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MMO Family: The 10-step back-to-school gaming tuneup

Lisa Poisso

MMO Family is your resource for leveling a gaming-specced family, from tips on balancing gaming with family life to finding age-appropriate online games for everyone in the family.

We're going to make this short and sweet, parents: You probably shouldn't try to dodge a back-to-school gaming tuneup. Sure, talking about responsibilities and setting screen time limits is no fun. Kids hate rules, and parents hate having to play traffic cop. But back-to-school time means rebalancing languid, lazy summer schedules -- and if you're going to help your kids develop time management skills and a head for how to balance their own activities and schedules, this is the perfect teaching moment.

Before we go any further, let's make it clear that hard-and-fast time limits aren't the answer for all or even many gaming families. What's important is to help young gaming devotees step back periodically for a checkup of how this compelling, sometimes time-consuming hobby is balancing out against the rest of their lives. Your goal is not to legislate from above but rather to help your kids regulate from below -- so let's take a look at 10 steps that can help them do exactly that.

  1. Decide what standards or points are non-negotiable. If you're comfortable with no less than a 3.5 GPA or x number of hours of piano practice or an hour outside playing hard every day -- whatever's important to you -- you need to nail down the details, both for yourself and for your child. (Think about it: How frustrating is it to turn in your 10 rat ears to the quest giver, only to be told to run all the way back to get whiskers off the bigger ones, too? Stop with the moving targets and tell us what you want, already!) Your kids need to know where to find the bottom line.
  2. Chores and homework come first. And here it is: the ultimate bottom line. Make sure you practice what you preach when it comes to taking care of business.
  3. Manage game time as a logical consequence of available time. Don't position gaming a "reward" for good performance, and don't make the suspension of gaming privileges a "punishment" for failing to comply with rules. This may seem like semantics, but you're setting attitudes that will last a lifetime. Like any other recreational activity, access to gaming should be a function of available free time. If grades are slipping, for example, more study time = less gaming time.
  4. Avoid letting kids "earn" game time with tickets and coins and tokens. Don't make kids jump through hoops; instead, simply teach them to take care of business before play. A token system is tremendously artificial, positions gaming as "special" and more desirable than other leisure activities, and adds a lot of extra work to the parenting process.
  5. Keep parameters firm while staying hands-off on details. To the extent that you can, let kids manage their responsibilities themselves. They deal with schedules at school; they can manage them at home, too. Some kids do need hard-and-fast time limits to make their way through this type of time management. That's OK. Ultimately, however, your goal is to stay on top of what's getting done (and what's not getting done) without being the one to micromanage how it's happening.
  6. If you simply must set guidelines, keep in mind that the goal isn't to limit gaming time but to preserve time enough for other activities. Your aim should be to "protect" enough time not only for the basics but also for long-term endeavors such as studying and big projects. Don't allow kids to rush through the bare minimum of responsibilities just to get to the game time. A gaming baseline that works for many school-aged children is one hour on weekdays and four hours on weekends. Because kids have less free time available once school is back in session, this preserves enough time that they can pursue other activities (and even be bored; I'm a big fan of constructive boredom).
  7. If you put limits on how long a gaming session can last, keep in mind that many games take a certain amount of time to finish. While you shouldn't let kids become embroiled in something that's probably going to take longer than the time they have available, don't be a stick in the mud about forcing a logout in the middle of a minigame.
  8. If shorter daily times don't work, try several "game days" each week. As long as the overall hours balance out and responsibilities are still well in hand, there's no reason not to allow longer, less frequent play sessions.
  9. Encourage and support your child's participation in other activities. This is the single most important thing you can do to make sure an interest in gaming doesn't overwhelm your child's focus and schedule. Don't expect kids to ask for other activities if they're happily occupied with games; it's up to you to provide both time and access to the types of exploration that gives them a chance to sample, try out, taste, reach, grow.
  10. If your child doesn't seem to be interested in anything else, start with something related to a favorite game. Take a roleplaying game fan to the library for fantasy books and movies, or schedule more playdates for a gamer who thrives on in-game chatting and social activities.
Context, context, context ... Your role here is less about laying down rules than it is helping children put gaming into context with the rest of their lives. Guard against setting up gaming as a special, somehow more preferential type of leisure activity. Help kids learn to take care of responsibilities first. Offer plenty of leisure-time alternatives to explore. Set an active, engaged, intellectually curious example in your own personal time. And when it's time to game – hey, get in there and game hard, game together and game fun. Happy gaming!

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