I communicate with my children in the game: Mediated Intergenerational Family Relationships through a Social Networking Game

 

Yunan Chen
Department of Informatics
University of California, Irvine

 

Jing Wen
Department of Informatics
University of California, Irvine

 

Bo Xie
College of Information Studies
University of Maryland

 

 

Abstract

 

How might social networking game playing affect intergenerational family relationships? Motivated by this important research question, we examined game-based communication patterns among family members. We investigated QQ Farm, one of the most popular online games available on a Chinese social networking site. Participatory observations and semi-structured interviews were conducted with sixteen pairs of Chinese parents and their adult children. Our analysis shows that game-based communication does not replace face-to-face or phone-based communication. Rather, it adds a new layer to the existing family communication patterns, which enriches the other forms of family communication and provides a new means for intergenerational family members to stay in touch. Game playing provides a light-weighted and relaxed environment for multi-intergenerational family members to stay connected. It serves as an “I’m safe and well” message board for family members to stay connected without imposing an undue burden for anyone. Moreover, game playing implicitly conveys caring messages to family members. It becomes a new communicative topic to promote the mutual shaping of online and offline intergenerational family communication.

 

Introduction

 

Population aging has become a more significant alient issue in contemporary Chinese society (Lee, 2004). An important concern for any aging society is to maintain the health and well-being of older adults (Xie, 2008d; 2009). Studies have shown that family relationships play a critical role in maintaining the individual’s psychological well-being and life satisfaction (Litwin & Shiovitz-Ezra, 2010; Lou, 2010; George, 2010; Phillips, Siu, Yeh, & Cheng, 2008). Older adults have a strong desire to communicateion more frequently with their children (Lindley, 2009). However, evidence exists that older Chinese received relatively poor support from their adult children (Ng, 2002, p. 135). Much of the intergenerational communication challenges were due to geographical distance (Ng, 2002, p. 135), time zone difference (Cao, 2008), and busy schedules of the adult children (Kimberly & BernheimBrushbBernheim Brush, 2009).

 

In China, the family has always been and is still the predominant mode of support for the aging parents (Tu & Aassociates 1989). However, with the projected sharp increase in the absolute number and proportion of older Chinese in China, the family-based old age support system will be increasingly under severe strain. In addition, the traditional family structure is undergoing rapid transformation as young adults migrate to other regions seeking better employment opportunities (Silverstein, Cong, & Li, 2006; Glei, & Landau, 2005). These ongoing societal changes challenge the conventional family communication patterns that feature the co-location of the aging parents and adult children.

 

Recent popularity of online social networking games among older adults in China suggests the potential of online gaming in influencing older adults’ daily lives. Anecdotal data suggest social networking game playing has become a co-playing activity for family members.1 These new practices raise an interesting question: how might social networking game playing affect intergenerational family relationships? Motivated by this important research question, in this study, we explore how aging parents and their adult children play QQ Farm, one of the most popular online social networking games in China, and how such game playing may have affected their relationships.

 

Related Work

 

Family relationship plays a critical role in supporting older adults’ psychological well-being, morale, and life satisfaction (Litwin & Shiovitz-Ezra, 2010; Lou, 2010; George, 2010; Phillips, Siu, Yeh, & Cheng, 2008). Family relationship is especially important for older Chinese, since family support is weighted more than that from friends in preventing psychological distress (e.g., depression) among older Chinese (Chi & Chou, 2001). Older Chinese parents living in three-generation households or with grandchildren in skipped-generation households had better psychological well-being than those living in single-generation households (Silverstein, 2006).


Despite their desire for more family communication (Lindley & Harper, 2008; Lindley & Harper, 2009), older Chinese received relatively poor informal support from adult children (Ng, et al., 2002). Geographic proximity is an important determinant of the amount and types of support older adults receive from their adult children: the shorter the geographical distance was, the more support older adults received. In contrast, family members who live in different time zones face difficulties in finding common times to communicate (Cao, 2008). The busy schedules adult children have and the lack of technology use among older people make it challenging for family members to communicate (Kimberly & BernheimBrushbBernheim Brush, 2009).

 

Digital devices have the potential to alleviate these intergenerational communication challenges (Romero & Markopoulos, 2007; Kimberly & BernheimBrushbBernheim Brush, 2009), particularly for family members who live far away. For example, the “HomeNote” device was designed to promote remote, situated messaging within the family (Sellen & Harper, 2006). The results highlight the role of digital messaging in enabling subtle ways of requesting action, expressing affection, and marking identity in the family (Sellen & Harper, 2006).


Video- or camera-based technologies may be the best technology in connecting family members, since the use of video-mediated communication (VMC) can foster closeness between the communicators (Dave & Sellen, 2010). One study (Ames & Go, 2010) found that video chat could be used for family members to reinforce their family identity and values. Digital Family Portrait displays iconic projections of older adults’ daily activities to their remote family membersRowan & Mynatt2005). Family Window (Judge & Neustaedter, 2010) uses an always-on video camera to connect family members residing in two households. These devices allow family members to see each other’s daily activities. Similarly, devices such as SPARCS (Brush & Inkpen, 2008) and Wayve (Lindley & Harper, 2010) also encourage information and photo sharing among family members. Although these image-based systems present new opportunities for facilitating family communication, sharing daily activities with family members also raises privacy concerns (Judge & Neustaedter, 2010).

 

Recently, various game-based technologies have been used to support the health and well-being of older adults. One aspect of this approach is to encourage physical activities. For example, Age Invaders (Khoo & Cheok, 2008), an interactive intergenerational social-physical game, allows older adults to play with children in the physical world. Unlike standard computer games, Age Invaders brings the game playing to a physical platform and requires physical movements rather than constraining the user in front of a computer for hours. Similarly, Voida and Greenberg (2010) examined the intergenerational gaming practices of four generations of console gamers and the roles gamers of different generations take when playing together in groups. Their analysis revealed a more flexible combination of roles in computer-mediated interactions than the roles found in the physical world.


Intergenerational game playing can also take place across a distance (Davis & Vetere, 2008), indicating the potential role of games in mediating geographically distant family relationships. Interestingly, the majority of current games still require family members to have commonly available times in order to play together. In this sense, although the game might bridge the physical distance between remotely located family members, possible time constraints among family members still exist.

 

QQ Farm: An online social networking game

 

We studied family game play on QQ Farm. QQ Farm is one of the most popular social networking games on Qzone, a major social networking site in China. Both QQ Farm and QZone were developed and built by Tencent, Inc. in 2009. On March 31, 2010, it was reported that there were 568.6 million active user accounts on all QQ service platforms.2 QQ Farm is designed to encourage Interact users from all age groups to play this social game with friends in their social networks. Surprisingly, the popularity of QQ Farm has quicklysoon spread to many older adults who were not playing online game before. Consequently, many anecdotal cases of older people engaged in or even addicted to playing QQ Farm were reported as an interesting social phenomenon.3 Unlike many other games that are played mainly among friends of similar ages, it is not unusual for QQ Farm to be is not unusually plaplayed by among older parents withand their adult children on a daily basis. OurThis study intended to examine the impact of the online game playing of QQ Farm on intergenerational family interactions to shed light on the role of social networking gaming in mediating family communications and relationships.


QQ Farm offers relatively simple and intuitive game features that can be easily adopted by various types of players. In the game, players can act as farm owners and manage their own farms, such as through cultivating, irrigating, and harvesting crops oin one’s own farm. In addition, players can also visit farms owned by their friends, where players can perform limited actions—some helpful, others mischievous. Helpful actions include weeding and irrigating, whereas mischievous actions include stealing the other players’ mature crops. Beyond game playing itself, each player has access to a personal message board associated with his or her farm. The personal message board shows log information about one’s farm, including both helpful and mischievous actions by other players. A player can see who visited his or her farm and when, and what actions the other players took. Players can also personalize their QQ Farm space through naming and decorating their own farms. These game features allow players to visit, help and connect with each other during the process of game playing.

 

Methods

 

We conducted a nine-month ethnographic study from March to November 2010 to examine the potential influence of social networking gaming on the communications and relationships between parents and their adult children.

 

Participants

 

We studied sixteen pairs of parent-adult child (N = 32), each containing one older parent and one adult child. Participants were recruited through a the snowball sample. The first two adult children were recruited from the university where the first and second authors are affiliated, and the rest of the participants were referred by people we studied earlier. Snowball sampling appears to be the most appropriate method to study players in a social networking game since it allows us to reach to the QQ game players through people’s social networks. Since the goal of the study was to examine intergenerational game play among adult children and their older parents, we did not include any children under 18 in this study.


Among the sixteen pairs of participants, seven pairs lived in the same households, or in nearby neighborhoods where they could maintain face-to-face communication frequently. The remaining nine pairs of participants lived in different regions, with all the parents livinged in China and their adult children livinge in the United States, Japan, Australia, or Denmark. In this paper we refer to them as the “local” or “remote” families, respectively. Studying the communication behaviors in both the local and remote families allowed us to compare the impact of game playing on family members who do not see each other frequently to that on among those who meet more frequently.

 

The parents being studied were aged from 47 to 66 years old, with an average age of 58 years old (while this age group may not be perceived as “old” in countries like the United States, it is nonetheless commonly perceived as “old” in countries like China. ; fFor instance, the Chinese Seniors Rights Protection Law defines seniors as individuals aged 60 or older; however in some cases the mandatory retirement age can be as young as 50 or even lessbelow4. ; fFor a more detailed discussion on cultural differences in how old is perceived “old” in the Chinese and American societies, see Xie, 2008a; 2008b; 2008c; 2006). Six out of sixteen parents were over 60 years old and ten were retired by the time this study was conducted. The sixteen adult children were aged from 18 to 42, with an average age of 28. At the time of the study, almost all adult children (15 out of 16) were working or attending college/graduate schools; whereas the majority of parents (11 out of 16) were retired. All participants had more than six months of gaming experience and reached at least the 15th level according to the game ranks designed in QQ Farm (0 as the lowest and 50 as the highest in the current game system).

 

These sixteen pairs of participants fall into three conditions: the patient and the child both are current players (9 pairs); either the parent or the child is a player (4 pairs); and both the parent and the child are non-players (3 pairs). The non-playing or partial-playing participants served as comparisons for a us to comparison ofe intergenerational communication patterns between the “dual-play” pairs and those having one or more non-playing participants. It is worth noting that among the nine dual-play pairs, four pairs were local and the other five were remote families. Participants’ basic characteristics are summarized in Table 1 below.

 

Table 1. Participant characteristics.

 

Relation (R)

pairs

Parents-children relationship

Age

Occupation

Playing

status

Living

Situation

R1

Father

59

Senior Official

Play

Remote


Daughter

28

Ph.D. Student

Play


R2

Father

58

Retired

Play

Remote


Daughter

29

Junior Engineer

Play


R3

Father

64

Retired

Play

Local


Daughter

39

Primary Teacher

Play


R4

Father

66

Retired

Play

Local


Daughter

37

University faculty

Play


R5

Mother

64

Retired

Play

Remote


Son

28

Ph.D. Student

Play


R6

Mother

60

University Staff

Play

Remote


Son

29

Ph.D. Student

Play


R7

Mother

63

Retired

Play

Local



Daughter

36

Account

Play


R8

Mother

66

Retired

Play

Local


Daughter

42

University faculty

Play


R9

Father

64

Retired

Play

Remote


Son

28

Ph.D. Student

Play


R10

Mother

54

Marketing Staff

Non-play

Remote


Son

24

Ph.D. Student

Non-play


R11

Mother

47

Account

Non-play

Local


Son

26

Undergraduate

play


R12

Mother

56

Retired

Non-play

Remote


Son

26

Businessmen

Non-play


R13

Mother

56

Retired

Non-play

Remote


Daughter

26

Ph.D. Student

Non-play


R14

Mother

53

Retired

Play

Remote


Daughter

26

Housewife

Non-play


R15

Father

51

Deliveryman

Non-play

Local


Son

18

Undergraduate

Play


R16

Father

61

Retired

Play

Local


Son

28

Manager

Non-play


 

Data Collection

 

To better understand how game playing influences family communication, we first observed the online game behaviors of six dual-play family members. Semi-structured, open-ended interviews were conducted with all sixteen pairs of participants based on the insights drawn from the online observations. Observations and interviews ensured that both the actual game play patterns and user attitudes are included in our data set. Human subject study approval was obtained prior to data collection. All participant names reported in this paper are pseudonyms.

 

Online observation

 

Online observations were conducted at the beginning of the study to understand the basic gaming behaviors among the “dual-play” relationships. Specifically, one researcher joined each participant’s QQ Farm friend list and examined their game behaviors through observing their game play activities, which are publicly viewable to all friends in the QQ Farm.


In the study, we first observed the game play behaviors of six pairs of dual-play families daily, including four remote pairs and two local pairs, at QQ Farm over a period of two weeks. We observed general game behaviors of participants and paid extra attention to their interaction with family members in the game space. Brief questions were probed through the instant messaging (IM) system associated with the QQ Farm during the online observation sessions. In addition, we collected the game logs from the personal message board of each participant twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. These logs record participants’ interaction with their online players in the game space. Log analysis helped us to understand how, and when participants visit or play with their family members in QQ Farm. Secondly, we followed up with these six pairs of players’ gaming behaviors weekly for three months. In this phase our goal was to understand whether family members continued to play QQ Farm, and whether family communication existed between the older parent and the adult child over a longer period of time. This observation helped us to discern the potential longer-term impact of game-mediated communication among family members.


We developed a semi-structured, open-ended interview guide based on the family play behaviors observed online. Specifically, observation data were discussed among authors to identify questions and issues to be addressed in the interviews. Family communication emerged as one important factor in family game play that deserves further investigation. In addition to the six pairs of dual-play participants reported above, the interview study was extended to three additional pairs of dual-play participants as well as 7 single-play or non-play pairs to provide comparisons. The interview questions were centered on the following three aspects:

 

- How participants played the QQ Farm game in general;

- How participants communicated with their family members in general; and

- How participants played the game with their family members.

 

At the participants’ convenience, interviews were conducted by telephone or in-person. When telephone or in-person interviews were impossible, we interviewed participants using Instant Messaging (IM_ associated with QQ Farm. Of the thirty-two participants, twenty-three of them were interviewed via the telephone, five were interviewed in person, and the remaining four were interviewed through IM. Each interview lasted from 30 to 60 minutes in length and was audio-recorded for data analysis. Interview and observation data were first transcribed into Chinese, and then translated into English for further analysis.

 

Data Analysis

 

Data analysis for this study was guided by grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) that emphasizes the co-evolution of data and theory by conducting data collection and analysis simultaneously. Following the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), immediately after the online observations, the first step was to write a short descriptive summary to record general impressions about the family interaction in game space. After each individual interview was conducted, audio data were transcribed into text as promptly as possible.

 

Four pairs of interview transcripts were randomly selected from the sixteen pairs of interviewees for the initial round of data analysis. Sample data were analyzed using the techniques of microanalysis or “detailed line-by-line analysis” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 57) by three researchers independently. First, open coding was conducted by each researcher to identify salient concepts and their properties (i.e., characteristics) and dimensions (i.e., “the range along which general properties of a category varies, giving specification to a category and variation to the theory”) (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 101). Gaming as a communication medium to mediate intergenerational family communications quickly emerged from this initial round of analysis. Once this core category was identified, axial coding was then conducted to systematically explore the properties and dimensions of this category. This led to the formation of the sub-categories (i.e., the three themes of game-based communications). The themes produced by each researcher were compared, discussed and revised through a series of iterations until agreements were reached among all researchers. Results of the micro-analysis of the sample interviews were used to guide the next stage of coding, during which one researcher coded the remaining data using the already developed coding scheme. This second stage of the analysis generated similar concepts and themes to those identified in the initial coding stage, demonstrating dependability of the findings.

 

Meanwhile, quantitative data (log data about participants’ use of the game) were entered into SPSS for descriptive statistical analyses. For each sample of six pair’s log data, we summed all log messages, and then calculated the frequency and percentage of the interactive messages only belonging to parent and his/her children by taking their virtual names in QQ farm as the input valid.

 

Key Findings

 

Through comparing the dual-play, single-play, and non-play pairs we find that QQ Farm has become a main channel for family members to stay connected.

 

Family Communication through QQ Farm

 

Our observations of the “dual-play” pairs suggest these participants constantly interact with their family members in the game space (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Playing QQ Farm: Left, a participant (son) playing game while studying; right, discussing game together (parents)

 

Analysis of the QQ Farm log data shows that eight percent of overall game interactions (319 out of 4132 messages) occurred between the pairs of study participants (i.e., a parent and an adult child). Overall, each pair of family members had contacted each other in the game space for an average of 53 times during the two-week period. Table 2 below shows the game rank, logins and playing time of the six observed dual-play pairs.

 

Table 2. Game use patterns of the six observed dual-play pairs.

Relation

pairs

Parents-children relationship

Age

Game ranks

(Levels)

Time of logins per day

Playing

Time (minutes)

per day

Total number of interaction messages over the 2-week period

R1

Father

59

38

6

30

93


Daughter

28

18

6

25


R4

Father

63

34

1

5

37


Daughter

34

19

5

15


R5

Mother

63

22

3

10

47


Son

28

15

5

20


R6

Mother

60

41

6

30

49


Son

29

39

4

15


R8

Mother

65

26

6

30

35


Daughter

36

24

5

10


R9

Father

63

19

2

5

58


Son

28

15

5

20


 

Interestingly, for many of the dual-play families, communication through game space is more preferable than other forms of communications such as telephone orand face-to-face communication. Family members prefer to have some daily interactions but do not need to have daily verbal conversations. Xu, a retired high school teacher, explained why QQ game became a better way of communication for him to stay connected with his adult daughter.

 

R2-father: It is almost impossible to have daily communications with my daughter, since she lives very far away from me. Now I have to [communicate with her] through QQ Farm. In the game, we don’t really need to “talk”, but I know what she’s doing... this provides a very good way to connect us. Sometimes it is even better than phone conversations, because we don’t always have new things to talk about on the phone, especially when we already talked [lately]. Then it’s actually better to meet on the Internet [in QQ Farm], leave a message, send an emotion icon and “steal” in the farm. These stealing and harvesting are a way to relax.

 

In comparison, the non-play or single-play pairs often experience a sense of disconnection when talking about their relationships with their family members. Maintaining effective intergenerational communication is not an easy task even when family members could meet regularly or live in the same household. Zhao, a mother who lives in the city of Wuhan, complained about how difficult it was to stay connected with her son who worked abroad.

 

R12-Mother: I usually contact my son on the Internet (via Instant Messaging). We don’t talk if he is not online. We usually only have contacts once, or twice a week. Sometime we don’t even talk for an entire week. If I don’t’ hear from him for too long, I just give him a call. And if he did not answer, I would be very worried… that’s why I feel the telephone and the Internet (IM) aren’t good enough for me to communicate with my son, but I have no other choice.

 

This mother feels finding “common times” is a major challenge for her to communicate with her son. Also, the lack of common conversational topics hinders intergenerational communications. Chen, a father with a college age son who studies inat the same city and goes back home every weekend, still thinks of intergenerational communication as a difficult task for him.

 

R15-Father: I don’t have much communication with my son, in fact, quite rare…The only time we could talk is during lunchtime. After that, he goes back to play on his computer. We just don’t have more time to talk. This happens everyday… I tried to communicate more with him or to find other more effective ways to talk to him, but it’s very difficult… He spends lots of time on his computer. Other than playing games, he also chats with his friends and study on his computer. I am not sure what he was doing exactly, cause I don’t know much about computers and games.

 

This suggests that there is no time for this father to talk to his son even when they spend every weekend together at home. The 18 years old son spends most of his time in front of the computer. Living in the same household doesn’t guarantee common communication times between the son and the father. Both the “computer time” that occupies the younger person’s time and the lack of computer skills in the older person limited the opportunities for them to communicate.

 

Game-based Communication: Three Key Functions

 

In this section, we detail how the QQ game was used as a new communication medium to connect intergenerational family members. Specifically, the game in our study served three key functions: 1) as an “I am safe and well” message board; 2) helping family members to express care and stay connected; and 3) providing relaxing conversational topics for intergenerational family members.

Gaming activities serving as an “I’m safe and well” message board

 

A key purpose for communication among family members, especially those who live far away, is to know whether each other is safe and well. As our participants Lee and Jean expressed in their interviews, they may not need to talk to their family members regularly, but they want to know whether their family members are safe. For most dual-play families, QQ Farm has turned into an “I’m safe and well” message board for them to stay connected. In this shared space, family members get to know each other’s online activities without having to directly talk or write to each other.


Lee, a father lives in Wuhan, China, told us how, over the game playing, he is able to keep track of whether or not his daughter was safe in the United States.

 

R1- father: if my daughter didn’t call or chat online with us for a week, we would worry whether she ran into any difficulties in her life. But I don’t actually need my daughter to leave any message to me [on Internet]. As long as I see she keeps stealing crops (in QQ Farm), I would feel very relived because I know she is safe.

 

Similarly, QQ game also serves as a platform for parents to know whether their family members are safe during natural disasters, because having online activities would suggest they were not affected.

 

R9-father: when some disasters happened in the United States, like a flood, fire or earthquake, if I saw him [his son] played in the QQ Farm, I’d know his was safe.

 

Many parents feel that playing on QQ Farm is a sign indicating their family members are safe and well, particularly when other forms of communications are not frequently occurrringed. As one father explained to us:


R1-fatherSince my daughter is playing QQ game frequently, that means she is in a very good mood now. I think she should be happy over there [in the United States].

 

During family game playing, even if no word is exchanged, the behaviors of game playing occurringed in the shared game space can still indicate the safe status of a loved one. The game activities thus help family members to shed away worries even when they don’t have more direct daily communications such as phone calls orand face-to-face conversations.

 

Game playing as a way to show “they care about and love me”

 

Participants of our study perceive their virtual activities in QQ game as a way to show care and love to their parents/adult children. As a result, playing together is often associated with the feelings of “happy,” “not lonely” and “comforting.”

 

Peng, a mother, talked about how “stealing crops”, an originally mischievous action, would cheer her up during her busy days or when she was on travelling alone.

 

R6-mother: when I saw my children stealing crops from my farm, I even felt happy… It makes me very happy when they took care of my farm. It feels like I am not alone; I feel energetic there and it ties our family together. No matter wherever I travel, I feel my children are always with me.

 

In QQ Farm, when mature crops are stolen by others, the owner would no longer gain experience points from growing it. However, different from the common competition mechanism in most computer games, this mother in our study does not care much about her game playing scores. Instead, she deems the “stealing” action as a way to connect with her children who live abroad.

Adult children also seem to have played the game with their parents with the intention of accompanying their parents when they are not around.

 

R9-son: I can’t live with my parents since I am studying abroad now. I think this game has some effects [on the family relationship]. There aren’t that many games for you to play with your parents. Playing games online makes me feel like I am with them at home. It makes my parents feel happy during leisure time and also gives me a sense of comforting.

 

Beyond playing together, the helpful activities designed in QQ Farm, such as weeding and irrigating are even more appreciated by parents. Many parents are proud that their children are helping them in the game space (by doing, for instance, weeding for them). For instance, Zhang, a mother of four, checks her farm daily to see who had helped her.

 

R5-mother: I check the messages in my Farm everyday. I know they [her adult children] helped me to take care of my farm; they cultivated grass and removed weeds for me... Through these little things I know how much they care about us, which made me very happy… it’s just fun to play with my family, no matter daughter, son or daughter in law, we all play together.

 

These quotes suggest that, although care is not explicitly expressed through verbal or written communication, caring and love are exchanged through the game playing. Without calling each other and saying how much they love each other, the caring information is represented through virtual actions through the daily game playing. Thus, game playing is fun for parents because they can entertain themselves during their free time, and also because it is a platform for them to be with their adult children and observe what their children doing something for them everyday.

 

Game playing promotes more relaxed family communications

 

Game playing is perceived as a “fun and relaxing” conversational topic that fosters common interests between the aging parents and the adult children.

 

Yang, a son who lives close to his parents’ home and maintain routine face-to-face communications with his parents, found online game playing beneficial to their already frequent family communications.

 

R16-Son: sometimes I watch how they [parents] play at home, like how they harvest crops. We talk and laugh together in doing so. I also told them some tips on how to play this game better. Sharing game playing experiences just improved our family communication and it’s very enjoyable for us. In general, Chinese parents are always concerned with their children’s lives, such as their jobs, their relationships, how they get alone with their wives or girl friends, etc. That’s what our parents always talk to us about when we were growing up. QQ Farm brought in fun and easy topics for us. The issues they talked to us about previously were all about lecturing us about how to live better. Adult children sometimes may feel they are over-controlled and thus not interested in those topics.

 

The easiness and relaxation brought by game playing are also applauded by the older generation, since talking about games provides them with new opportunities to interact with their adult children.

 

R1-father: Sometimes we only discuss very serious issues. This [the game] transformed our conversation to a more relaxed way, such as whether you go online today, whether you plan to steal my vegetables, etc. These are very easy and fun topics for us.

 

Conventionally, the conversations topics that the older generation prefers to talk to with their children about tend to be serious ones (e.g., those related to work, marriage). In contrast, playing and discussing games helps to convert the previously “serious” family conversations into “fun” and “relaxing” conversations.

 

Discussion

 

The findings of this study suggest that QQ Farm game playing provides an important communication channel for family members to stay connected. This new communication channel enriches existing family communications. While parents still expect to hear or see their adult children regularly, and to discuss serious family manners face-to-face or over the phone, game playing adds on to the existing family communications a sense of continuous updates, fun and relaxing topics that other communication channels may not be able to provide easily.

 

Different from phone calls, IM or face-to-face contacts, updates from the online game space is constant and continuous. The updates the parents received in the game space were generated naturally through the game playing, and serve as a message board for parents to know their adult children are safe and well. This game-based communication changes existing patterns of family communication in the sense that family activities are no longer reported to each other during common communication times. Rather, family communications now involve reading the game activities stored in the shared game space in a non-time sensitive manner. While this new communication mechanism may not be adopted to communicate urgent or other complicated family issues, it is ideal to keep family members be aware of each other’s daily activities through continuous updates without imposing a much burden on either generation.


Compared with other types of communications, game-mediated communication is more implicit and less intrusive (e.g., it keeps the balance of showing “safe and well” massages without revealing every detail of daily activities). This less intrusivestructive communication mechanism helps adult children to protect their privacy while maintaining constant interactions with their parents. In this sense, social networking game playing may be a good way to take advantage of the benefits associated with the technology while avoiding potential concerns for privacy that has been reported in prior research (e.g., Judge & Neustaedter, 2010).

 

In addition to being less intrusive, the “caring and love” messages expressed through game play provide family members with a new way to implicitly communicate with each other. In Chinese culture, critical emotional ties that connect family members, such as love and care, are rarely expressed explicitly in daily communication (Chen & Silverstein, 2000). This emotional expression may become even more challenging when adult children live in different households fromwith their parents, since the traditional way of showing care, such as cleaning the house, buying gifts and having dinner together (Schwarz, 2010), cannot be easily carried out on a daily basis. QQ game serves as a light-weighted communication medium, which could implicitly delivery the love and caring of family members while avoiding the potential awkwardness of saying “I care about you” directly. This implicit way of expression may help tie families closer and supplement the relative lack of explicit emotional expressions in other forms of communications in Chinese families.


The lack of common conversational topics is a major challenge for effective intergenerational communications. Parents interviewed in the study repeatedly expressed their frustrations in not being able to communicate with their adult children, even when the two generations co-reside in the same household. Being too “serious” is often used by the younger generation to describe the conversations occurringed between themselves and their parents. As it is shown in our study, discussing serious topics often leads to a sense of being over-controlled among the younger generation and adds stress to their lives. As a result, adult children often avoid engaging in “serious” conversations with their parents.

 

In line with prior research showing the use of computers creates a new common language between the parent and the child (Xie, 2006), in the present study, game playing also helps parents to better understand what their adult children are doing in front of the computer. This common gaming experience is then transformed into shared interests that can be discussed in real life. Thus, the game playing experience may transcend the online game space and enhances family communications. This finding on the mutual shaping of online and offline relationships is in line with that reported in prior research of older Chinese Internet users (Xie, 2008a; 2007).


While this paper identifies interesting intergenerational communication patterns mediated through online game play, it has two limitations: first, although most of our parents participants are qualified as older adults according to the Chinese standard, a few parents were only in their early 50s or late 40s; second, this study only investigated the current game playing behaviors between family members. More insights could be obtained in studying the process of transitioning from non-play to game-play period. This transition process could help us better understand how game play influences the frequency and content of other existing family communication behaviors.

 

Conclusion

 

Maintaining intergenerational communication is no easy task. Various factors such as time and distance barriers among adult children and parents, a lack of common conversational topics and differing values all hinder effective family communication. In our study, game playing serves as a new medium to mediate and foster intergenerational family communication. Different from other forms of communication that often requires simultaneous engagement, game-based communication can be performed asynchronously and less intrusively; messages can be conveyed in a more implicit manner; and does not require much time commitment by family members. While game-based communication may not replace other existing family communication, it nonetheless enriches other forms of family communication through the continuous game updates and interactions. For older people, getting in touch with their adult children and receivinge caring and loving messages are crucial for their health and well-being.

 

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Endnotes

1  A report of QQ farm from Chinese website NetEase (163.com), available at: http://tech.163.com/10/0730/11/6CR9G68A00094IL6.html

2  Posted by Steven Chow on November 25, 2010; Tencent Inc QQ: http://www.china-online-marketing.com/news/china-tech-companies/portal-website/tencent-inc-qq/

3  http://web.pcgames.com.cn/qqnc/xinwen/

4  The Chinese Seniors Rights Protection Law http://www.chinalawinfo.com/chyzl/detail.asp?id=202&cid=47