Video games are fun, but what could be better than slicing, shooting, and punching your way through enemy lines with your best bud--all without ever leaving the family room sofa. While video games have been around for a long time, the newest trend in gaming is to share those virtual adventures with online friends. That brings up some interesting questions--how do these online games impact teenage relationships? How do they impact how guys communicate with one another? Does this have anything at all to do with youth ministry?
According to recent research found in the October 2007 issue of Cyberpsychology and Behavior, online gaming tends to make the bad things worse and the good things better. First, the bad things. The most compelling finding was that those study participants who played online video games played 3 times more than those who played single-player games. That resulted in decreased sleep, more health problems, more interference with real-life socializing, and more trouble with academic tasks. On the positive side, those who interacted with others while they played their video games had more fun and made new friends. The study found that online, multi-player video games can "foster strong feelings of virtual support and new friendships".
I have personally seen the effects of excessive screen time. As a freshmen advisor, I have watched guys get into academic trouble in college because they can't put down their video game consoles. According to one student, "I watched my real-life friends go out and have a good time while I stayed in my dorm room playing games. Pretty soon I lost almost all of my real-life friends." The online chat function seems to make these games even harder to put down. On the flip side, video games really do connect and bond guys in amazing ways. Quiet, normally unconfident guys can suddenly become expert and valued team members as they steal cars, shoot bad guys, and defeat evil with other guys from youth group or school. They can connect in ways that feel natural and safe compared to the real-life dangers of real-life social interactions with peers.
So, how does this relate to youth ministry? First, it is important to realize the dangers of excessive video gaming. It might mean we need to help heavy gamers see how their real-life relationships are suffering as a result of their screen time. It might mean helping them find ways to disconnect in safe and fun ways. Second, realize that young guys are meeting a need through their multi-player video games that they are having trouble meeting in real-life. Online gaming relationships feel safer, more controllable, and more exciting than those in real-life. Expertise and confidence that can be found in quick thumb actions might be hard to find in a youth group event or get together. By providing safe, real places for guys to connect, real-life might become a bit more appealing than what they find in their video games. Finally, talk to guys about video games. They love playing them and they love talking about them. For some guys, it is one of the only topics they feel comfortable talking about. Try moving these conversations to discussions of how the technology is changing their relationships and the way they communicate with one another. Consider connecting online gamers in your youth group with each other. Challenge them to keep each other accountable, both in what they say online and how much time they spend gaming.
Video games are an important part of many teenage guys' lives. We can't ignore the problems with them and we can't overlook the good things. We can, however, figure out how to use this technology as a way to connect to the deep-seeded needs and interests of the guys we work with.
October 2007 issue of the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal CyberPyschology & Behavior (Vol. 10, No. 5: 717–721).