STRENGTHENING PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS
THROUGH CO-PLAYING VIDEO GAMES
Anneliese Sheffield and Lin Lin
University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA
Parent-child relationships may be strengthened when parents and children play video games together. Literature is limited
in addressing the impact of co-playing video games on parent-child relationships. Family systems theory, in particular,
parental mediation through co-play, may provide insights into parent-child relationships. Parents who co-play in order to
mediate video game content or child behaviors are selecting one of the less restrictive forms of mediation. Co-playing is
likely to have an impact on parent-child relationships. Additionally, girls may benefit more than boys from co-play and
fathers as co-players may have a greater impact on relationships than mothers.
Parent-child relationship; co-play; video games
The family-centered video gaming movement can be traced to the 2006 Nintendo Wii (Chambers, 2012). The
trend is believed to be brought about in part by parents’ concerns about social disengagement of their video
game playing children, the mobility of devices, and the near-constant access children have to video games
making parental monitoring a challenge (Chambers, 2012; Jiow & Lim 2012). In an effort to address these
concerns, some parents have taken to playing video games with their children (Coyne, Padilla-Walker,
Stockdale, & Day, 2011; Eklund & Bergmark, 2013; Nikken, Jansz, & Schouwstra, 2007; Shin & Huh 2011).
There is limited literature on the impact of co-playing video games on the relationships between parents and
children. A review of the literature is needed to identify gaps in the research and make recommendations for
2. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
In this paper, co-gaming is examined through the lens of the family systems theory, which is one of the most
influential theories in family sciences (Charles, 2001). The theory states that an individual can be best
understood with an understanding of the family system to which that individual belongs because “family
systems theory is concerned with family dynamics, involving structures, roles, communication patterns,
boundaries, and power relations” (Rothbaum, Rosen, Ujiie, & Uchida, 2002, p. 329). The family systems
theory was developed for use in clinical therapy, but has recently been integrated with nonclinical theories.
Researchers studying gaming within families have used the family system theory as a theoretical framework
(Buswell, Zabriskie, Lundberg, & Hawkins, 2012; Padilla-Walker et al., 2012).
2.1 Characteristics and Behaviors of Co-gamers
According to Nikken and colleagues (2007), parents who play video games with their children tend to believe
that games can have a positive effect on children. Additionally, co-playing parents are usually younger and
have more experience personally playing video games than those who don’t co-play (Nikken et al., 2007).
IADIS International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age (CELDA 2013)
In fact, 81% of surveyed parents who were active gamers reported playing video games with their
children (Nielsen, 2008). However, the co-play of non-gaming parents was significantly lower. Only one
third of adolescents sampled in a separate study reported having played with a parent (Padilla-Walker et al.,
2012). There was no significant difference between the amount that mothers and fathers play (Nielsen, 2008).
Literature describes contradictory results comparing the co-play with sons and daughters. Two study showed
the amount of co-play with sons and daughters did not vary (Coyne et al,, 2011; Padilla-Walker et al., 2012),
whereas another study related that parents played more with sons (58%) than with daughters (37%) (Ipsos
MORI, 2009). This could be due to differences between sample populations. The video games co-play
generally lasts between 30 and 60 minutes per session at a frequency of a few times per week (Ipsos MORI,
2009). The games played by parents and children are primarily the “active technology/fitness games” genre
followed by racing games, and then educational games (Ipsos MORI, 2009, p. 18).
The primary reasons that parents reported for co-playing games with children were that their children
enjoyed it, their children asked them to play, they believed co-playing would improve the children’s
cognitive skills, they wanted to monitor the content of the games, and that co-playing allowed them to spend
time with their children (Ipsos MORI, 2009; (Nielson, 2008). The primary reasons that children cited for
playing with an adult family member were that it was more fun and that it allowed them to spend time with
the adult (Ipsos MORI, 2009). Interestingly, among children who don’t play with a parent, the children
reported the top reason against co-playing was that it is less fun to play with the parent. Parents who don’t
co-play video games with their children state that they don’t enjoy playing the games (Ipsos MORI, 2009).
2.2 Co-playing Video Games as Mediation
Parenting styles can impact the parent-child relationship. As such, the form of mediation used to manage
video game playing can offer insight into the relationships between co-playing parents and children. Parents
use a variety of methods to mediate video game playing with children including active mediation (i.e.,
discussing negative and positive game attributes and player behaviors), restrictive mediation (i.e., stopping
gameplay), and parent-child co-play (Nikken & Jansz, 2003, 2006; Shin & Huh, 2011) to guard their children
from the potentially harmful effects of video games. Some of the reported behaviors that were measured
include frequency of video game play (Nikken et al., 2007; Shin & Huh, 2011), pro-social behaviors (Coyne
et al., 2011; Shin & Huh, 2011), deceptive behaviors (Shin & Huh, 2011), and internalizing and aggression
(Coyne et al., 2011). Parental mediation of decreased slightly as teenagers get older (Shin & Huh, 2011).
While co-playing was perceived by some parents as an effective mediation strategy (Shin, Huh, 2011), it has
been suggested that, due to parents’ limited time, co-play is not used as frequently as more convenient,
restrictive mediation (Nikken & Jansz, 2006).
2.3 Co-playing Video Games to Strengthen Relationships
A small number of studies have addressed the effect of co-playing video games on relationships. The gaming
industry promoted co-gaming as a way to “foster family harmony” at a time when parents were concerned
that video game playing was distancing children from the rest of the family (Chambers, 2012, p. 37). Both
parent and child-reported connectedness was higher when parents co-played video games with their children,
particularly in girls when playing age-appropriate games (Coyne et al., 2011). Padilla-Waler and colleagues
(2012) suggested that the co-play represent a shared interest between parent and child, thus strengthening the
relationship. Regular game co-playing between a father and child was found to improve family functioning,
which would indicate stronger relationships (Buswell, Zabriskie, Lundberg, & Hawkins, 2012).
The limited literature addressing parent-child relationships through game co-playing indicates that co-playing
may positively impact family relationships. Parents who co-play with their children are exhibiting one of the
less restrictive forms of mediation, which may positively impact parent-child relationships. Girls who co-play
may be affected more than boys (Coyne et al., 2011), and co-playing fathers may have a greater influence in
improving relationships than co-playing mothers (Buswell et al., 2012).
ISBN: 978-989-8533-18-0 © 2013 IADIS
Parents who play with their children should be aware of the potential for unintended consequences of
co-playing games with violent or sexual content. Playing these games may result in increased interest in such
content and more frequent playing of such video games with friends. There is a need for more research in this
area to contribute to our understanding of this family experience.
Buswell, L. et al., 2012. The relationship between father involvement in family leisure and family functioning: The
importance of daily family leisure. Leisure Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2 , pp. 172–190.
Chambers, D., 2012. “Wii play as a family”: The rise in family-centred video gaming. Leisure Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp.
Charles, R., 2001. Is there any empirical support for Bowen ’s concepts of differentiation of self, triangulation, and
fusion? The American Journal of Family Therapy, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 279–292.
Coyne, S.M. et al., 2011. Game on… girls: Associations between co-playing video games and adolescent behavioral and
family outcomes. The Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 160–165.
Eklund, L. & Bergmark, K.H., 2013. Parental mediation of digital gaming and internet use. In FDG 2013: The 8th
International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games. pp. 63–70.
Jiow, H.J. & Lim, S.S., 2012. The Evolution of Video Game Affordances and Implications for Parental Mediation.
Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 455–462.
MORI Ipsos, 2009. Gaming in families: Parents’ and children's views on and experiences of gaming, Bristol. Available
Nathanson, A.I., 2002. The unintended effects of parental mediation of television on adolescents. Media Psychology, Vol.
4, No. 3, pp. 207–230.
Nielsen, 2008. Video gamers in Europe - 2008, Available at:
Nikken, P. et al., 2007. Parents’ interest in videogame ratings and content descriptors in relation to game mediation.
European Journal of Communication, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 315–336.
Padilla-Walker et al., 2012. Getting a high-speed family connection: Associations between family media use and family
connection. Family Relations, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 426–440.
Rothbaum, F. et al., 2002. Family systems theory, attachment theory, and culture. Family process, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp.
328–50. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12395563.
Shin, W. & Huh, J., 2011. Parental mediation of teenagers’ video game playing: Antecedents and consequences. New
Media & Society, Vol. 13, No. 6, pp. 945–962.
IADIS International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age (CELDA 2013)