Multiplayer online video games and kids who struggle with social skills

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a glance

  • Kids who play multiplayer online video games may have their own special language and inside jokes.

  • This unique culture can be challenging for kids who struggle with social skills.

  • Trash-talking and trolling are two big trouble spots to watch out for.

Ever notice that kids who play multiplayer online video games have their own language? They even have their own inside jokes. This unique culture can be fun for many kids. But it can also be challenging for kids who struggle with social skills. These kids may have the same difficulties when playing video games with other kids as they do in real-life social situations.

Read on to learn how to help your child navigate the world of online video games.

Multiplayer online video game culture

Culture is the customs, language, and values that a group shares. For example, sports fans mark the year by sports seasons — fall is football, spring is baseball. They’re loyal to teams and may also binge-watch on holidays or days with multiple games. They also have their own slang words, like GOAT (greatest of all time).

In a similar way, kids who play multiplayer online video games have a shared culture. Summer is a time for binge-playing. There are seasonal events throughout the year that gamers tune in to. They also use unique language, with terms like noob (new or bad player) or skin (the way a player looks in a game).

There’s a key difference between these sports and video game cultures, however. Sports fans are generally spectators. While watching others play video games is a growing trend, most gamers are participants who interact. They see what others are doing in the game and how they’re behaving. Because of that, they can bully, criticize, and leave kids out — just like in the real world.

That means kids who struggle with social skills can find themselves having the same negative experiences online that they have in everyday life. And their families often don’t know it’s happening.

Different types of online video games

Millions of kids in the United States play video games. But unlike with school or sports cultures, parents and caregivers often have less or no experience with gaming. Everyone has experienced school. Not every parent has played a first-person online shooting game, like Call of Duty.

Not all video games involve interacting with others. But multiplayer online video games, like Minecraft and Fortnite, are some of the most popular games. Because kids are interacting online, these games are where the unique elements of video game culture arise.

Many of these games involve role-playing. Kids take on a role of a character with specific skills, and often progress through a story line. Some games are focused on adventure, but not all.

However, there are games that don’t involve role-playing or story lines. Some of these are what’s called sandbox games. They don’t have a fixed story. Kids have freedom to explore the game’s virtual world.

Multiplayer online games can have one or a mix of these attributes:

  • Action-oriented: Kids fight, jump, dance, or take other actions through the game to win or score points. This broad genre covers everything from first-person shooter games to arcade games.
  • Cooperative: Kids play together to help each other achieve a goal.
  • Competitive: Kids play and compete against each other. Fortnite Battle Royale is a type of competitive game where players (usually about 100) try to eliminate each other.

The popular game Minecraft, for example, is a sandbox game with action and cooperative elements.

Trouble spots for kids with social skills challenges

There are many positives of video games for kids with social skills challenges. Games can be a lifeline for kids who have trouble connecting in real life to their peers. Not only can a gaming interest lead to online friends, but it can also be the basis for friendship in real life.

At the same time, gaming culture can be very challenging for kids who struggle with social interaction. Here are some of the main trouble spots and how to help your child navigate them.


Some players will harass or provoke other players for fun. Trolling is often anonymous and random, and it happens without warning. It can be deeply upsetting to kids.

What you can do: If you learn that your child is being trolled, it’s important to put the game down right away. Trolls thrive on attention. If your child tries to fight back in the game, it may invite further trolling. Most games have a system for your child to report another player who is trolling. Encourage your child to make a report.


Negative comments and trash-talking from teammates and opponents is not uncommon in multiplayer video games. Sometimes teasing is harmless and good spirited. Other times it gets downright nasty, even between friends.

What you can do: If your child has trouble managing feelings, it’s important to set a strict rule to not play with kids who trash-talk. Even casual negative remarks can have a big impact on your child.

Online anonymity

Being anonymous can lead kids to say and do things they might not in real life. They may be mean because no one knows who they are. That’s especially true if they’re impulsive.

What you can do: Encourage your child to play games with real-life friends, as a virtual playdate. Another option is to look for a group of gamers dedicated to family-friendly play.

Complex social rules

Every video game has its own unique set of social rules. Just as in real life, social rules in games are often unwritten. Kids may struggle to understand them. They may anger and offend other players.

What you can do: Learn about the nature of the game — whether it’s cooperative or competitive, for example. You may even want to try playing the game a few times yourself. Then, help your child think through the social rules. Try to have your child stick to one game for a while, to learn what’s appropriate.

Hyper competition

Most video game developers encourage a competitive scene as a business strategy to keep a game popular. This can be tough for kids with impulsivity and self-regulation issues. If they’re struggling in the game, they may become moody and emotional.

What you can do: If your child isn’t as good a player as other kids, emphasize that a game is just a game. Help your child recognize other strengths.

Video games aren’t going away. In fact, most experts agree that the gaming industry will continue to grow — and target younger and younger kids. If your child plays video games, especially multiplayer online games, make sure you’re involved so you can help address any trouble spots.

More to know

Key takeaways

  • Gaming culture can be challenging for kids who struggle with social interaction.

  • When trolling or trash-talking happen, it’s important to stop the video game play right away.

  • Consider encouraging your child to play online video games with real-life friends.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jodi Gold, MD is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice.