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Move over, Monopoly: ASU researchers find families bond over video game play

July 09, 2013

For parents, it seems counterintuitive, but the video games they think distance them from their adolescent children could actually bring them closer together. Indeed, Arizona State University scientists who study the educational aspects of video games suggest that a shared gaming experience can enhance communication among family members.

The video game research is inspiring an intergenerational gaming night hosted by ASU’s Center for Games & Impact July 31 at the Phoenix Art Museum. The event is part of the museum’s "The Art of Video Games" interactive exhibit exploring the 40-year history of video games – from traditional fan favorites like Super Mario Bros. and PAC-MAN to the more recently popular Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island and Flower. The exhibit premiered in March 2012 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. It continues at Phoenix Art Museum through Sept. 29, 2013.

During the event, titled “Under 21 – Intergenerational Game Play,” children ages 10-14 and their adult companions will team up for an hour to explore connections between video games and art. The free sessions are offered at 5 and 6:30 p.m. Seating is limited and advance registration is required:

Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy and professor in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and Sinem Siyahhan, assistant research professor in Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, began studying intergenerational play using commercial, off-the-shelf video games earlier this year. The researchers conducted focus groups at ASU Preparatory Academy campuses across the Valley to find out how parents view video game play with their children.

“Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids,” Hayes explained. “Often parents don’t understand that many video games are meant to be shared and can teach young people about science, literacy and problem solving. Gaming with their children also offers parents countless ways to insert their own ‘teaching moment.’”

Siyahhan noted that typically elementary school youngsters transitioning to middle school want to develop greater independence from their parents, so these “digital natives” may retreat into solitary video game play. Parents can effectively open the communication lines by engaging their children in family-friendly video games played together.

“Video game play becomes a point of conversation, not a point of conflict,” Siyahhan said. “On the flip side, it’s nice for the child to be able to teach his or her parents about gaming. Our research is finding that sharing this experience cultivates family bonding, learning and well-being.”

According to Hayes, the media attention paid to first-person shooter video games in some cases has colored parent perception of the entire gaming genre. She hopes to bust that myth as she and Siyahhan organize more and more family game nights to show parents that games such as The Sims – one of the best-selling computer games of all time – can promote positive relationships and critical thinking skills. The Sims is an artificial life program that allows gamers to create and manage their own households.

“Another advantage of gaming with your children is that you can help them identify appropriate fan communities where gamers get together to discuss the games, create art and share fan fiction, as well as play the games with one another,” Hayes said.

For interested parents, the Center for Games & Impact offers a library of six impact guides designed to help facilitate conversations with children about their game play. These guides can be downloaded at

Since opening in mid-June, "The Art of Video Games" has been attracting new audiences to the Phoenix Art Museum, according to Christian Adame, assistant curator for education. Details about the exhibit can be found here.

“This retrospective of video games is creating different levels of nostalgia,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a different point of interaction than we normally see. Instead of sharing a painting or a sculpture, a father may be showing his child how to play PAC-MAN. Then the child shows his parents how to play Flower.

“When you compare the video game exhibit to our other exhibits, we’re seeing a lot more men!”

The museum also offers a neutral space for families to share game play, said Noelle Castro, program assistant for youth and family programs: “At home, family members tend to play games individually. At the museum, they learn to play the video game together.”

Also in July, ASU’s Center for Games & Impact is teaming up with the Phoenix Art Museum for two other events as part of "The Art of Video Games" exhibit. The details follow:

Event 1:

Date: July 20
Time: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Description: Video game creators from ASU’s Center for Games & Impact will design video games live at Phoenix Art Museum. Visitors can observe game designers using their computer and graphic equipment to work on game projects they are currently creating for the center, as well as other outlets.

Event 2:

Date: July 20
Time: 2-4 p.m.
Description:  A Center for Games & Impact staff member will provide a live demonstration of Flower – a video game where the player controls the wind as it blows a single flower petal through the air. The game will be displayed on a large screen as a live electronic orchestra accompanies the game interactively. Audience members also will be invited to play the game and the orchestra will respond to their game play.