The Video Game Babysitting Effect

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to conduct a study on primary and middle school students’ gaming preferences. “Do you play games on a Nintendo 3DS or an iPhone, and would you prefer to play them on a 3DS or an iPhone?” would essentially be my question, and there’s a specific reason why I want to know this data.

I’ve been noticing a trend in gaming that really disturbs me. Whenever I go to a public event where both children and parents are present, I inevitably see the following scenario play out: The parents are attempting to be sociable with their peers and hand their child the iPhone, open to a game, to shut the kid up and get him/her out of their hair for a few minutes.

I wish I had a spray bottle with me so that I could spritz everyone who does this. I’m in no position to tell other people how to raise their kids, but treating video games like that is ignorant, destructive, and downright insulting to those who truly care about the medium. Now that I’ve ticked off all the parents reading this article, though, let me justify my strong opinions a bit before you all pull the anvils out of your purses/wallets and commence with the whacking.

The phenomenon to which I refer, which I will refer to hereafter as the “video game babysitting effect,” is really nothing new when you think about it. In fact, it might be better termed the “shut-your-kid-up-with-something-shiny effect,” but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue in the same way. Still, it’s nothing particularly new for parents to hand their children a whiz-bang toy when they want a few moments of peace. If the toy is really simple—something like a Chinese finger trap or a bouncy ball—I don’t have much problem with this strategy. The play value of the toy will be exhausted very quickly, and the parents will get their peace while the children milk all possible entertainment from the toy over the course of a quarter to a half hour.

When something as complex as a video game is used, however, the video game babysitting effect takes on a much darker cast. Video games—even the simplest ones like Angry Birds and Super Hexagon—cannot have their play value exhausted in anything less than a couple of hours. What happens, then, when the parent is done being social and wants the kid’s attention again?

“Honey, that’s enough iPhone. Put it away now.”

“But Mom, I’m in the middle of a level.”

“Sorry, dear. Playtime’s done. Give me my phone.”

“I can’t quit the level right in the middle, I’ve gotta save!”

“No you don’t! Give me my phone!”


Treating games as a quick fix to get your kids to shut up actually has the unintended effect of twisting gaming into some sort of carrot/stick paradigm. The kid is “rewarded” by being allowed to play with their parent’s iPhone but is then “punished” when the parent no longer wants their child to be distracted. Sometimes, the carrot/stick paradigm is extended even further when access to games is restricted or awarded based on perceived good or bad behavior. As far as I can tell from my research and my experience, this is not a healthy way to contextualize games. This is why my initial question is particularly relevant. I’d be willing to bet that most kids, if given a choice between an iPhone and a 3DS, don’t actually want to play on their parents’ iPhones and would be better satisfied with a more complex gaming experience such as those provided on dedicated consoles like the 3DS.

After all, kids—especially kids in the stages of concrete and formal operations, in the words of behavioral scientist Jean Piaget—are voracious creatures that will ravenously and single-mindedly consume every new experience presented to them. They, like few others, are uniquely capable of mining a game for entertainment and, dare I say it, educational value, in all of its complex forms. Although kids are getting more and more over-scheduled each year, it is still a fact that many do have enough free time to delve very deeply into games and really understand their mechanics and inner workings—an absolutely essential skill if they ever do decide to pursue a career in electronic media later in life, which, given the growth of the electronics sector in recent years, is not an unrealistic possibility.

Why, then, instead of encouraging this education of and deep focus on electronic media, are parents still relying on video games as cheap, dispensable tricks? There’s no good answer to this question, but a lack of shared intergenerational cultural understandings, a negative image presented by the media, and the all-too-human fault of narcissism all probably play a role. My only hope is that parents will take some good advice and stop treating video games as a reward/punishment scheme and instead start acknowledging the rich learning potential they possess. If they don’t, I suppose I could always start carrying that spray bottle.

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