week.

It's a family portrait that's growing more popular - and certainly debunking the stereotype of crabby kids holed up in the basement, solo, eyes glued to the screen. But as paents who grew up playing Atari and Nintendo have video-game-loving kids of their own, it was only natural the two would join forces.

The Entertainment Software Association's 2013 Essential Facts report found that 35 percent of all U.S. parents play video games with their children at least weekly, and 59 percent believe video games encourage their family to spend time together.

Although too much can be a bad thing, parents, and even physicians, note that gaming can hone decision-making or logic skills, and boost memory. For very young players, it can motivate them to learn to read so they can decipher commands better.

"Between 1999 and 2009, the average time American youth spent playing video games quadrupled, so it's only natural that kids and parents are playing these games together," said Paul Weigle of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He cited a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Study that showed that children 8 to 18 spent an average of 2 hours and 41 minutes a day playing computer and video games, up from 53 minutes in 1999.

The reason: Video games are as accessible as the nearest tablet or phone.

"It's a lot easier for parents to get the kids in the room if they're playing a video game with them," reasoned John Nestor, assistant manager at the Play N Trade video game store in Moorestown.

In Burlington County, the Young family plays video games together nearly every Saturday night. Lynette, 43, and Dave, 45, are self-proclaimed gamers who enjoy sharing their passion with their kids Jack, 6, and Bailey, 13. Their fave: Minecraft (solo or in a group, players build things out of textured 3-D cubes to achieve different goals).

"We'll each be on our own computer in the same room and play together," Lynette said. But they also love games that incorporate activity. "There's nothing funnier to my kids than their 43-year-old mom getting up there and trying to dance in Dance Dance Revolution."

A 2011 Brigham Young University study found that the more that girls ages 11 to 16 played video games with a parent - generally, their fathers - the more connected to family they felt. They also exhibited stronger mental health and were better-behaved.

Some might argue that children benefit from any enjoyable activity with a parent, but Jeff Bogle has seen his oldest daughter become more confident through her gaming.

When she met the developer of Skylanders at a convention, she asked him why there weren't more girl characters in the game.

"Video games were the impetus for her to step out of her comfort zone and ask a grown-up that question," Jeff said. "It was amazing and a tipping point for her to not be afraid to vocalize what matters." (Unfortunately, she wasn't satisfied with his answer that swappable character shapes didn't work well for females.)

Schools are paying attention. John Hoffman, 16, a rising junior at Kennett High School, played Rags to Riches, a question-and-answer game, in his social studies class on Quia, a Web portal that helps teachers create learning activities.

The Kennett Consolidated School District also has used educational tools including Mummy Maker, Pyramid Builder, and Study Island to enhance students' learning in a relatable way. Less like video games because students must answer questions to advance, teachers still must be judicious using them, said computer lab teacher Tom Fox.

"There needs to be a balance between using technology and tactile learning," he said. "Tactile and fine motor skills and physical experiential learning are undeveloped when learning experiences are limited to electronic devices."

Out of the classroom, the push for new games continues - although new sometimes means old. In a trend called "retrogaming," parents are seeking out original Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems and games, to the delight of their children. Who better knows the secrets of Super Smash Bros. and The Legend of Zelda than the people who grew up playing them?

One of the selling points of Nintendo's Wii U is the inclusion of a 1995 Super Nintendo game called EarthBound that's otherwise hard to find and $140 to $200 if you do.

Events, too, are catering to the trend. The Youngs' family vacation in April took them to the PAX East conference in Boston, where they spent three days exploring and playing new video games.

Weigle recommends choosing nonviolent, cooperative, and active games, such as those with music, dance, and sports themes, as well as games with educational content. Or play traditional board games - Monopoly, Scrabble, and Battleship - now available as video games.

"For 8- to 12-year-olds, the biggest thing by far is Minecraft," said Nestor. "It's all about creativity with no violence. It's like 3-D Legos in a video game."

While Weigle sees no harm in playing video games in moderation, he urges parents to wait until children are beyond preschool age and to limit total screen time to less than two hours daily.

To keep it safe: "Pay attention to the ratings on the boxes," Nestor said. "They are there for a reason."

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