Rachel Foster
How is gaming impacting children of today, and is there anything we should be doing to protect them?
games, digital, insight, Opinion, Audience
7 mins
As I think we are all well aware, the gaming market has boomed, from its growth over the film and TV market (see below), to the phenomenon of Fortnite and Roblox worldwide. However, what is the effect of this on children? Do they need to be protected?
The video game industry is growing in value

Taking it back to when I was younger (around 7-10 years old), I loved gaming. Crash Bandicoot and Spyro were my favourites and I had an unhealthy obsession with The Sims (I still sometimes have a 5-hour binge). Back then, it felt like gamers ‘weren’t cool’ and were ‘kinda nerdy’, and I abandoned my PS2 for athletics and art. Then I turned 16, bought an XBOX, and I was quite literally back in the game.

The point is, gaming was never niche per se, but spending all night gaming was reserved for the slightly more nerdy ones among our school peers. Now EVERYONE is playing video games. To be specific, Common Sense Media revealed more than six in 10 teenagers (61 percent), including 73% of teenage boys (!!!) have played Fortnite at some stage, and that’s just one game.

Not even slightly surprised? Me neither. But what has gone from being a bit niche has transformed into the ‘in thing’. It’s absolutely huge, and I thought it would be interesting to better understand the impacts it has on kids today (both good and bad).

What are the main positives of gaming for kids?

So, let’s pinpoint this growth a little better. The number of hours kids have spent gaming has risen steadily across all age groups.

But the amount of kids gaming has grown exponentially. In 2008, 79% of boys and 43% of girls would play video games after school. Today, in 2019, 93% of all children play video games.

I will just let that sink in for a second. More than 9 out of 10 children are playing video games. So what's drawing kids in?

Peer influence

That age-old saying of “well, if everyone is doing it then it must be good”. Peer pressure probably comes into play too, but it’s often more of a fear of missing out than anything else. Gaming gives them an opportunity to speak to their friends outside of school and is a great way to bond over shared interests.

For younger players (under 10s) this is a great way to communicate - especially for those who don’t have phones or social media accounts - as it offers them access to their friends. In most cases, children play with their own real-life friends made at school or clubs, rather than meeting them online exclusively.

Online play is more rewarding than offline play

Multiplayer games are growing fast in popularity (see Fortnite and Overwatch) and children are stating that it’s because they are playing against real-life people. When they win, it feels more victorious than just beating the AI. Plus this offers gaming studios more engagement opportunities, and communities tend to build a lot quicker.

For some reference, Fortnite, arguably the biggest multiplayer game amongst tweens/teens, explains this well. The average Fortnite player plays for at least 6-10 hours every week and almost 70% of players have spent money in-game to get the latest skins, special items and more. Would this be AS engaging and AS successful if it was just against the AI? In my opinion, probably not.

The opportunity to be creative

We always work hard to keep on top of things in the family market, and that often means talking to those right in the thick of it. We spoke to a 17-year-old Roblox developer who had made £1000s on his games which he had released on the game platform. He spoke about how the opportunity to make money was a bonus, but what he really loved was working on something he was in control of and he had created.

Roblox and Minecraft allow people to be creative and make their own games. Roblox is especially good at being a strong introductory point for young coders. It introduces coding to them in a simple way, and they can reap actual benefits, both skill-wise and financially in some cases.

What are the risks though?

Gaming has plenty of positives and parents are increasingly happy for their children to engage, and some even play along with them. But what do we need to keep in mind as the generation of gamers take hold?

Toxic peer pressure

Peers will always influence each other, that’s normal. However, when it comes to gaming, children can be affected by toxic peer pressure, which is where high stress levels and negative behaviour can come in. In a recent qualitative study carried out by the Children’s Commissioner, a 10-year-old Fortnite player named Nina said: “If you’re a default skin, people think you’re trash”. Skins in Fortnite cost money, real money. You can accumulate in-game currency, but that takes a long time, so to show they are serious about their Fortnite gameplay, buying skins is a common occurrence.

Children within the same study said they felt compelled to buy new skins as they were afraid their friends would see them as poor otherwise. Quite disturbing, if you ask me. Indicating that even if you are a brilliant 12-year-old Fortnite player, if you don’t have the latest skin you could be seen as lesser. It doesn’t sound right to me.

Time really does get away with them

We have all been there (I think): you start playing a game (from Candy Crush to COD), and the next time you look up, your commute is over or it’s time to go to bed. What feels like minutes is actually hours, and this is a common occurrence for kids.

In the Children’s Commissioner’s study, they found that younger children were playing for 2-3 hours, and those older (teenagers) were playing for 3-4 hours each DAY. Some children even stated they felt addicted and a little out of control over how long they spend playing games. For many it’s not just playing games; it’s playing games with your friends or chatting, at least while you play separately. It’s a big part of their social life, and they don’t want to leave (especially if all their friends are staying on later).

Can we do anything?

2019 has been a big year for gaming and the clamp down on pay-to-play games especially. I think it would be wise to start there.

No more pay to play games, please

For those who went to CMC2019, you may have attended the ‘Gambling and Gaming: What’s the Difference? What’s the Harm?’ session. If not, the session report is here. The main thing they conveyed was firstly the prevalence of gambling features within mobile app games (54% of mobile apps have gambling features and 94% are deemed suitable for children), and the real concerns behind ‘loot boxes’ and ‘skins’.

Now, in many cases games have loot boxes which don’t cost actual money and are actually quite easy to achieve with in-game currency. The panel’s main concern was that these could encourage gambling behaviours. It sparked an interesting debate: can gambling with in-game currency turn into gambling with real currency? That’s a question for another time…

In my humble opinion, I don’t think in-app purchases are the devil, but I think a hard line should be drawn at games aimed at children that require you to pay real money to pass levels and continue with the game. It’s fine if it’s a game where you get to play 3 levels for free, and then you have to pay more for the rest of them. The issue is those where you are playing a level (to some description) and you just can’t pass it without paying for a perk/aid of some sort.

Winning and building skills should reap the biggest rewards

Now this one is more of an opinion rather than something the industry is saying, but I thought it might be worth sharing. Rather than getting money involved, if children are rewarded because they dedicated time or are doing really well, that’s when skins, special items etc. should be awarded. If they want to buy because they want to get ahead immediately, fine. But they shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t want to pay. The non-payers are still part of the community, and shouldn’t be excluded.

This is where single player games sometimes can take the edge - you tend to have looted any items you own, and the skin you’re using or the gun you have opted for doesn’t really matter so much, no one is around to see it. However it could be seen as more isolating…

Final thought

Gaming is huge and, for the record, it’s here to stay in whatever wonderful forms it may take in the future. But I think it remains important that when we make incredible new steps in the tech world, we consider the kids who will be using them firsthand. Remember you have seen the world before all this, they haven’t.

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