Why we prefer computers over consoles when introducing kids to gaming

I grew up gaming on consoles like Nintendo 64 and Gamecube. I have a lot of fond memories playing games with my brothers on those devices.

But as my own kids have gotten older, my wife and I have decided to first introduce them to gaming with computers, instead of consoles.

A photo of four computer workstations all side-by-side on a table.
The "computer lab" we set up in our kitchen. It grew out of the pandemic and we've expanded it as our kids have gotten older.

Here are some of the reasons we prefer computers over consoles:

Computers are better for creativity… consoles are better for consumption

Gaming can be a creative endeavor but the device you are using matters. With consoles, you can only do things that have been programmed into the platform or game by the developers. Some games might have a creative or sandbox mode but only if the developer added it intentionally.

Computers make it easy to take a screenshot and email it to a friend, or record a screen capture and upload it to Youtube. They allow more input devices like microphones, keyboards, and drawing tablets (in addition to controllers). Web-based games let you view source and access developer tools by default, but even “native” computer games tend to be more open than their console counterparts, by offering mods, special builds, and downloadable assets (like user-created characters and save files).

A computer is a general-purpose device that happens to run games. It’s that general-purpose-ness that expands what’s possible, and that’s something I value a lot.

Computer gaming teaches you computer skills

Time spent gaming on a computer is time spent practicing cross-functional computer skills. During an average gaming session, my kids might be doing things like typing, searching the web, downloading mods, navigating a filesystem, and troubleshooting simple audio or wifi issues. They use hotkeys, learn how to mitigate “lag,” and practice basic password management.

Some games open the door to advanced computer skills. Minecraft, Algodoo, The Powder Toy, and others include an in-game console, for running commands or simple scripts. This becomes a gateway to more ambitious customization like developing resource packs and mods, which uses graphic design and programming skills.

Multiplayer gaming on a computer exposes you to the basics of networking and hosting. My kids know how to look up their IP addresses so they can invite their siblings to a LAN game of Minecraft or Terarria. By using our family Minecraft server, they’ve learned about latency and server overload (there was an “incident” where a kid detonated a massive sphere of TNT, bringing the server to its knees 🤣).

You can learn a LOT about networking by troubleshooting lag. Who is lagging? Is it everyone, or just one person? Who is hosting the game—is it on a local computer or a server? Is the game lagging for the host? We ended up making a whiteboard lesson to discuss these questions, and it was like Networking 101 for elementary school kids.

Computer skills are something you’ll use your whole life. I’m typing this post on a computer. Even if my kids don’t go into a computer-related field, I want them to be comfortable using computers and troubleshooting issues on their own, instead of feeling helpless around technology.

A relatively safe, early exposure to social media

When you’re gaming on a computer, the internet is right there as a resource for gaming tips and research. Every major game has a wiki and a subreddit, filled with moderated, user-contributed content. The wikis expose kids to new and interesting ways to play that would be difficult to discover on their own (challenges, advanced achievements, mods, etc). They start to recognize the names of prolific contributors and think about contributing themselves. They’re not just playing a game… they’re joining a community.

The first gaming community my kids joined was Scratch and I can’t think of a better first exposure to social media. Unlike TikTok or Instagram, there were no algorithms, no attention harvesting, no ads, active moderation, and minimal clickbait.

All popular games have online communities. Some are safer than others, but if your kids are playing age-appropriate games, the communities are probably safer than whatever the TikTok or Instagram algorithm would deliver. Of course, it’s good idea to vet the community first!

With console gaming, you’re often playing by yourself in your own little world. That’s fine (especially for very young children), but a little exposure to topical online communities is good preparation for the adult communities we eventually join (be they professional, research-based, open-source, etc).

Case Study: Minecraft Bedrock Edition vs Minecraft Java Edition

You can play Minecraft on both consoles and computers (like many games these days).

Consoles use a version called Minecraft: Bedrock Edition; computers support Minecraft: Java Edition. The gameplay is similar, but Java Edition (the computer one) supports modding, custom skins, custom textures, custom shaders, historical installations, and more.

Bedrock Edition tries to add this kind of flexibility through their DLC marketplace, but the marketplace is limited to registered businesses that have a formal partnership with Mojang. If you want to create your own skins or textures, you’re out of luck.

This isn’t just a Minecraft thing. A lot of the games we like (Terraria, Stardew Valley, Factorio, No Man’s Sky) are available for both computers and consoles, but the computer version supports mods and the console version doesn’t. The platform matters.

The Benefits of Consoles

I’ve talked a lot about why we like computers for gaming but consoles are better at lot of things:

  • They cost less.
  • They are more user-friendly.
  • Multiplayer is easier. Think “setting up a LAN” vs “handing someone a controller”. This is especially noticeable in “couch co-op” style games like “Overcooked” and “Untitled Goose Game,” which are available for computers but clearly designed with consoles in mind.
  • Stricter content moderation.

Similar to smartphones, gaming consoles are polished, user-friendly, walled gardens that guide you down a pre-destined path. Gaming on computers are more like “the web.” Open. Expansive. Chaotic.

And while I praised the creativity and community features of computers, there are cases where console developers worked hard to build those features directly into their games, like Super Mario Maker, Gamebuilder Garage, and Nintendo Labo. So it can definitely be done.

I’m not anti-console. We’ll likely get a console at some point. But for now, we’re finding that computers are the best tool for creating the experience we want our kids to have while playing games.