Family game nights at the Silva residence in South Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City, may look a little different than other families’, as Uno and Yahtzee are more commonly swapped out with Minecraft and Pokemon Go. Both parents and the kids agree that the video games they play together bring them closer as a family and create strong memories that will last even after the kids are grown and gone.
Brett and Aisling Silva describe themselves as “pro-technology.” They’ve encouraged their children, ages 13 to 2, to utilize computers, phones and gaming devices as they’re growing up. Aedan, Eli, Isabel, Lillie, Zaidee, Eoin and Gracie use technology for home-schooling and gaming alike, bolstering their technological literacy.
These devices do more than entertain. They are a tool Brett and Aisling use to connect with and educate each of their children.
“Our family has a goal to create a space where we can have fun together and laugh together,” Aisling said. “Technology for us — games included — is the way we accomplish that.”
Experts support their goal. Studies over the past decade have shown that co-gaming between parents and their children helps foster a stronger bond, as well as create positive outcomes for children and their family.
Sarah Coyne, associate director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, has studied the effects of media and technology in relationships and has explored co-gaming in families. Coyne said that quality time spent between parents and their children opens a line of communication from which parents can improve their relationship with their children.
“Video games are just a tool,” Coyne said. “When I think about parenting, I want to use every tool in my tool belt that I can to help foster those relationships.”
While the family participates in other activities together, such as biking or camping, video games are a common pastime for everyone in the house. Aisling said that even though the youngest Silvas, Eoin and Gracie, may not have the technical skill to use a game controller well, they participate by watching and learning from those in the “driver’s seat.”
Single-player games like those from the Zelda series, Aisling’s all-time favorite, are treated similar to a TV show — passive but entertaining. Alternatively, the kids may try to help their siblings by acting as an extra set of eyes, guiding or distracting them, depending on the day. Regularly gathering together to game is their family ritual, a tradition that can strengthen family members’ bond, the Deseret News has previously reported.
Consistent, dedicated time with loved ones does a great deal of heavy lifting when it comes to building relationships, but the power of conversations had during these activities are more profound than they may seem. Dr. Rachel Andrew told The Guardian that “sideways listening” — sitting side by side or angled away — relieves some of the tension that direct, face-to-face conversation can bring.
This encourages your partner to open up to you conversationally, developing the connection you share. Sideways listening has also been shown to be particularly effective with children. The caveat here is you have to actively listen and find an activity the child enjoys. This is why creating a habit of spending time with your children — a family ritual — and sideways listening are so closely joined, the Deseret News wrote.
Evolution of quality time
In the Silva house, one of the most consistent family rituals is between Brett and Isabel, age 9. The two play Pokemon Go together, a mobile game that motivates players to get outside and walk through its GPS-reliant features. Wednesdays are “Raid Days” for Brett and Isabel, the time spent together far more important than the game’s rewards.
“It’s playing a game, so some people wouldn’t expect that time to be a one-on-one conversation,” Brett said. “It happens in a more natural form because it’s something they want to do, it’s not something that’s just awkward conversation.”
Brett compared his and Isabel’s Pokemon Go experience to hunting with his father as a child. Hunting never interested Brett, so despite his father’s interest, they never bonded through the activity.
“He wasn’t doing something with me that I liked to do. I was doing something with him that he liked to do,” Brett said. “I wanted to do something different for the kids, and be part of what they want to do.”
Isabel looked up from the video game she was playing nearby, horrified, when Brett admitted that he didn’t particularly like Pokemon Go, but continued to play for the opportunity to spend time with his daughter.
The other six Silva kids have since moved on to other games, with Zaidee excitedly calling Minecraft a group favorite. Aisling is also a fan of Minecraft, for both gameplay and how the kids play together.
“Minecraft is like a virtual Lego world. You can build whatever you want, you can make up stories, you can have little characters.” Aisling said. “You can work on your storytelling skills.”
Boosted creativity isn’t the only change Aisling has noticed in her kids. The Silvas don’t always have seven phones and controllers available — the kids have to take turns and share so that everyone gets to play. This applies to other multiplayer games, too, such as Mario Kart or Jackbox Games. Competition and jesting comments are matched with patience and compassion.
Coyne said that one of the greatest benefits from gaming is the development of prosocial behaviors like teamwork, critical thinking and — as seen in the Silva home — sharing.
External research suggests the same thing. In one study, Graz University of Technology in Austria found that positive video games can result in positive traits, as prosocial games can increase players’ empathy and morality. Even single-player games with rich stories can bring out the best in us, as story-driven games led to “perspective taking” behavior from its players, the researchers found.
Online and offline connection
Gaming as a family doesn’t always look like nine Silvas piled into the living room. It fosters a connection no matter how far apart physically they may be.
Brett and the two oldest boys, Aedan and Eli, are big Diablo fans and spend many evenings playing together on different computers throughout the house. Though they talk through an online call, they claim they’re just as connected as if they were sitting next to one another. The Silva boys all laughed as Aisling described how conversation bleeds from one area of the house to another, the yelling and laughter coming from every direction.
“The boys will all be in their own rooms and have their headsets on. … I’ll be doing laundry and I’ll hear the conversation,” Aisling said. “Aedan will be yelling at the screen, Eli’s giggling because he did something, Brett’s in the office laughing.”
Bingqing Wang, leads user research at BlooXR Co., a virtual reality headset and content development company. He has studied the effects of family co-gaming for years and told the Deseret News that playing games online is a fantastic way to reconnect with loved ones across great divides.
“We need human connections, in whatever format,” Wang said. “Playing video games can absolutely foster people’s interactivity and connection. But you know what’s better? Playing together.”
Balancing recreation and responsibility are important lessons that the Silvas teach their kids — especially screen time. When asked how much screen time each family member likely had, Aisling and Brett said they use their “Power Four” system to balance gaming and family responsibilities.
Lillie, age 8, proudly explained that each Silva kid has to complete specific tasks related to personal hygiene, helping family members, maintaining their room and cleaning the house before they are allowed any screen time.
This system also gives the kids plenty of time to wind down in the evening, have dinner together, say family prayers and get ready for bed without the influence of video games.
“Whether it’s watching a family movie, or playing Minecraft, (Power Four) has to be done,” Aisling said. “We have boundaries, but it’s fun and educational.”
Participate and protect
The Silvas have been criticized in the past for their family’s relationship with technology, whether it’s well-intended suggestions to spend more time outside or commentary on the tie between gaming and aggression. It isn’t just the Silvas that hear this; these are common concerns from those who aren’t fully onboard with gaming.
Worries of wasting time, violence and inappropriate content are what often prevent people from taking part in gaming, Wang said. These concerns make video games indistinguishable from other forms of media, however. Nearly identical concerns arise for other mediums, such as tabletop games and movies. Video games’ vividness and interactivity are what differentiate the activity from others, but at its core, this content has the same impact as Sorry!
Aisling said she and Brett keep tabs on their kids when they play video games, especially when content may be more emotional or mature. With seven kids in the house, all of different ages, it’s important to keep an eye on what kind of content is being viewed by each Silva kid.
“We try to be aware of what they’re watching and playing; we talk to them about what is good content to watch,” Aisling said. “Eoin, who’s 4, can kind of get riled up. For younger kids, the lines between reality are a little bit more blurred. If we’re playing Smash Brothers, he’ll see some of the ‘super moves’ and want to kick and punch.”
Aisling and Brett check in with their kids during and after game sessions, to help them separate their feelings in-game and in real life. Like Wang, they don’t believe video games are a root cause of aggression.
“Any game, even board games, can lead to altercations and hurt feelings if you lose in certain circumstances. It’s not just video games,” Brett said. “How many people get in riots because of soccer?”
Safety matters, too. With the Silva kids’ wide age range, the video games that each kid can play vary greatly. Brett and Aisling don’t solely rely on game ratings or word-of-mouth — they know which games are appropriate for their kids because they themselves have played them.
“Be aware of what’s out there, and (you’ll) be aware of what’s appropriate,” Aisling said. “Part of that as a parent is taking part in it with your kids. It’s not going to go over your head if you know what they’re into.”
Wang and Coyne agree. When parents are actively co-gaming, they are able to guide their children through potentially harmful or sensitive content. Parents act as a filter for children to process content in the same way they can remind their child “It’s just a movie, it’s not real!” when watching a scary film. Alternatively, parents have the ability to outright steer their child away from content if they aren’t mature or old enough to process it.
This applies to video game addiction, as well. The likelihood for addiction nosedives when gaming as a family, Wang said, as parents can identify and stop addictive patterns when they are aware of what their child is playing.
“Play the games yourself, and you will find that they are not the monster,” Wang said. “It’s not a killer, it’s just a content format.”
The Silvas agree.
“If you’re interacting with your kids while they’re playing video games, you don’t have to worry about them going off the deep end because you’re with them,” Brett said. “If you’re in the kid pool, your kids aren’t going to drown.”