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Challenging Pre-conceptions in Children's Online Gaming

10/03/2015 15:12 GMT | Updated 10/05/2015 10:59 BST

With the popularity of online gaming, which is now a way of life for most children over the age of about eight, a whole new area of debate should, and will, open up. Being a parent involves a lot of guilt, and questioning the decisions we have to make every-day to keep our children safe, healthy and thriving. Now we are concerned; should we let our children play age inappropriate games? Is it safe for them to make and play with friends online? Are we harming them in some way by letting them play an online combat game instead of them playing football over the local recreational ground? The way children 'play' and socialize has changed dramatically, and will continue to do so, but perhaps parents shouldn't just focus on the negatives, but see the advantages and positives to on-line gaming as well.

Listening to children playing, they are negotiating with their fellow players, encouraging one another, making suggestions and putting their own ideas forward - verbal skills that involve sentence construction, formation and order, an understanding of syntax and grammatical sequences, and vocabulary. Not bad for a stereotypical teenager who communicates in grunts and slurred words! They are team-building, developing confidence, being creative, learning about their sense of humour and how to look at themselves from the outside-in. In their virtual worlds, they are weighing things up, considering their options and making decisions - just like they would if playing a board game.

When somebody is aberrant or causes offence, they can be ousted from the game. This can cause all kinds of upset, quarrels and, could potentially, have far worse consequences that filter into school relationships. But years ago, playing on street corners or at the local park, there were squabbles, shouting, name-calling, pushing around if somebody didn't play the game right. Face to face, a person could be physically driven out, and a fight could ensue. The fact is, video games are simply a modern adaptation of games that people have always played since time began - hide and seek, chase, tag, card or board games. They are a variation on paint-balling, playing at shooting with toy guns, games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, pirates with swords. Online gaming is the natural evolution of these games.

Because of the anonymity offered by on-line games, the risk of cyber bullying and grooming are present in the minds of most parents. Children are taught at Primary School to be aware, not to give any personal information away, and what to do if they are asked for details or suspect sinister or bullying intentions. Parents should ask children to keep their bedroom door open so they can listen in, and be aware of whom their child is playing against. Were children any less at risk 40 years ago when they played out on the streets? At least if children are playing at home they are not wandering around town, exposed to the increasing volume (and speed) of traffic and unsavoury characters.

Speaking of unsavoury characters, parents are constantly reminded that there are people out there with sinister intentions, so every on-line gamer arouses suspicion. Potentially harmless gamers are stigmatized when they could be just 'big kids' who want to build towns and villages in Minecraft (there's a thing, my spell-check doesn't recognize Minecraft yet my house is littered with books and games) and play at guns and armies, and run from zombies. (Admittedly, the blood and violence of many of these types of games would make many mums recoil, but haven't children always watched horror films and looked at gory pictures?)

Equally, just as we are made to feel that playing against strangers is taboo, the suggestion is constantly made that if children are playing on-line games all day, it is bad for their mental and physical health. In an ideal world, most of us would want our child or children to choose sport, outdoor pursuits or a musical instrument, over a screen and keyboard. And parents should aim to interest their children in outdoor activities and exercise, and support them in pursuing their hobbies. I agree with this, but I also think it is worth challenging our perception of online gaming. It's here to stay, and it's going to become a lot more proliferant. So, like me, keep reaching for the football, checking the weather report to organize a family picnic, pay the tuition fees for the musical instruments and ferry them around to their clubs and societies. Just don't be too hard on yourself when they ask for the latest edition of Black Ops for their birthday instead of a new violin.