(CNN)Before the pandemic, video games were a weekend-only activity in our house, allowed for one hour a day, Saturday and Sunday.
It was a compromise that worked for our family. My 7-year-old had a chance to dig in to his favorite games, and we parents felt like we were putting reasonable limits on an activity about which we were somewhat ambivalent.
But now he's playing them daily — and I wouldn't have it any other way.
In this lonely pandemic world, we still want our kids to get together to play, and they do, too. Unlike us boring grown-ups, they don't get much out of chatting in group texts or through FaceTime (or even those work Zoom meetings).
They want to enter collective imagined spaces and discover the elastic possibilities that await. Only there, somewhere deep in the unreal, are they likely to start exploring, creating and, importantly, connecting.
Like most kids around the world, it's been a long time since my son has been able to battle bad guys, travel to faraway lands or rescue animals with his friends in person. But, thanks to video games, all is not lost.
Nearly every day for an hour, he joins his friends online to explore, create and connect in video games like Minecraft and the nonviolent, more adorable Animal Crossing.
These aren't the prescriptive, goal-oriented games from my youth, in which there were levels and a single objective (think 1980s-era Super Mario Brothers). Instead, they're "sandbox" games, in which players have freedom to roam around extensive worlds, figuring out their own goals and finding their own way.
Yes, it's virtual — not "real." Still, these video games remain one of the only ways our kids can learn the kind of social and emotional lessons that they're otherwise missing out on right now.
The pandemic is giving us a chance to see the benefits of video gaming. They're significant and something — fear not, son — I won't be forgetting when the world reopens.
The benefits of collaborative video gaming
"In spite of the stereotype of the socially awkward pale gamer, games are a good way to socially connect," said Rachel Kowert, research psychologist and author of "A Parent's Guide to Video Games: The Essential Guide to Understanding How Video Games Impact Your Child's Physical, Social and Psychological Well-Being."
"In this time of high anxiety and reduced social access ... video games allow us to maintain friendship bonds in a multifaceted way," she explained. "There's collaboration and competition around a shared activity."
Research has suggested that friendships — deep human connection — can be created and sustained through online play, Kowert said. Also, it's fun, and fun matters for our overall well-being.
"As humans we have been playing since the beginning of time. This is an extension of that, through technology," she said.
My son recently told me that the most fun thing he gets to do these days is play video games with his friends. I could feel bad that he isn't saying that about some unplugged activity, like, say, building a fort out of twigs he collected in the forest. Or, I could feel good that the relatively small sliver of socialization he still gets brings him great joy. I choose B.
Eduardo A. Caballero is the executive director of Camp EDMO which, among its other offerings, uses gaming to teach social and emotional learning. For the curriculum, the camp teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center to figure out how to best incorporate character building into gaming, and other STEM activities.
My son was recently enrolled in one of Camp EDMO's Minecraft camps, where he learned to respect other people's ideas, and stand up for himself when others weren't respecting his ideas.
"If you didn't build it, you can't break it," I overheard his instructor explaining to the group one afternoon, articulating an ethic that easily transfers to the world outside his laptop.
"We work with platforms that allow kids to be creative, to have a personality, to have feelings and they're great tools for social and emotional learning" Caballero said. "We always ask ourselves: What are we going to try to teach besides technology? What are the lessons that are going to apply to everyday life?"
Caballero said he sees kids develop empathy for others, become more considerate of others and find ways to problem solve together.
There are a number of studies that conclude that video gaming can bring about more prosocial behaviors among children, especially for those who play collaborative games. One found that gaming can lead to kids having more friends and being more willing to talk to others, and another found that gaming can make kids more inclined to help others. Also, researchers have found that children who were socially engaged while playing video games were more likely to be civically engaged as adults.
Jordan Shapiro, author of "The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World," poured through much of this research on whether kids can learn social and emotional skills through video gaming for his book.
While he's not satisfied with the quality of mos