My kids’ online gaming drove me crazy – until I joined them

Gina Rich

THE WASHINGTON POST – “The kids are playing Roblox again?” I asked my husband. It was a bright summer day, and our fourth-grader and middle-schooler were in their rooms, happily ensconced with their devices.

When the novel coronavirus shuttered schools and curtailed regular activities, my kids found a welcome escape in the bright digital realms of Roblox, an online gaming platform where avatars socialise freely, pandemics don’t exist, and masks can be fun fashion statements. This summer my kids played the platform’s most popular game, Adopt Me!, so much that the vaguely hypnotic music became the background soundtrack of our household.

My children’s fixation with Adopt Me! – in which players collect, care for and trade pets ranging from a “common” otter to a coveted “legendary” turtle – both annoyed and mystified me. When my kids weren’t playing, they were rehashing their latest trades or plotting their next moves. Their conversations were baffling.

“Once I age up my last frog I’ll make a neon. What can I trade for two emus? Did you see that person scamming for free pets?”

Then late in the summer, my kids tried a new strategy: They started pestering my husband and me to play with them.

“No, thanks,” I said over and over, despite their pleading. Even before the pandemic, I worried about how much time we all spent with our screens. But my husband was more open-minded and created an account. Some evenings, I’d glance across the kitchen to see the rest of my family sprawled on the couch, tapping away at their devices.

“Dad, teleport to me! Come see what this person’s trading!”

Though I felt a little left out, I tried to ignore their banter. If I was going to be on a screen, I told myself, I needed to be doing something productive or otherwise adult, like scrolling Twitter or the news. I had zero interest in a game played mostly by adolescents. But my nine-year-old refused to give up on me, and I agreed to try Adopt Me! just once – on the condition that she would stop badgering me about it.

Being a “noob” – gaming lingo meaning an inexperienced player – was frustrating at first. My avatar looked blocky and silly, and I couldn’t figure out how to navigate anywhere. I watched my children’s fingers fly across their screens as they deftly traversed the game’s colourful spaces.

I felt awkward, but I wasn’t alone. In Roblox’s May survey of teenagers, 30 per cent of respondents indicated their parents were “showing more interest in their online lives, including learning about and playing Roblox with them.” Despite my concerns about screen time, the more my kids and I played together, the more I saw that online gaming was affecting our family in positive ways.

Professor at Temple University and the author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World Jordan Shapiro was careful to limit his kids’ screen time when they were very young.

“I wouldn’t even let them have toys with electronic sounds,” he said. But after going through a divorce, Shapiro started playing video games with his sons to spend more time together – and he realised that the conventional framing of screen time as a “terrible evil” didn’t make any sense.

“We do want to train our kids to be as imaginative, playful and creative with digital tools as they possibly can be, because they’re going to work with digital tools and they’re going to live their life through digital tools,” Shapiro said. And the best way to support our children in learning about the digital world is to join them.

“When you participate in it, what you’re showing them is that their process is valuable and meaningful and that they should continue on it, and that what they’re discovering matters,” Shapiro said.

Though I insisted I would try the game only once, my kids and I now play regularly. Curling up on the couch and exploring the carefree world of Adopt Me! together has become our family’s favourite way to unwind after a long week. Playing online provides an escape that our quarantine-weary brains need. “When you’re always in the same location, you need to sort of fake the location shifts,” Shapiro said, like moving from the dinner table to a virtual game.

When the virus prompted new physical distancing requirements, Monet Goldman, a registered associate marriage and family therapist and clinician in the School Linked Services Program at Uplift Family Services, began using Roblox as an alternative to in-person family play therapy. Playing together strengthens parent-child relationships, said Goldman, by building up “positive interactions” to outnumber the inevitable meltdowns. He has seen encouraging results and is teaching other therapists how to incorporate online gaming into their practices.

Parenting in a pandemic means I’m constantly delivering instructions to my kids: “Wear your mask. Don’t touch your face. Social distance.” But in the world of Adopt Me!, my kids are the ones telling me what to do. They’ve become my teachers, coaches and mentors.

And I need their help. Trading pets with other avatars is a key feature of the game, but it happens with a swiftness that makes me mildly hyperventilate. Recently, when another avatar initiated a trade with me, I called out to my 11-year-old. “What should I do here?”

She took control of my screen, evaluated the other player’s offer and effortlessly toggled between the chat bar and my pet inventory. Seconds later, she declared, “This is a good trade. You should accept.”

The rules-defined nature of online games like Adopt Me! can be liberating for kids, Goldman said. He noticed that children who were more shy or had processing differences would sometimes get overwhelmed and shut down during traditional, in-person therapy. Those same kids began to thrive when the sessions shifted online. “We’ve seen them shine the brightest in our video game groups” because they have a lot more safety, control and autonomy, he said.

“Once you have that freedom as a kid, it changes the dynamics, at which point I was the one being led.”

If Goldman’s avatar got stuck in one of the game’s obstacle courses – also called “obbies” – during a play therapy session, the kids jumped in with encouragement: “It’s okay, Mr Monet. Just relax. You’ll be able to get through it.” Playing Roblox enabled my nine-year-old to discover her aptitude for “glitch building”, and now she’s teaching me, too. I’ll often see her avatar leaping through the game’s walls to hidden spaces where she designs secret balconies, pizza bars and plush pet rooms.

Understanding the gaming lingo my kids frequently utter has helped me communicate with and relate to them better. When my daughters debate the trading value of a ridable neon frog, I get the context and can join the discussion. If they’re upset or elated about something that happened within the game, I can respond in a way that doesn’t ring hollow.

As the pandemic wears on, sometimes my patience with my kids – and theirs with me – disintegrates. But no matter what transpired on a given day, I know that the moment we sit down and dive into the cozy world of “Adopt Me!”, my kids and I will be speaking the same language. I want to keep nurturing that open communication, especially as they approach the teenage years.

One evening as our daughters played online with friends, my husband and I joined their server. Their peers were awestruck. “Your parents play Adopt Me!?” asked one, in what sounded like a wistful tone.

I nudged my husband. “Does that mean we’re cool?”

Alas, my kids are quick to tell me that this will never be the case. My nine-year-old puts it best when she says sweetly, “Mom, no matter how much you play Roblox, you’ll always be a noob.”

As long as we get to keep playing together, I’m okay with that.