Photo: Vorontsova Alena (Shutterstock)
I continue to find it a struggle to keep the Joy-Cons in my oldest son’s hands. As I watch him stumble through each level of a video game on Nintendo Switch, I want him to pause it so I can finish what he started. But after around 10 minutes of hearing his loud noises of frustration, he eventually hands me the controllers and says, “Can you finish this for me?” I usually comply with his request, but if I’m being honest, I don’t feel good about it.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about when you should introduce kids to video games as a way to learn how to satisfy my children’s curiosity about the electronic device in our living room and as a way to bond over learning over something I’ve loved since I was a teenager.
When writing that story, I spoke to Dr. Sinem Siyahhan, a co-director of the Educational Leadership Joint Doctoral Program with UC San Diego at California State University San Marcos, about the topic. I can still hear her words in the back of my head whenever I see my kids struggle with a game.
“You’re also teaching them that they have to persist,” she told me. “If they die three times and give up, that’s not a good lesson to learn. You can use it as a learning opportunity.”
How do we allow kids to learn to persist with the game?
My oldest son has been playing/struggling through Luigi’s Mansion 3 since Christmas. He immediately launched into the game’s Story Mode, which involves the green-clad plumber brother hunting down ghosts in a creepy hotel with a device that looks eerily similar to a proton pack from Ghostbusters. It’s also a little complicated to operate with the Joy-Con, even though the game gives a pretty thorough tutorial before launching into the rest of the game. The complexity of the gameplay discouraged him pretty quickly.
After several weeks of false starts, I decided to launch into the game on my own, and I could see why my son didn’t want to persevere: It’s complicated to capture ghosts—but it’s also fun when you get the hang of it. But one night, he saw me playing (and struggling), and his interest was reignited. Demonstrating to him that even someone who’s played video games as long as I have made him feel less alone in his struggle to learn and complete the game.
The cool thing about Luigi’s Mansion 3 is that each room the character enters is like a puzzle that has to be solved so you can move on, and I’ve tried to show him that solving one room is a small attainable goal. It makes the game like a bag of Halloween candy: If you try to conquer it all at once, you’ll get a stomachache. The best way to empty the bag is eat one candy bar at a time.
Don’t take the joystick away or play for them
I remember playing Super Mario World 3-D for the first time and seeing the disheartened look on my son’s face when I asked for the Joy-Con so I could show him how it’s done. There was so much disappointment in his eyes, and I could tell my lack of confidence in his abilities broke his heart.
As hard as it is to shut off that voice in my head and keep myself from taking the Joy-Con away from him, I’ve realized I need to let him learn how to solve things by himself. To add, when he tries to give me the Joy-Con to get him to the next room, as illustrated in my story at the beginning of the piece, I refuse. But that doesn’t mean I won’t help him.
Play the game for them—sort of
As I explained above, I started playing my own game, and I’ll save it under its own file, which means I’m a little further in the game than he is. This strategy allows me to offer him clues on how to move ahead; the ironic part is that I often don’t even need to drop any hints. The other night, his face lit up when he figured out something on his own at dinner when his brain was relaxed. I just needed to confirm what he already knew. It filled my heart to see his face when he put it all together, and it sure beats how I felt playing the game for him.