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Remember kids opening their favorite games around the Christmas tree? Watch the eyes of young kids as they see the game room at the Mall. Imagine that you leave home after lunch with kids playing Nintendo or a Sega game. When you return at dinner time, they are still at the monitor. Consider games globally; how similar and different are games played by children around the world?

How important are games for children and adolescents? Do we ever outgrow our need for games? What are their purpose and benefits, and how can they be over-used or abused? What is helpful and what is hurtful about games? Certainly games are important enough to consider and discuss.

The purpose of games is to amuse, but also to instruct. Benjamin Franklin "saw chess not as idle amusement (which he detested), but as an aid in acquiring valuable qualities such as foresight, circumspection, prudence, as well as perseverance." (referred to by Dick DeVos, 1997, p. 183) Games, then, can promote character and direction along with providing diversion.

A game, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is "a way of amusing oneself; a pastime; diversion...a sport or other competitive activity governed by specific rules." The World Book Encyclopedia (1998, Vol. 8, p. 21) defines game as "a mental or physical contest played according to rules." Sports are one kind of games that has taken off big time. (The Youthworker’s Encyclopedia has a topic on Athletics.)

There are board games, card games, table games, games with dice, paper and pencil games (tic tac toe), tile games (dominoes), target games, lawn games (croquet), street games (hopscotch and rope games like double Dutch), tile games (dominoes), TV game shows, party and youth group games, video and fantasy games.

We can assume games have been around from the beginning of human history. Archeologists found a board game in ancient Ur (some 4500 years ago). Mancala and Senat game boards ( with pegs) have been found in Egyptian tombs. A similar game has been played in sub-Sahara Africa for centuries. There are references to games in ancient literature, and children can be seen playing their games in all societies. Weiqi (played as Go in America) has been a popular game in China for 2000 years; its rules are simple but it is a difficult, the best players in China today are professionals. Jesus spoke of Hebrew children playing weddings and funerals in the marketplace. Native American children played a game throwing arrows through a rolling hoop, which suggests that games have always developed skills as well as providing fun. Play activity is one of the primary ways in which children have learned traditionally.

Judith Harris, in surveying anthropological literature on children’s play groups (1998, p. 89-91), describes how children in traditional societies are kept close to their mothers but taught little.

During his tenure in his mother’s arms he had an active social life and attentive care for his physical needs, but he was taught virtually nothing. Parents in traditional societies do not believe that babies have sense or that they understand what is said to them; therefore, they generally do not talk to them. Nor do they attempt to teach them to talk. Consequently, the child acquires very little language before the age of two and a half or three...parents in many societies seem to lose interest in their chidden just when they begin to acquire language.

Those who have lived in, or studied, traditional society may take exception to some of this, but Harris and others believe children in traditional societies really begin to learn language and the rules of life in play groups. A child is weaned and turned over to an older sibling or relative when the mother is pregnant or has given birth to a younger brother or sister. It is among these playmates the child begins to learn and practice language and the rules of life.

German ethnologist, Irenaus Eible-Eibesfeldt, describes children’s play groups in this way (1989, p. 600-601):

Three-year-old children are able to join in a play group, and it is in such play groups that children are truly raised...By playing together in the children’s group the members learn what aggravates others and which rules they must obey. This occurs in most cultures in which people live in small communities.

When the noted developmentalist, Jean Piaget, set out to understand the moral judgment of the child (1932 and 1965), he did so by studying childhood games (1965, p. 13).

Children’s games constitute the most admirable social institutions. The game of marbles, for instance, as played by boys, contains an extremely complex system of rules, that is to say, a code of laws, a jurisprudence of its own...

I often say in teaching: "Children play adult life; adolescents practice adult life." Children play games of child-care with their dolls, and later of romance (with Ken and Barbie, for instance), games of war with guns, and games of work with trucks. There comes a time when kids disdain child play; they are ready to practice marriage (with boyfriends and girlfriends and on dates); they get ready for future vocations (in school and part-time jobs), and they anticipate politics (in clubs or as school officers).

Of course, adolescents do play games of sport, video games and fantasy games. We never outgrow our need for games whether we play them alone or with other adults. Such playfulness keeps us in touch with the child part of us. We begin, then, by saying that games are a universal and valuable part of human life.

Fantasy or role-playing games seem to be a new form of game. "Dungeons & Dragons" was invented in the 1970s. In these players take on an imaginary character passing through imaginary adventures with other players and their characters—all with special attributes, skills or powers. A "gamemaster" orchestrates the action and tells characters what is happening to them—for instance as they turn a corner and face an enemy or enter a cave and find a dragon. That these adventures often happen in a magical world has caused many to object to the occult possibilities of the game. Ruthless "gamemaster" or players can certainly hurt a vulnerable player. Obsession with fantasy (or other types of) games can be deleterious to a young person. At best, fantasy games can arouse imagination and stimulate sound ethical considerations.

Electronic or video games began as imitations of simple board or card games that could be played by one or more players. They soon developed into chase games like Pac Man. Advances in technology has produced a new generation of games which have taken on comic-strip characteristics with sexual and violent content.

T.L. Dietz (in the journal Sex Roles, 1998, Vol. 38, No. 5-6, pp. 425-442) examined violence and gender roles in video games looking at implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior. The study took a sample of 33 popular Nintendo and Sega video games, and it was found that

  • No female characters in 41% of the games with characters.
  • In those games with women, 28% were used as sex objects.
  • 80% Of the games included aggression or violence as object or strategy.
  • In 27% of the games the violence seemed socially acceptable.
  • In half, violence directed specifically at others in an antisocial manner.
  • In 21%, the violence was directed specifically at women.
  • Most of the positive characters were Anglo.

Healthy groups games can be used as ice-breakers or warm-ups for further activities. The goals of such games are to help people relax, let down their guard or defenses, begin to relate to others, and to build a group identity.

Games can be either cooperative or competitive. Competition can be fun, can arouse and motivate, and can prepare one for many realities of life. Most would agree that competition can be carried too far and often gets out of hand. Healthy societies depend upon unusual cooperation among individuals and groups. Youth workers usually find it takes more creativity to use cooperative than competitive games, but that there is more to be learned in common enterprises.

When learning is fun and fun is instructive, leaders and teachers have accomplished their goal.



  1. What was your favorite game growing up? What do you most like to play these days?
  2. What impresses you here, or with what do you disagree in this article? What, in your opinion, needs to be added?
  3. To what extent do you think particular games provide just fun and escape; a vicarious thrill of combat or extremes; important exploration of self and relationships, and further training for adult responsibilities and needed skills?
  4. What do you see as the benefits and dangers of fantasy games? Do you agree there are positive and negative possibilities in such games?
  5. Do video games help develop eye-hand dexterity? Do they contribute to a sense of isolation and alienation? Do they encourage young people to be spectators rather than actors in the game of life? Are you concerned about gender roles in electronic games? Do video games desensitize young people to violence or even encourage a vulnerable and troubled young person to commit mayhem?
  6. How could you employ games more effectively?



  1. No study of childhood or adolescence would be complete without consideration of the games they play. We must understand why they like to play them, what they get out of their play, as well as possible dangers if games are taken to an extreme.
  2. Because of the importance of games, the questions raised above must be asked and addressed.
Dean Borgman cCYS