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How Gaming Can Strengthen Family Bonds During the Coronavirus Pandemic

We are all experiencing uncommon circumstances right now. As we make adjustments to our daily routine to stem the tide of the coronavirus (COVID-19) — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system — we also experience fears and stressors while trying to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. This is compounded further if our friends or loved ones are at high risk.

The best way for us to stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing. Though this is exactly what we need to be doing, cabin fever can set in quickly. Additionally, although it’s great to spend time with loved ones, an excess of tension can start building up in our homes. Allow me to take this opportunity to suggest relief through one of my favorite activities: gaming.

I want to be clear, I am not suggesting that parents simply hand their kids a controller and usher them off into the next room. Instead, this is a prime opportunity for your family to benefit from gaming together. You might be saying to yourself, “Dr. Kuniak, I am absolutely not a gamer,” and that’s totally OK. You don’t have to be an avid gamer to take advantage of this pastime. And if you have no idea where to begin, look no further. I am going to briefly walk you through some useful information to get you started.

If you haven’t come across any of my other work, or follow me on social media, you may be surprised to see a doctor of mental health counseling recommending gaming. I’m proudly a lifelong geek and gamer. I love video and tabletop games, I read comic books, and I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan. And I incorporate all of this into my work as a counselor. Gaming, when used in healthy ways, can have a range of benefits for families. Even if you choose not to pick up a controller (though I hope you do), you can help your kids by seizing on these opportunities to develop life skills through being active in their gaming.

Some benefits include:

1. Learning from our mistakes.

Gaming is all about trying and failing, but then trying again. Gamers will naturally try and try again in order to be successful. This is a skill most teachers (myself included) wish their students would pick up. It’s not about being successful the first time, it’s about learning and adapting. Gamers will do this naturally when playing their favorite titles, but they may not realize this is something they can bring into their day-to-day lives. If you’re a part of it, you can help them to learn this.

2. Becoming a good loser and a gracious winner.

These are important skills that don’t come naturally. Society pushes us to be very focused on excelling and being winners. However, in competitions, we won’t always win. So, when we lose, we need to lose well.

As a counselor, I work with people all the time on learning from our losses. To draw from another geeky reference, in the movie “Batman Begins,” Bruce Wayne’s father asks him “why do we fall?” The answer is, “to learn how to get back up.” But we need to learn to do this without being selfish and childish. This isn’t a skill that comes naturally. It’s something that has to be taught and reinforced.

Children will naturally want to angrily throw their controller and stomp off. The difference between kids that do this and kids that feel bad for a second and then pick themselves back up is that someone taught them how to self-regulate. Likewise, if they are the winner, they need to learn not to gloat. An easy way to do this is to teach an old gamer practice of always thanking competitors with a “Good Game” at the end of every play session. I still wish my friends a “good game” or “GG” whenever we finish up any activity, even if we weren’t competing against each other. Again, though, it needs to be taught.

3. Opportunities for shared bonding and collaborative triumphs.

Sure, you can game alone and have a blast with it. However, my absolute best memories in gaming have been when I’ve succeeded in something with a group of people. Building a huge structure in “Minecraft” is better when I’ve done it with friends. Saving the galaxy in “Halo” was better for me when I did it cooperatively. Completing a mission in “Sea of Thieves” is always more rewarding when I have a full crew working together.

I hope it’s easy to see how transferring collaborative success and triumph can lead to bonding and that it’s important for our day to day lives. Everyone wins when we’re successful together. That’s as true in a game world as it is in my workplace. Why not let that team be your family in this case?

I recognize that not everyone is acquainted with gaming, and that a lack of familiarity can be a barrier for parents to get involved with their kids’ gameplay. There are great parenting resources you can check out through the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). The ESRB is a non-profit organization that provides resources and also governs the rating system all video games share. The information on game ratings is easily accessible, posted on every game disc and package, and present on all digital downloads. I have worked with a lot of parents who are surprised by the availability of game ratings, but it’s there if you look for it. You can also learn more about game ratings and look up information on specific games on the ESRB website.

Some parents may be intimidated by gaming interfaces like navigating the console or even using the controller. The best way to learn is to ask your in-home gamer to teach you. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect at this the first time you start playing. Gaming is about trying, failing and learning. Teach your kids how to be humble and learn through your own attempts to familiarize yourself with how to play.

There are plenty of great titles for families to dive into. If I listed everything I knew, I would absolutely still miss other great options. But in case you’re starting fresh or don’t have a lot of family-friendly titles at home, I want to give you a springboard with some information on titles you can easily get your hands on. These are five of my favorite family-friendly titles, in no particular order.

1. “Minecraft” — Rated E 10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB

I imagine that even if you haven’t played it, you’ve probably heard of this title. “Minecraft” is an immersive open-world game where players can build, dig and explore together. “Minecraft” is the equivalent of being put into a world of virtual building blocks where everything can be interacted with and used. There are a range of educational opportunities within “Minecraft” as well, like learning how biomes develop, or how to build complex engineering projects. “Minecraft” has different modes available in its settings. If you want your family to just build things and not be attacked by creatures, for example, you can set it to creative mode. It’s available on every gaming system, including mobile devices, and there are opportunities for cross-system play.

2. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” – Rated E for Everyone by the ESRB

This title was just released and is causing a lot of buzz. The “Animal Crossing” titles are Nintendo exclusives, and even if you don’t have the most up-to-date system, “Animal Crossing” titles have been available since their first release on the Nintendo Gamecube. In “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” you and every player on your console can inhabit a collaborative island where you interact with cartoony characters who become your neighbors and perform tasks to decorate, expand and develop your island community.

3. “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” – Rated E for Everyone by the ESRB

Building on the classic “Mario Kart” format, this is a racing game where you play as various Nintendo characters and compete in racing competitions. There are “Mario Kart” iterations on every Nintendo system, all the way back to the Super Nintendo.

4. “New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe” – Rated E for Everyone by the ESRB 

This is an updated installment of the classic Mario Bros. franchise. The “Deluxe” title on Nintendo Switch includes two games that were previously available on the Nintendo WiiU. If you’re familiar with the traditional Mario Bros. controls, it will be easy to jump into this title. If you want a bit more of a challenge with your controller skills, but enjoy the Mario Bros. universe, you could also take a look into “Super Mario Odyssey” (rated E 10+) on the Nintendo Switch.

5. “Rocket League” – Rated E for Everyone by the ESRB

“Rocket League” has become a popular competitive Esports title, but it’s easily accessible to everyone. This game involves you taking control of small race cars to play a game of virtual car soccer. The controls are easy to learn, the gameplay can be fast and fun, and it is available on most modern gaming systems.

I wanted to also mention a service on Xbox One with which you might not be familiar. Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate are subscription services that allow users to download and play a range of hundreds of games to their Xbox or PC (depending on your subscription) for one low subscription price. Think of it as the Netflix of gaming.

Game Pass Ultimate also rolls your Xbox Live (Xbox’s online play subscription) membership into the monthly subscription cost. I bring this service up because Game Pass has the ability to search for games through categories which are based on different interest areas. One of these categories is a “family-friendly” option. With this subscription, you will need to monitor what is being downloaded and/or enable parental controls. The general access to Game Pass will give the subscriber access to the entire Game Pass library, including games that are more appropriate for older gamers. So, though I do really like this service, it will require some extra oversight and responsibility on the part of the parents to make sure your family is using it correctly. Xbox has a guide to parental controls and Xbox family services.

I think that should give you a good start. This is a scary time in our world, so spending time together and enjoying time with one another is key. Gaming is a simple and accessible activity, but it’s also something that is so common in most households I think it could be easily overlooked. I hope that rather than sending your kids off to play on their own, you will join them and learn about what they’re playing. If you’re willing, I hope you pick up a controller and dive in with them. Let them teach you.

Gaming provides a range of incredible opportunities for families if used appropriately. Without ever leaving your home, you can explore new worlds and take on engaging adventures. I hope you step out into all of these adventures together with your family. None of this is going to change what’s going on in the world around us, but it does have the potential to help your family build lasting memories and grow a bit together. And from where this counselor sits, that’s enough. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife and I have an island in “Animal Crossing” to cultivate.

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