It is my sincere belief that we as a nation, and a civilization will achieve our maximum potential when strong women and strong men in equal number can come together and work on solving the hard problems that face us locally and globally.
Lately I have had several parents reach out to me to ask me about video games, esports careers, and opportunities for their sons. Over the last fifteen years, I have learned a few things about coaching young boys, and young men but also, I have had the great privilege of working with some amazing people in the industry. It is my sincere belief that we as a nation, and a civilization will achieve our maximum potential when strong women and strong men in equal number can come together and work on solving the hard problems that face us locally and globally.
I say that because I do not believe encouragement is a zero-sum game. I believe decency and respect can be delivered in equal measure if we make those choices. Why am I saying that? Because I believe I have something to say about boys and video games, and I want to make it absolutely clear this should in no way take away from the support and momentum for girls and women to participate and play video games. In fact, what I love about esports is that we have the opportunity to create balanced, integrated, inclusive competition and programming that is open to anyone.
Many parents are hearing about esports, and they are hearing things like some video game tournaments are filling stadiums, or one kid winning $3M in a Fortnite Tournament. They might have even heard about some schools offering college scholarships for esports. However, the number of parents who see video gaming as a viable path to college remains small, which is not surprising given that tuition assistance for competitive video games is only 4 years old.
The Trap – One Kind of Relationship for Boys
When I started GameTruck sixteen years ago, I did not see the problem as clearly as I see it today. I started GameTruck because I thought the video games in family entertainment centers were expensive and awful. I started GameTruck because I wanted to share the awesome experience, we had at the game studio with more people. But I also started it because boy’s birthday party concepts seemed to be limited to Laser Tag and Bowling. On the other hand, girls had an enormous number of party concepts to pick from. Everything from American Girl Parties to Princess Dress Up Parties and more, plus everything the boys were into like trampoline parks, and laser tag. I believed GameTruck as a concept would fill a void left by the declining pizza-arcade industry. Boys love to compete, and outside of sports they did not have many options.
There were other factors that lead to GameTruck’s long term success, but it was that one idea: Boys love to compete. Only within the last few years have I seen that boys not only love to compete, but they are also practically only allowed to compete.
Author Robert Bly, in his book Iron John , wrote:
Contemporary business life allows competitive relationships only, in which the major emotions are anxiety, tension, loneliness, rivalry, and fear.
This pressure to compete has created some interesting challenges for boys. One of them especially is the collapse in access to sports.
No New Teams
When I started GameTruck I also looked at Macro-trends. I believed that increasing parental concern of child safety, in part sparked by pictures of missing children on milk cartons scared a generation of parents into needing to know where their children were at all times. One consequence was that team sports became the de facto way to exercise and socialize your child safely with adult supervision.
The trouble is, as demand rose, access all but collapsed.
Some things are so big they hide in plain sight. Over the last 50 years, the power 5 conferences have not added a sports team. Let me give you an example. When I attended ASU in 1984, they had the largest single campus in the country with 19,000 students. Today, ASU boasts over 105,000 students enrolled. And do you know how many basketball, baseball, and football teams they have? 5 times the enrollment, a massive expansion in campuses. And they have one of each, the same number they had 70 years ago. Yet over the last 50 years the United States has doubled it’s population and tripled the number of kids attending college.
In our local middle school, 145 sixth grade students went out for the boys baseball team. That’s 10 children for every available slot on the team. 14 were picked. The next year, only 20 went out. According to the Aspen Institute, by January 2020, 70% of 11-year old’s will have fallen out of team sports. (Unfortunately the Pandemic only made this worse )
Where did 125 children go?
We all know. They play video games.
What is really shocking about these numbers is how rapidly the decline happened. In 2016 the age of self-selection out of sports was 13 and a few years before that it was 15.
I have spoken to parents, both friends and acquaintances that had the same experience. Their child love to play ______ (pick a sport) and at middle school a hundred kids tried out and only a few were chosen. That was the end of their participation and enjoyment in sports.
And this is the issue… if you can’t compete who are you? If the only relationship available to form friendships is rooted in competition… then what happens to your friends when you can no longer “play” together?
Online gaming creates systematic isolation to keep people safe
Even as kids fall into video games, there is another challenge. No publisher wants to introduce you through matchmaking to someone who could walk over to your house and meet you. That would be too dangerous. It is better to scramble matchups and obscure connections. Some publishers go so far as to make it practically impossible to even play with friends at all.
They work awfully hard to keep everyone anonymous to each other. But this means, to play with (i.e. compete) friends, you must already have them. However, it was Robert Bly’s quote that gave me insight into why we see so many athletes game. Cutthroat sports competition is not all that much fun either. When you are competing with team mates to start, that is also a form of competition that can be characterized by anxiety, tension, rivalry and loneliness.
Hopefully, you are by now getting a sense for the scale of the problem. It was this systematic and random playing against strangers that motivated me to create GameTruck. I wanted a safe environment, at your house, where kids could play together with their friends, in person. And I believe and the science supports that play is deeply human.
Where to go from here
I have been a huge advocate of parents playing video games with their kids. In talks I have given from New York to California, I advise parents to do two critical things.
- Get in there and play with them. I call this building a bridge to their world.
- Help them build a bridge from their world to their future.
Step one is easy. Jump in. Get in there and start playing. You’d be surprised what you can learn about your son’s inner life when you get them to talk with you about video games. It is kind of funny. I sat down to write about step two until I realized none of this information from my public speaking is on my blog in the context of GameTruck – so I had to “set the stage” as they say. I wanted to make the case for why I feel our sons are feeling intense isolating pressure to form relationships based in competition and the stress that is causing. Add to that the loneliness that can come from online only play and the challenge of making friends with your cohorts, and I do believe GameTruck is a small but important step in the right direction, bringing kids together with their friends to play.
But what’s next? I will start a series outlining how video game play relates to education, careers, and yes, possibly even esports. My intention is to give you resources to help you and your child make the most of their gaming, and how to avoid getting lost in it.
- Bly, R. (2015). Iron John: A Book about Men (3rd edition). Da Capo Press.
- Jin, L. (2020, December 18). The Rise and Fall of the Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign. Medium. https://medium.com/the-collector/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-missing-children-milk-carton-campaign-4e9228d34cb7
- Ta, L. (n.d.). The missing kids milk carton campaign started in Iowa. Des Moines Register. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2017/09/04/missing-kids-milk-carton-campaign-outcome/627165001/
- Survey: Kids Quit Most Sports By Age 11. (n.d.). The Aspen Institute Project Play. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/national-youth-sport-survey/kids-quit-most-sports-by-age-11
- Aspen Institute’s Project Play Report Shows Kids Are Losing Interest in Sports During Pandemic. (n.d.). The Aspen Institute. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.aspeninstitute.org/news/press-release/state-of-play-2020/
Miner, J. W. (n.d.). Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13. Washington Post. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/06/01/why-70-percent-of-kids-quit-sports-by-age-13/