I'm excited to have the opportunity to start the column up again because I think a lot has changed in the short time since the column went on hiatus. We'll revisit a few issues that Lisa brought up and some of the more recently released MMO titles to see which ones are the best for family-centered gaming. To kick things off, I'd like to explore why MMOs are good for kids and for the family unit as a whole. When it comes to talk about kids and gaming, the discussion tends to revolve around the negatives, like violence, antisocial behavior, or lack of physical activity. No one will argue that MMOs, as with most anything, can have detrimental effects when played to excess. But to focus on the negatives is to ignore the vast amount of benefits that gaming can provide. Read on for a few examples.
Family game night
The common example of how MMOs have connected families is the scenario of Grandma and Grandpa being able to play long distance with their grandchildren. And there's no doubt that shortening the distance between family members is one benefit of online games. But I think that gaming has had an even bigger impact right within the walls of the household.
I grew up on board games, like Parcheesi, Monopoly, Sorry!, and Trivial Pursuit. During the summer, when school was out, I relished visits to see my Grandfather, who taught me to lose with grace and who diffused every potential conflict with my brother with an injection of humor. As I got older, he taught me all sorts of card games, like Pinochle, No-Peek Poker, and even Five Card Draw. The lessons I learned from playing board games and card games were important to me in my schooling, in sports, and in the larger world after graduation.
We've seen a shift into electronic gaming, but what's seemed to happen is that each family member has branched off in different directions. Families game, but many families don't actually game together because online games haven't always been designed toward both grown-ups and children. I think that's changed recently, and in future columns, we'll look at several titles that appeal to the family as a whole and leave everyone feeling like he walked away with a meaningful experience in game.
When you are passionate about something, chances are you're going to go above and beyond, and that rings true for games we love. Children love to express themselves, particularly about things they're fans of or have an interest in. MMOs have an enormous opportunity to allow their young fans to tap into their creative outlets, and what they produce is amazing. One example that comes to mind is Wizard101, which showcases player-submitted stories in its Fan Fiction section. These are young fans, who clearly love the characters and world of Wizard101 and who were so inspired by it that they used it in their creative writing. Other games, like Club Penguin, showcase player-submitted photos and fan art.
It's easy to look at online games and just picture a blank expression staring at a screen, but when kids log out, they've used their experiences in some very creative ways.
This is one of the grey areas of online gaming because there's still a question about where online communities actually fit. Any time people log into an MMO, they're essentially choosing to spend time in a virtual world over the real world, and that's a somewhat uncomfortable idea. Obviously, if someone goes to the extreme and prefers the virtual world over gaming, that's a problem, but the vast majority of players, both young and old, probably have a healthy balance of the two. And virtual worlds have actually helped improve the lives of young players outside the game.
At GDC last week, Megan Bell from Mind Candy spoke about how Moshi Monsters has helped children socialize who might struggle with it in the real world. She pointed out that two of their biggest fans are Daniel and Joshua, two young boys with Asperger's syndrome. The game has helped them to socialize and even be willing to try new foods since part of the game involves strange dishes with silly names.
Another example that came to mind is the story of Hamza Aziz, which I heard at PAX East earlier this year. When he was young, Aziz struggled with obesity and depression and even considered suicide when he was a teenager. His friend got him into gaming, and the friendships and bonds he developed with other gamers helped him get through some very difficult times. He ended up helping to found Destructoid and is now the Community Director there. He said he appreciates how much the online community helped him when he was young, and he would not be where he is today without it.
The Three R's
Lastly, games do teach. I think it's still too early to gauge exactly what they do teach, but it's safe to say that it goes beyond "killing things is fun." At first glance, it's clear that MMOs can help children with reading and math, since there's plenty of both all around them. But the learning has gone beyond that: Teachers of foreign languages have used MMOs to help students learn from and communicate with those who speak that particular language. Online games have been used in classroom simulations and building teamwork. Back at home, MMOs are subtly providing learning experiences to children, and it's something we'll explore more in future columns.
Overall, it's an exciting time for the family-MMO genre, and I excited to be able to jump-start this column once again. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on families and gaming, and I am eager to check out the growing field of family-themed MMOs.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.