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Don’t Feel Bad If Your Kids Are Gaming More Than Ever. In Fact, Why Not Join Them?

9 minute read

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the 1989 Detroit Pistons over the past few days. Rick Mahorn, the starting power forward, can’t make a goddamn layup. Neither can Dennis Rodman. Isaiah Thomas is missing too many shots. Do I have anyone on my team who can stop Michael Jordan, who over the past four games is averaging 83.5 points per game against a squad once known as “The Bad Boys” because of its nasty defensive disposition? I’m not seeing much Bad in these Boys.

Yeah, it would probably be sorry enough if I was consumed by the actual Detroit team that last played an actual NBA game at the outset of the George H.W. Bush administration. But no, I’m talking about the video game version of that championship squad. In NBA 2K20, the popular virtual hoops game that for many fans has replaced real basketball during the coronavirus pandemic, you can play using one of many fine historic NBA squads. And currently, my 13-year-old son and I are in a heated best-of-seven series, featuring my ‘89 Pistons versus his 1991 Chicago Bulls, another NBA title team, on our PlayStation 4. He’s up three games to one.

For a middle-aged man with many adult responsibilities, stressing about Bill Laimbeer’s minutes during these scary times doesn’t seem very healthy.

But what if it actually is? Over the past month or so, while quarantined at home, my son and I have turned to video games as a welcome distraction. With New York City officials having removed all public park basketball rims across the Big Apple in order to enforce social distancing, digital hoops serves as our substitute for the real thing. I find myself looking forward to our daily (or more) 2K battles to break up the monotony. We talk some trash. We share a few laughs. I enjoy educating him about the great NBA teams of my youth. He pretends to care. Then we go back to an uncertain reality.

We’re not alone. Sequestered people around the globe are playing more video games during the pandemic. Gaming was up 75% in the first week of mass self-isolation alone, Verizon says. The supply of Nintendo Switch consoles, a popular choice for families, kids and casual gamers, can’t keep up with demand. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest version of the long-running Nintendo franchise, in which people can hang out online together on digital deserted islands, has sold more than 3 million copies in Japan since its March 20th release. Sales of video game hardware, software, accessories and game cards in the U.S. exceeded $1.6 billion in March, according to the NPD Group, the highest March level since 2008. Hardware spending spiked 63% compared with March 2019, while software grew 34%. While there’s no Major League Baseball right now, NPD Group says MLB The Show 20 had the highest-selling debut month in the popular baseball franchise’s history.

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Rather than rue this pandemic-driven video game and screen time boom, research suggests we should be cheering it. Playing in moderation, naturally, is key; in May of 2019, the World Health Organization officially voted to include “gaming disorder,” or video game addiction, in its International Classification of Diseases. But research shows that video games can provide important social, motivational, emotional, and cognitive benefits. “And if video games had been beneficial before now,” says Linda Kaye, senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in the U.K., “then now, they’re as important as ever.”

Experts say we need to shed the stereotypical image of gamers as isolated loners playing for hours on end in a dank basement. Today, kids and adults can socialize with one another, in groups large and small, while playing games online. During the pandemic, connectivity stands out. “It’s all about the social interaction,” says Isabela Granic, professor of developmental psychopathology at Radboud University, in the Netherlands. “You build your own gardens with other people. You play in teams overcoming other teams and militias and whatever it is. And it’s really checking a lot of those social needs in this time of isolation. And as much as kids need us, they need each other just as much.” (I’m starting to feel like my son would be better off playing 2K with his pals instead of me.)

Instead of feeling guilty about kids’ video game screen time, Granic — who leads the Games for Emotional and Mental Health Lab at Radboud — suggests that “parents should feel like they’re offering an opportunity they wouldn’t have had 30 years ago.” Granic’s gaming rule for her twin 14-year-old boys: unlimited video game time before an 8 p.m. dinner, but first they have to do their homework, practice playing a musical instrument, do some coding, read part of a novel, and go outside for an hour. That works out to about 90 minutes of video games a night.

Gaming has benefits for people of all ages. According to a 2016 study conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, high video game usage among children aged 6-11 was associated with high intellectual functioning and competence in school and fewer relationship problems with peers. In a survey of 900 people in 45 countries who play online multiplayer role-playing games, Mark Griffiths, professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University and one of the world’s foremost video game researchers, found that approximately three-quarters of both male and female respondents reported making good friends while playing games (the average number of “good friends” was seven). What’s more, 10% of the study participants developed at least one romantic relationship with someone they had met in the game. One of his subjects in a later case study even ended up marrying someone he met playing World of Warcraft.

During a video interview with TIME, Griffiths’ son, 18, was in another room playing games. Grffiths very much approved. “In times of spatial distancing, gaming is what he’s playing with his best mates,” he says. “The last thing I want is my children to be tearing their hair out. Gaming is one of the enjoyable, engrossing things kids like to do.”

Gaming can help players develop a range of skills, experts say. “People learn how to negotiate, collaborate, to take turns, to think critically with others, and so on,” says Granic. “Motivationally, people learn how to persevere in the face of failure. To take failure over and over and still work at some kind of goal. Game designers, for a long time, have been these sorts of wizards of engagement. And they figured out how to keep us at that sweet spot of learning. They’re still better at it than most teachers are.”

There’s evidence that video games can help with mental health, too. “When you’re battling yourself with traumatic thoughts, you can lose yourself in a game,” says Michelle Colder Carras, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University who played World of Warcraft to alleviate her own past bouts with depression. She’s published a study illustrating the therapeutic benefits of video games for military veterans. “Right now, during this pandemic, real life is the traumatic situation,” says Colder Caras. “What games are able to do for people in mental health recovery, all of society now needs.”

Granic agrees. “Kids are as anxious as parents right now with this epidemic,” she says. “There’s lots of them worried about their health, about their parents’ health. The formula for anxiety is unpredictability, having no control, and a potential threat out there where you have no agency yourself to do anything about. And what are games really, really good at? Giving you control, giving you predictability, and having potential threats overcome by things you can do, things you have agency over.”

Research shows that video games can be good for your brain in other ways, too. German researchers, for example, have found that adults who played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day for two months had increased grey matter — where the cell bodies of the brain’s nerve cells are situated — in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum, regions involved in functions like spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills.

It’s important for parents to make sure their kids are finding ways to get physical exercise in this moment, too. Workout oriented games like Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure can help, but there’s no digital substitute for real fresh air. While doing a video interview with TIME, Craig Stark, professor at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, said that his eighth grade son was on a headset chatting with his friends while gaming. “I’m great with that,” says Stark. Still, he adds, “if you’re gaming 20 hours a day, let’s get out, let’s do some other stuff, let’s not just talk to each other on a screen. But in terms of the notion that video games are actively rotting the brain? No, I don’t see any evidence for that.”

See you later, boss. Those ‘89 Pistons are about to mount a comeback. My son — and our PS4 — await.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com