How To Have An Epic Holiday With Your Child Or Teen & Video Games

As I write this, those of us in the US have 4 shopping days until Christmas.  So I wanted to share a few tips on both games to consider but also how to connect with the gamer in your life during this time of year:

1. Play with your child.  If it is a multiplayer game, join in.  If it is a single-player, ask to take a turn.

2. Sit and watch your child play, and ask them to teach you how to play a game.

3. For adolescents, don’t take no for an answer.  If they don’t want to show you how to play at that time, make an “appointment” with them for later.

4. Encourage boys and girls equally.  A recent study showed that girls who play video games with their fathers endorse fewer symptoms of depression.  Ask your children if there are different games they like.

5. Remember that multiplayer games are forms of social media and community.  Your child may be having a chat while they are playing without you even knowing it.  Be patient with them and ask if you are interrupting something.  This is good training for when they are interrupting you.  Remember social skills are a two-way street, and just because you don’t think something is important doesn’t mean they feel the same way.

6. Pay attention to ESRB ratings.  They aren’t perfect, but they can give you a good idea of what ages and levels of maturity are the best fit for your child.

7. Vet the online community.  If they want to join a server for Minecraft, search together for one that requires children apply and requires parental approval.  Ask the adult moderators questions about what kind of activities and conversations happen in-world.  Discuss how privacy is handled.

8. Sit with your child as they sign up for a game.  Discuss whether they should answer questions about where they live and their age.  If these are required, email the moderator if you don’t feel comfortable with that.  Your child’s digital footprint starts here, and will last for decades to come, so be careful and thoughtful about it.

9.  That said, don’t evoke a sense of anxiety and paranoia with your children.  There are plenty of normal or healthy people online, and they may be making lifelong friends.  If they want to chat or Skype with peers, don’t forbid it, but ask to have a brief introductory call with their parent, and have a week probationary period where all chat is audible before the headphones go on.

10.  Have fun!  Video games can improve your mood, sharpen your wits and fine motor skills, and even give you exercise.  But the most benefit for you and your child will occur if you take an interest and try to play yourself.

Ok, so now for some suggestions.  This is by no means exhaustive, and if you want to recommend others please comment below!

Multiplayer Games

These can often have a subscription, but sometimes they are free.  A good family game for younger children is Wizard101, which takes place in a world of wizard schools and magic duels.  Combat is turn-based card game style.  If your children like Magic:  The Gathering, chances are they’ll love this.

Another great one is Minecraft, which costs a one-time price of $26.99.  The game allows no end of possibilities, from mining to building to exploring to killing monsters.  If you join a multiplayer, the whole family can play together.

World of Warcraft is a perennial favorite of mine.  In addition to buying the software, this game has a monthly subscription, and there are lots of servers to choose from.  Try searching for child-friendly servers and guilds, there are plenty of them out there.

Eve Online is a MMO that takes place in outer space.  If your family is more interested in building and flying spaceships than fighting dragons this may be the game for them.  Like WoW there is a monthly subscription in addition to the software purchase.

Console Games

For your older gamers I recommend Dark Souls.  This is a very challenging game, which players can expect to last for hours.  There will be lots of dying and starting over, and lots of fun failure.  This game also has a strong RPG element and a dark mood.

Not quite as dark, but very challenging, is the new Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.  This game puts you in a Nordic-type environment as a “Dragonborn,” and the main quest has you fighting dragons and absorbing their powers.  But the fun thing about this game is that you don’t have to do any one quest if you don’t want to.  Players can focus on exploring, crafting, learning marriage or picking locks!  The graphics are beautiful, and the music is fun too.

If you are more interested in a game with a puzzle-solving element, check out Portal 2.  You wake up in an abandoned lab with only a wormhole gun to your name.  In order to escape players will need to strategize and learn a lot about physics on the way.  There’s a lot of fun humor in the game as well.

All of the above games are available for Xbox, PS3 and the PC.

For Xbox, you can also bring a bit of meditation to the family with Deepak Chopra’s Leela.  This game uses the Kinnect, and you’ll your whole body playing games to both actively exercise and stimulate the chakras or energy centers in the body; or meditate and keep an eye on your posture.  The game is easy to learn and very colorful, and you can even design your own mandala.

Also for the Kinnect and PS3 is Child of Eden.  This full body game has you trying to same the AI Lumi from a computer virus.  It’s a fast-moving game with some rocking music from the virtual band Genki Rockets.

As far as the Wii goes, there’s only one I want to recommend at the moment, and that’s Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  This latest addition to the classic Zelda series will take you back to history before the Ocarina of Time, and up into the clouds of Skyloft, as you help Link take wing to save his kidnapped friend Zelda.


Last but not least I want to direct your attention to a couple of games on the iPad.  Infinity Blade II.  This game is not for the faint of heart, there is a lot of melee combat, and a lot of dying.  If you like swordplay and battling monsters this is the game for you.  The world is 3D and dynamic, and there are lots of different weapons and armors to try.  Be warned, there is an option to “buy” more gold, so have a talk with your child about whether and how to do that.

A more playful game for all ages is Windosill from Vectorpark.  This is a short game, but the dreamlike quality and graphics make it feel more like having fallen into a picture book than playing a video game.  Get your whimsy on with this one.

These are only some suggestions, and are based on games I have test-driven.  For example, I haven’t recommended any Nintendo DS games because I haven’t played any lately.  I’m not affiliated with any of the above companies.  Have some other game suggestions?  Let us know below.  Have a great holiday!

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The Lessons of Zelda

One of the most popular and longstanding game series in the Nintendo franchise is the Legend of Zelda series.  The first game came out in 1986, and there have been 15 games to date.  The games almost always revolve around the Hero Link and his attempts to rescue Princess Zelda and/or defeat the evil wizard Ganon.  They are a combination of puzzle-solving, exploration and action fighting.

Nearly all of the games make use of the mechanic of transforming oneself or the world in order to win.  Link must learn to use an Ocarina to change time in order to access all part of one game.  He needs to transform himself into a wolf to complete another.  One of the earliest games, and also my favorite, The Legenda of Zelda:  A Link to The Past, established the concept of a parallel world that Link needs to shuttle back and forth between in order to ultimately defeat Ganon.

Another key to navigating the game is that the player needs to complete dungeons to get the reward of another item, which are necessary to move further into the game.  Until you get the grappling hook, for example, you can’t swing across certain chasms to move on.  Or if you don’t have the flaming arrows you can’t melt the ice block obstructing the passage to another dungeon.

Zelda is also famous for its concept of the Triforce, represented by three triangles connected to form a larger one.  This force needs to be assembled from smaller parts in order to grant Link or Zelda extra super powers.

All of these elements are challenging yet soothingly familiar each iteration of the game.  And all of these elements are useful examples of how therapists and gamers can communicate about strategies for handling real life challenges as well.

Lesson 1.  You need to be able to shift between worlds to win in any of them.

People may take my posts, which are clearly pro-gamer, to indicate that I think that life in-game is more important or a replacement for the world outside of it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the recent research indicates that if you spend more than 3-4 hours a day playing video games, the positive effects of them begin to decline quickly.  So this lesson is a good example to use with your gamer patients or friends about the necessity of not getting stuck in the gaming world to the detriment of the outside world.  Ultimately that will ruin both worlds for you.  If you stay home and don’t go to work you’ll lose your job and money and therefore access to playing.

On the other hand, if we can’t take a break from the outside world we will find that our functioning in it deteriorates as well.  We need to be able to take a break on the most visceral level, its one of the reasons our eyes blink.  In Ego Psychology this is referred to ARISE, or adaptive regression in service of the ego.  Often when people are feeling stuck around a real life problem, playing video games can distract their conscious mind while their unconscious mind continues to work on it.  AND the cognitive and emotional boost we get from gaming can actually refuel our brain’s ability to return to the world with renewed vigor.  So with video games and real life, it is always both/and that brings success, not either or.  With games though that axiom only works for sure for a limited, 3-4 hour period.  More than that and all bets are off!

2.  We need multiple tools to solve the problem.

Whether in Hyrule or Hoboken, there is no one instrument or approach that solves every problem.  You can’t rely on your sword to swing across chasms, and you can’t rely on your intellect to lose 10 lbs.  We need to encourage our patients to have as many tools in their toolbox as they can find and not rely on just one.  And it is an interesting phenomenon that the acquisition of a tool or skill often brings access to new challenges for every problem it solves.  And that’s a good thing!  At SXSW this year Seth Priebatsch helped us wonder what education would look like if we unlocked achievements at varied paces rather than moved up grades homogenously  (Answer: it would look a lot more fun, interesting and engaging than public education looks today.)

So whether you find yourself using your verbal sword to hack through relationships or your grappling hook to swing from person to person, take a look at all the items in your knapsack.  Maybe a soothing ocarina might be a better choice than a flaming arrow when it comes to communicating with your employee.  Maybe the opposite is necessary to melt through some rigid thinking.  Isn’t it great that you can do both?

Lesson 3:  It takes time, patience, and effort to assemble all the parts to succeed.

People often come to therapy looking for a quick fix.  Insurance companies bank on this being a continuing trend with short-term therapy or medications.  Those are often useful parts of the solution, but just that, parts.  Whether you are trying to improve your life, build your practice, or heal a relationship, it is going to take a lot of time, patience and effort.  And yes, it will often be redundant!  In WoW we often talk about downing a boss using “rinse and repeat,” meaning that we learn the strategies we need, and then have to use them over and over and over to ultimately down the boss.

Rome wasn’t built in a day unless you’re playing Civilization III.  It takes time to assemble the pieces of the most powerful parts of our lives.  Therapists can remind gamers that they are good at this!!  I can’t tell you how many times I have run the same dungeon in a Zelda to get the map to find the compass to find the boss to get the key to unlock the item to cross the obstacle to get the key to down the big boss.  Gamers are no stranger to persistence when we’re engaged, and we’re not dissuaded from effort when we have some optimism, that’s how we roll.  🙂

So these are just some of the Lessons of Zelda, lessons that therapists and gamers alike can use to improve their coping and lives.  Are there other lessons I’ve missed?