Know Thy Gamer: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games: Drew Dixon
Should you be ignoring or removing your kids video games? Expert Drew Dixon thinks they can actually be positive—when handled wisely.
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Should you be ignoring or removing your kids video games? Expert Drew Dixon thinks they can actually be positive—when handled wisely.
Know Thy Gamer: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games: Drew Dixon
[Video Game Sounds]
Drew: One of the ways that we play video games to the glory of God is that God is the author of games and play and fun, and those things are not counter-biblical. We see a picture of God in the Bible of someone who values enjoyment and, in fact, commands that we give energy to finding things we find enjoyable.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Ann: I think this is going to be a really fun and helpful conversation. Today, we have Drew Dixon with us. Drew, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Drew: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Ann: You wrote a book called A Parent’s Guide to Video Games:—
Dave: —Know Thy Gamer. You better be good at this stuff. [Laughter] Honestly, this isn’t what you do for a living. Some people may think you’re a video game junkie, and that’s all you do. But you don’t do that for a living. This is just a hobby.
Drew: It’s a passion project in some ways. I have been writing about video games for over a decade from a Christian perspective.
The book was a labor of love to help parents navigate that space with their kids, because there are so many parents that are at their wits’ end because their kids are really into video games and they don’t know what to make of that. They don’t know what to do with that. I wanted to help parents love their children well and point them to Christ, whether they’re gamers or not.
Ann: You are an author. Tell our listeners what else you do.
Drew: I am executive editor at Penguin Random House for WaterBrook and Multnomah, the two Christian imprints at Penguin Random House, which basically means I manage book projects. I acquire authors and have them write books for us. I love it.
Before that, I was an editor in the curriculum space, so I was an editor at Lifeway for years, publishing church curriculum for student ministries. Before that, I was a pastor, but all during that time I worked for a ministry called Love Thy Nerd, and actually prior to that worked for a ministry called Game Church, which sought to bridge the gap between the gospel and the gamer. They sought to bring the gospel to video game players all over the United States and all over the world.
That evolved into Love Thy Nerd, which is this non-profit I co-founded with some friends that seeks to be the love of Jesus to nerds in nerd culture. We enter into nerdy spaces. When I say “nerd,” I mean people who are into video games, comics, anime, board games, Dungeons and Dragons; all these things that the church doesn’t know what to do with. We enter those spaces, build relationships with nerds, and try to point them to Jesus.
Dave: Yes, you mentioned the church doesn’t know what to do with it. Typically, it seems the church or the Christian community just judges it and says, “It’s evil and wrong; run at all cost.”
Ann: Lets just be real. As parents, I’m going to say, we have three boys. They all played video games. I was mad half the time. [Laughter] I would say, “What? Are you still playing video games?”
Dave: What were you mad about?
Ann: I felt like—and honestly, I’m so glad you are here, because maybe some parents feel like this: “What a waste of time!” So, I said some of those things. But even the title, Know Thy Gamer. I like that you go into this and give us some helpful ways to understand it, and to understand our kids, because I really didn’t. I really did think, “This is the biggest waste of time.”
But they all still play video games.
Dave: When we get together—now we have six grandkids, and they’re in different parts of the country, but when we’re together—as a family, at some point, the three sons will go away. They cannot wait to play an hour or so of a game together. It’s a bonding moment.
Drew: I think we’re dispelling some fears here [that] people have, because your kids turned out okay. They grew up playing video games.
Ann: Yes, they did.
Drew: That’s a fear that so many Christian—well, parents in general, but especially Christian parents who want to parent thoughtfully—are worried [about]; that video games will ruin their kids.
Drew: I am here to say that, yes, you should be concerned about all kinds of things your kids might be into, and you should be parenting thoughtfully and carefully around those things. But we’ve got to stop catastrophizing everything, and especially video games. We think, “If my kids are too into video games, they’re never going to get a good job. They’re not going to learn social skills—"
Ann: “—they’re going to have terrible marriages.”
Drew: Right. “Their marriage will fall apart. They won’t live on mission.” It’s just not true. In fact, there are ways to play video games that bring glory to God and send the message of Jesus’s love out into the world.
Dave: Okay, you’ve got to explain that.
Dave and Ann: “Bring glory to God.”
Dave: We have parents emailing us right now saying, “No, there isn’t,” but there is, right?
Ann: Wait, let’s find out, too—you’re a dad. You have three kids; you’re married. Were you a gamer?
Drew: Oh, yes. I grew up playing video games a lot. It was a huge part of my childhood, for sure. Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of boundaries around them. They were so new when I was a kid that my parents [would say], “You should go outside for a while.” [Laughter]
I turned out okay. Then I went to seminary, and I thought, “I don’t have time for this. I need to read the theology books.” Then I got to be a pastor; I was a pastor for five years. It was actually during that time that I started playing video games again. [Laughter]
Drew: Yes. I just needed an outlet; something fun.
That is one of the great things. I think that is one of the ways that we play video games to the glory of God: God is the author of games and play and fun, and those things are not counter-biblical.
We see a picture of God in the Bible of someone who values enjoyment and, in fact, commands that we give energy to finding things that we find enjoyable. We need rest. We need times when we’re not being productive anymore.
Yes, those concerns about video games keeping us from being productive members of society; I think there’s some validity to that. But we also need to have a vision for what it means to be human that makes space for things that aren’t productive, and that are just enjoyable, and that are just a good time.
There is reason to be concerned about overindulgence in video games, for sure. There’s a big conversation right now in the medical community about video games being addictive and whether or not they should be clinically classified. They have been now. There’s a clinical classification in the ICD for video game addiction (the International Classification of Diseases).
But statistically, it is not a huge percentage of our population that’s addicted to video games. Something like one percent of all gamers would classify as addicted. To be clinically classified as addicted, you would have to meet a certain set of criteria over a six-month period, over a certain period of time, right?
I’m not sitting around and waiting until my kids are meeting all that criteria before I say, “Let’s develop some boundaries around this.” But if you play video games in moderation with some boundaries around them, they can be good for us. They have a lot of benefits. There are things that I don’t like about how my kids play video games. There are things that I regret about the way I engaged with them in the past.
Dave: Like what?
Ann: Let’s talk about some of that.
Drew: Sure. There were times when I overindulged. I think I spent too much time playing video games in a way that, for short stretches, I think I neglected my family—my wife, in particular—because I was so into Minecraft. [Laughter]
I know that’s a kid’s game, but when Minecraft first came out, it was amazing and incredible. It wasn’t considered a kid’s game. It was just this beautiful creative game, and I loved playing it with friends. I got on a server. We’d all build this world together. It became something that I wasn’t getting enough sleep, and I was irritable. That can happen and does happen a lot. But I have experienced enough of the loss of sleep and irritability that I know I need some boundaries.
Ann: As a parent, you’ve got a 12-year-old. How old are your kids again?
Drew: Yes; 12, 9, and 5.
Ann: Okay, and two girls and a boy. Are girls playing video games as much as boys?
Drew: My 12-year-old loves video games. She’s a girl. She’s super into it. She would play—Roblox is her jam. She likes Minecraft, as well. She would play either of those games all day if we didn’t have boundaries. That’s the thing. Kids—their brains aren’t fully developed—need us to [say], “Here’s some rules.”
Dave: What are your boundaries?
Ann: And how did you set them?
Drew: Through trial and error. To be honest, it is. [Laughter] I say this in the book: I don’t think there’s one set of boundaries that works for every child around this subject of screen time and video games.
Screen time is bigger than video games. I make the argument in the book [that] I think video games in some ways are a lot better type of screen time than just watching YouTube or Netflix, or certainly [than] scrolling social media. Get your kids off social media. That’s my position on that. [Laughter]
That said, through trial and error. There are some ideas I give of how you can set some of those rules, but how you set them is maybe more important than what they are.
Drew: How you go about creating boundaries for your kids, that’s the key to me.
Ann: What’s that look like?
Drew: I think your screen time rules should be collaborative. When I say that, I mean involve your kids in the process of creating them. When I say that, people freak out. [They say], “You’re saying to let my kids decide what their rules are going to be.”
I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is invite them into the conversation. The ultimate goal of parenting, I believe, is to develop a lifelong relationship of trust with your children that is rooted in the love of Jesus. The goal is not to win the video game battle. The goal is to love my child. If I think about it that way, then that’s a lot more helpful in terms of developing rules and boundaries.
We can all sit around the kitchen table and say—I can even say, “What do you think your screen time rules should be?” You’d be surprised [that] most kids, not every kid—some kids are going to say, “Well, we shouldn’t have any; I’m going to do whatever I want”—but most kids know and want boundaries. They know they need [them], and they want them. They might actually come up with some good ideas. You’d be surprised.
But you need to go into that conversation knowing what you want the rules to be, but then let them be a part of the process. Then they feel like they’ve been invited to the table; they feel like you want a relationship with them.
Ann: Yes, instead of “You decided this, Mom and Dad,” it’s, “We talked about this and decided it.”
Drew: Relationship, in my opinion, and I think the research would bear it out, is so much more powerful than rules when it comes to discipleship in parenting. So, make it collaborative: “We’re going to come up with the family rules together,” and go into that conversation knowing what you want them to be so that this is not the Wild West. There are going to be some rules; there are going to be some boundaries. Make them collaborative, write them down, and make them clear.
Ann: “Write them down?”
Drew: Yes, yes; so everybody knows what the rules are. It’s written down on the family whiteboard or whatever. Maybe you need something more permanent than white board—[Laughter]—so kids aren’t adjusting the—
Dave: —we had those rules at the pool. You know: “No running” or whatever. Are you saying there should be something agreed upon that they know? It’s a reminder saying, “Yes, this is a good thing, but it can be harmful if we break these rules.”
Drew: Yes, because what you want to do is, you want to set your kids up for success. You don’t want those rules to be so detailed and so much fine print that your kids can’t keep them. They don’t even remember them, so they’re going to fail, and they’re going to get in trouble.
Don’t set your kids up for failure. Set them up for success. Make them [the rules] really clear. The rules should be simple enough that you can communicate them in 30 seconds or less, and so that your kids know what they are, and you’ve had that conversation, so that they’re prepared to respect them.
I think rules are respected more when they’re rooted in a relationship of love and trust. When kids know that their parents deeply love them, then those rules seem less oppressive and more life-giving.
Ann: It’s funny; our one son, who has three boys and a girl. has a six, a five, and a three-year-old son. The six-year-old and five-year-old are allowed to play video games on Saturday for a certain amount of time.
I’m there, Dave’s there, and Saturday comes. Porter cannot wait. He says, “Nani, you have got to come in the basement and watch me play video games. I am really good at it.” I’m thinking, “I’d rather poke my eye out with a stick.” That’s what I’m thinking. “This sounds awful.” But of course, I didn’t say that. I said, “Yes, I can’t wait to watch you play video games.” [Laughter] He really was good.
Dave: Yes, he’s really good.
Ann: But they know it’s coming [on] Saturday. He wasn’t resentful that he’s not—
Drew: —my kids are the same way.
Ann: Are they?
Drew: Yes, they look forward to Saturday. They get it on Sunday, too.
Ann: Yes, they do, too. They get [only] the weekends. That’s so fun.
Drew: My kids get a little bit of time during the week, but we have screen-free days. That’s what we do. We have three screen-free days during the week, and then the other days of the week on school days, they get a limited amount of time, like an hour a day those days. Then on the weekends, we give them more.
We’re more open to—our rules are flexible on the weekends, because we’ll give them a bit more time to if they’re playing with friends. I think that’s better. If you’re going to be on screens, I’d rather them be hanging out with their friends playing together. That’s a different type of play, in my opinion, than the socially isolating type of video game play that we think of, stereotypically, with video games.
Ann: I think the thing that scared me with our kids, too, was online play became a thing as they got into high school, which freaked me out. I’d come down and say, “Who are you playing with?” “I don’t know. Some guy.” As a parent, that worried me. Then today, you hear of all this trafficking that’s going on with our kids. Is that something we should worry about or put boundaries around in that area?
Drew: Yes, absolutely. I think so, especially with younger children. As your kids get older you may allow them to do some online gaming. There are ways to use parental controls on a lot of the video game platforms like PlayStation or X-box or Nintendo Switch. You can set up parental controls that keep them from playing with people you don’t know. There are ways to keep them [the controls] to where they can only play online with people who are on their approved friends list. But none of these parental controls are fool-proof protection against predation.
Yes, I think we should absolutely be careful about our kids playing online. It’s a Catch-22, because as they get older and mature, and we can trust them more, I would rather they play with other people than by themselves. A lot of the benefits that come from video games are social. Most people today are playing video games socially; they’re not playing by themselves. They are playing with other people. There’s opportunity there—just like you said, your son was playing with one of your other sons online—
Dave: —across the country.
Drew: —across the country. It’s a way for them to bond and have fun together. The same is true for our kids. I think a great way to bond with your children is to play video games with them. Within reason; I’m not saying you play all day and neglect all your other responsibilities. But there is social connection, there’s team building, there’s creative problem solving in the context of relationships that can happen in those spaces that is really good for us.
Dave: It’s funny, you’re talking about all these benefits that sound great, and so many parents, at least in the church world or in the Christian world, think, “Video games are almost evil!”
Drew: Sure, yes.
Dave: Like there are no benefits. What do you say to the parent that has that perspective: “You’re never going to play. We’re never getting a game system because it’s just—”—I don’t know if it would be evil, but—"it’s a waste of time?”
Drew: Yes, yes. I guess I would say—this is a little bit of a Jesus juke, but, “We shouldn’t call ‘common’ things that God has made good,” right? It’s part of God’s good creation. We are really good, as human beings, at taking good things and corrupting them and using them and engaging them in ways that actually bring chaos and destruction and actually bring harm to us and the people around us. But, because we’re made in the image of God, we’re also gifted and equipped to engage good things in ways that lead to flourishing, to human flourishing; and that actually do good to our neighbor.
I don’t think you can paint them one way or the other. There’s good to be found in the world of video gaming. There are also things to be concerned about.
Dave: We’ve got a parent right now who is going to give us a question.
Ann: Let’s do that.
Dave: One of our own, Ryan Guinee; a FamilyLife staff member, researcher, and video gamer. We thought, “Let’s let him ask the expert,”—
Drew: —I love it.
Dave: —"Drew, sitting here, questions.” Here’s the question. I’d love to hear your response.
Ryan: Hi, Drew. Thanks for coming on to FamilyLife Today. I’m Ryan. I’m 32. I’ve been a video game player pretty much all of my life, so I’ve seen the industry change and grow. I’m well aware of how big the video game industry is. It just dwarfs all other entertainment industries.
Knowing that it’s an economic machine, game developers are doing everything they can to keep players coming back. When I was growing up, I struggled quite a bit with game addiction. It creates this world that I want to escape to. In those days, it was a lot easier to pinpoint the reasons why you shouldn’t play a certain game.
We’ve gone from Pong on Atari to porn in Grand Theft Auto. It’s easy to point those things out and say, “Sex and violence in games is a reason to stay away,” but what’s not that easy to point out and is a lot more nuanced is addiction. Playing a game that’s seemingly good but it’s so good, you can’t walk away from it; knowing when to walk away, having that discernment. I struggle with it as an adult. But I’m also worried about it for my kids, so what could we do about that?
Drew: Yes, I wish I could tell you, “Don’t play X, Y, and Z. Play A, B, and C instead,” but I don’t think it’s that simple. There are some things to be aware of, like loot boxes and free-to-play games, I think, [that] are things we should be concerned about; but it’s not that simple.
I think it comes down to knowing your children. There are going to be some games that they’re not necessarily trying to get you to come back. They’re not designed insidiously. They’re just fun; they’re just really fun, so we end up wanting to play them more than we want to do the dishes, right? [Laughter] If that’s how you feel, you’re a normal human being.
Drew: I would much rather play video games than mow the lawn, but I know I need to mow the lawn. So, when it comes to your kids, you need to know them and develop a close relationship with them so that you can help them develop those boundaries around how much they play. But I would say, don’t freak out if your kid hates doing chores and loves playing Fortnight. They’re just a normal human being if that’s the case. [Laughter]
Drew: Don’t freak out about it, but I think you need to parent with more than just the on/off switch, so it’s not just about how much they can play, but it’s about having conversations around what they’re into and why; constantly talking about that and listening. Make an effort to listen to them and why they’re into the games that they’re into.
But I think that there are games that we need to steer away from. Bottom line is, kids need boundaries. There’s a very, very small subset, probably like less than one percent of kids that don’t need boundaries around video games, because they’re so into other things. There’s the rare kid who is really into soccer and art and they play video games 30 minutes or maybe an hour a week or something. They may not need boundaries but everybody else does. [Laughter] The vast majority of them do.
Kids are not good at self-regulation. Adults are not, to be honest with you.
Dave: I was going to say adults aren’t either. We have a little system here. I play Galaga. You ever play it?
Drew: Yes, of course.
Dave: It’s an old, old game.
Drew: Yes, it’s a classic.
Dave: I can get just caught, you know wanting to go to the next level, next level, next level—
Drew: —you can always beat the—
Dave: —then I’m trying to beat my son’s high score. I can get—it feels like an addiction, like, “I can’t turn this off.”
Drew: There’s good and bad to that, because video games present us with this idea, “If you play again, you could do better” —
Drew: —which is an empowering and beautiful thought—
Drew: —that is true. There’s a parable there for life: “If you keep trying, you can get better.” That’s true.
Dave: That’s good.
Drew: There’s some good in that; but the insidious part, the dangerous part, is that you could also waste away time you should be giving to your family or to spiritual formation.
Dave: Your wife wants to talk, though. [Laughter] This is so much easier than communicating.
Ann: What I was going to say with Ryan’s question was, if our kids have any kind of addiction where they—it may not be video games—it’s any thing where they’re losing themselves in it. It feels like they’re trying to escape. We can do that as an adult, too. As a parent, I’m watching that thinking, “What’s going on that’s making them want to get out of reality?”
Drew: Right, yes.
Ann: So, to go deeper into their lives of asking questions. I know, with teenagers, they’re not always going to answer that question right off the bat: “What’s going on?”
Drew: But you keep asking.
Drew: You keep coming back to it.
Ann: And you do things with them that are fun, that you are entering their world, so that you’re opening that door to find out; if they’re in pain you want to know what it is.
Shelby: When it comes to things like video games, we’re trying to figure out the deeper things in both our lives and in the lives of our kids, because it’s hard work, for sure, but it’s really where the real gold is to me mined. It’s where the lasting impact is going to happen. We’ve got to ask the question under the question when we’re talking about things related to our kids and our own hearts with things like video games. I loved this conversation.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Drew Dixon on FamilyLife Today.
Drew has written a book called Know Thy Gamer: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games. If you feel like you don’t have any idea how to approach this subject with your kids, you need a little bit of help or a lot a bit of help, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on “Today’s Resources” to get your copy of Drew’s book. Or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. That’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, coming up tomorrow, how can you actually build relationships through the avenue of video games? It’s an interesting question, and Drew Dixon is going to be back tomorrow with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about just that. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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