Samantha Fisher was having a
very bad day. So when her then-9-year-old son, Lukas, asked her if she
wanted to learn to play Minecraft, she almost said no.

Skipping the game’s tutorial, Lukas patiently taught his grumpy
mother how to build a digital house. Then Lukas got up and walked away.
Samantha was a little annoyed, but she continued playing.

All of a sudden, her screen went black. A moment later Lukas bounded
into the room, laughing hysterically. Turns out that Lukas had sneaked
onto another computer and logged on to Minecraft. He excavated around
his Mom’s house and dropped it into a virtual sinkhole. When she
realized how elaborately Lukas had pranked her, Samantha started
belly-laughing, too.

“It just totally broke that horrible, awful mood I was in,” she recalls with a smile.

In academia—as in many families—video games are a source of
controversy. Some experts suggest that gaming can have negative effects
on kids’ behavior.

“Teachers are saying that this is a generation of kids who have a hard
time calming themselves down,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical
psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect (Harper, 2013), a
book on the effects of digital media on childhood. “Video games can be
very powerful stimulants to children’s brains. That’s why kids often
prefer playing video games to playing outdoors or playing a board game.”

On the other hand, a number of researchers have found apparent
benefits. These experts say that, in moderation, gaming enhances social
skills and provides a multifaceted bonding opportunity for parents and
kids. And they have suggestions on how to play games with your children.

“Video games are a rich medium, compared to television. Or even
books,” says Sinem Siyahhan, an assistant professor at California State
University at San Marcos and the co-author of an upcoming book on the

In addition, she says, the reality is that children already are playing
video games. Siyahhan's advice to parents is simple: Don’t just let your kids play video games. Actually play with them. Fisher agrees. “Video games are the modern-day version of playing catch,” she says.

Here are tips for making gaming a positive parent-and-child activity:

Tip 1: Play Your Game

The first question that Siyahhan tackles is very basic: Which games to play? Though
parents may gravitate toward so-called “educational” games, experts say
that in many cases those labels are just marketing buzz. “It’s not
‘this game is bad for learning, but that game is good for learning,’”
says Jason Yip, an assistant professor and media researcher at the
University of Washington at Seattle. “It’s how you use it in your

Siyahham offers this surprising tip: Let the adult pick the game. She
says that kids tend to be much more flexible than adults in this
regard. So choose a game that’s not only age-appropriate but also
something you want to play. Maybe it’s Angry Birds or some other
game that you sneak on your phone. Or maybe it’s something that you
played when you were a kid. “It’s much harder to get parents to play
Minecraft than Mario Bros.,” Siyahhan says.

Yip notes that part of the appeal of Pokémon Go as a cross-generational activity is the fact that many parents had collected Pokémon cards when they were kids. “The nostalgia factor took over,” he says.

This approach also gives parents the opportunity to evaluate video
games ahead of time to make sure they don’t conflict with the family’s
values. “It’s always important you look at the game first with them and
make sure you’re comfortable with the content, messaging, the gender
codes, the way people are treated,” Steiner-Adair says. “Every game is
teaching different things.”

“If you’re concerned about a game, play it first,” Fisher says. “And then play it with them.” 

Tip 2: Take Turns

It may seem
counterintuitive, but if you’re looking for a friendly gaming
experience, avoid multiplayer games. Siyahhan says there’s far more
opportunity for meaningful interaction if you choose a single-player
game and take turns. The player without a controller in her hand can ask
questions, comment on the action, or just gently heckle the person

“We’re very interactive,” Fisher says of playing with her son. “We’re talking. We’re teasing. We’re laughing.”

Academics have a term for this: “joint media engagement,” and it’s
really just a technological update of the way you used to watch
“Jeopardy” with your parents and joke about who could answer which questions.

Tip 3: Draw Analogies

Many parents dismiss video
games as a skills-building opportunity. Sure, kids may hone their
reflexes, the thinking goes, but that’s about it.

In reality, Siyahhan says, many of today’s most popular games immerse
the players in complex situations that require deliberate and
sophisticated decision-making. These scenarios present you with
teachable moments in which you can gently seed the conversation, drawing
parallels from the onscreen action to real-world situations.

Researchers like Yip see this as a natural outgrowth of the way
parents embellish a bedtime story with questions or directions, a
process that academics call “dialogic inquiry.”

“It involves some of the same principles as story time,” he says.

Yip notes that at the height of last summer’s Pokémon Go craze, even
the littlest gamers learned life lessons. “Parents were actively trying
to teach their kids,” Yip says. “Sometimes you’d find the Pokémon you
want but it runs away. You can’t always get what you want. That’s the
ecosystem of learning.”

For older kids, a sophisticated game offers more material for interaction than an episode of “Liv and Maddie."

“If you’re playing World of Warcraft, you might encounter a story
line that deals with revenge,” Siyahhan says. “You can talk about the
emotions: 'What does it feel like?' Or you can have a conversation about
morals and ethics.”

But don’t force it, she warns. “It’s not what you’re talking about
that’s important so much as the mere fact that you’re opening a

Tip 4: Reverse Roles

As they get older, most kids
will develop mastery of games that their parents can’t even approach.
And that’s good, Siyahhan explains, because video games offer a rare
opportunity for parents and children to reverse roles in a truly organic
fashion. “The fact that parents know less about the ins and outs of
games is an asset,” she explains. “The parents are then in the position
of being a learner.”

To make the most of this unusual dynamic, parents should make a
special effort to model good learning behavior. If you ask open-ended
questions like “What just happened?” and “What’s going to happen next?”
it encourages the child to develop the communications skills to explain
how to play or improve. And when the parent doesn’t catch on
immediately, kids must then display patience in their new role of

“Once parents and kids reverse roles, they see each other in a different light,” Siyahhan explains.

Tip 5: Make an Occasion of It

Fisher and her son make a
full-blown ritual out of their gaming time. “He’ll grab every pillow in
the house and build a fort until it’s like we’re in a cocoon in front of
the console,” she says. “And then he’ll go and get drinks for him and
for me.”

The experts agree that for many kids—especially tweens and teens—it
becomes much easier to talk about anything when they’ve got a joystick
in their hands.

“Some mothers found they could talk to their sons more easily when they were playing,” Yip says.

You can count Fisher among those moms. “My son is not one of those
kids who wants to sit down and talk. So when he’s got something else to
do, he’s way more apt to tell me about what’s going on in his world,”
she says. “You’ll be amazed at the conversations that come out of it.” 

Tip 6: Set Limits

The question that Siyahhan gets most often is a classic parenting chestnut: How much should I let my kids play?

Her answer? It depends. “There’s no hard and fast rule about this,”
she says. Parents can feel confident using their judgment and experience
to set the rules, just as they would with watching TV, doing chores, or
establishing a bedtime routine. And the same time limit may not work
equally well for every child or every household.

“Every family should absolutely come up with their own routines and best practices,” Yip adds.

Firsthand experience can help you understand everything from when they should play—with certain games kids really do need a 10-minute warning before dinnertime—to the age-appropriateness of an individual title.

Steiner-Adair, the clinical psychologist, advocates a balanced
approach. “Don’t demonize video games,” she suggests. “If you have a
child who loves video games, make sure they maintain their capacity to
get pleasure from games that aren’t video games. What you don’t want is to have is the magic of the iPad delete the magic of the playground.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Prof. Sinem Siyahhan.