Fab Fridays 44: Kids and Video Games

Video Games: The ultimate learning simulator

Over 2 billion people play video games regularly.

And those who understand the power and potential of games will be the ones who shape our future.

If you are a parent worried about the role that video games might play in your child’s life and whether or not there's good empirical research on this, this edition is for you.

I recently came across the work of Jane McGonigal, a PhD Game Designer who advocates for the use of video games to help people learn skills that transfer to the real world.​

I’ve been obsessing over her research, particularly on how to maximize the positive impacts of playing games and minimize the potential downsides.

7 Takeaways: Kids and Video Games

1. Playing with an escapist mindset vs. playing with purpose

In her book, SuperBetter, McGonigal includes a chapter that addresses parents’ concerns regarding kids and video games.She conducted an analysis of more than 500 papers, trying to determine what causes videogames to be beneficial or harmful for kids and young adults. .

McGonigal found that the key determinant is the question of why kids are playing the game in the first place. Are they playing to escape real life, or are they playing to pursue a goal that matters to them?

Research shows that kids who play games to escape real life (that is, to block unpleasant emotions or avoid confronting real-life stress) have a very difficult time translating their game skills to real life. This approach tends to increase depression, worsen social isolation, and in cases lead to addiction.​

On the other hand, kids who playgames with a purpose (that is, to spend quality with friends and family, learn something new, or improve a skill) are able to activate their gameful strengths in real-world contexts.

Two things parents can do:

a) Find out why your kid is playing video games. Are they able to talk about skills they're learning, or do they see games as separate from reality or completely unrelated?

b) Be in constant communication with your kids about games they are playing. As long as kids can reflect on the games they play and articulate what they are learning, it doesn't matter what they play. The following three questions can help start that conversation:

  • What does it take to be good at this game?

  • What have you gotten better at since you started playing this game?

  • What’s the hardest thing you’ve achieved in this game and what did it take to do it?

Want to take it a step further? Have them keep a gaming journal!

2. Keep your gaming under 21 hours per week

Research shows that games benefit us mentally and emotionally when we play up to 3 hours a day, or 21 hours a week. When we play more than 21 hours a week, the benefits of gaming start to decline and are replaced with negative impacts on our health and relationships. So far, no study has found negative impacts on people (kids and adults) who play video games less than 21 hours a week.

3Reverse the order: First play games, then study

If we want kids to retain what they “study" better, they should play video games first, then study before going to sleep. While it may sound counterintuitive, studies show that when we go to sleep, our brain focuses on the most salient problem it was recently trying to solve (think Queen’s Gambit). So reverse the order: First play, then study.

4. Play video games with peers as often as possible

There’s a cultural currency to playing the games that your peers are playing, and studies show that being part of that game culture is really important, particularly for kids. So whatever game is popular in the peer group is worth a try.

5. Games are the most powerful self-esteem builder

When kids play video games, they get the experience of having to teach themselves something new. They have to figure out how to win by picking up new skills and using all resources they can. This provokes a positive feeling about themselves and their abilities to learn on their own. And this is what makes games the ultimate learning simulator—kids realize that they can teach themselves anything. Games make kids feel empowered to learn and improve on their own.

6. With games, kids learn on demand

They learn the skill they need right when they need it. Research shows that this is the best way to retain what we learn.

7. Try to avoid aggressive, competitive games against strangers online.

Excessive competition against strangers online can have a negative social impact, particularly in games with strong themes of domination and destruction like Call of Duty. (NOTE: Games like Call of Duty have not been shown to increase hostility or aggression when they are played with people you know in real life.)

The effect of videogames is different if we are playing with someone we know vs. a stranger—a stranger that in cases we can “dehumanize”. A good rule of thumb is for kids to spend no more than half of their play time trying to beat strangers online. They are better off trying to beat their friends and family or playing cooperatively with strangers.


If you are interested in digging into this topic, I highly recommend checking out her books, Reality is Broken and SuperBetter and listening to the following podcasts:

  1. The Psychology of Gaming. In this podcast, Shane Parrish and Jane McGonigal discuss how video games help with decision making and post-traumatic growth. Dr.McGonigal also dives into how much videogames is too much for your kids, and what to watch out for.

  2. How Games Make Life Better. In this podcast, Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Jane McGonigal talk about how games affect us and our kids, and what the future might hold in this space.

I will continue to explore this topic and share the best of what I find. In the meantime, shoot me with your best questions!


What else is up with Ms. Fab?

1. How to Build a Personal Monopoly webinar with Jack Butcher and David Perell. I share my journey building my personal monopoly and lessons learned along the way.

2. Creating Live, Engaging Online Experiences for Kids podcast with Chrisman Frank and Ish Baid. I talk about the founding story of Synthesis and how we are reimagining K-12 education through our one-of-a-kind online program.

Thanks for watching and listening!

Until next week,

Ana Lorena Fabrega