The Gamer Parent's Dilemma

The Gamer Parent's Dilemma

Of all the strange things that come with writing about video games for a living, raising kids while doing so might be the strangest. We have daughters, who are now 3 and (almost) 5. They are old enough to know that when Dad is holed up in his office over the garage, there's a very good chance that he is camped in front of an absurdly large television set, wearing headphones and playing something that is not Rated E: For Everyone.

There are worse things than having your children think of video games as an alluring pastime for grown-ups, like a glass of wine or driving or marriage. Believing that Bloodborne is sophisticated entertainment for adults doesn't oblige me to share it with my children, anymore than believing that we live in a golden age of television requires me to binge-watch The Americans with them this weekend. Still, our girls — especially the elder — are old enough now to want to play video games with me, and I want to play video games with them. I'm struck by how little guidance there is for how we should go about this.

We are the first generation of parents who grew up playing video games, which makes us the first mums and dads to possess the wisdom to guide our children through the world of PlayStation, Steam, Nintendo, and the like rather than the desire to merely abandon them to it. We are tasked with figuring this out for ourselves. It's our job — our responsibility — to establish some traditions.

My caution is informed by my misspent youth, when I uncritically gobbled up whatever tripe was served to my under-educated palate. As fondly as I look back on the hours I spent playing the horrible Pac-Man port for the Atari 2600, or Coleco's Electronic Quarterback, like all parents I want better for my children. C'mon, Mum and Dad! Couldn't you have introduced me to M.U.L.E.?

When it comes to reading with your kids, there's a well-trod path to follow, from board books to Sandra Boynton and Dr. Seuss to Judy Blume and C.S. Lewis. Music and television similarly overflow with possibilities. Non-digital forms of play have obvious go-to options, too — a skill tree that has served us well for decades. Where is the video game version of Candy Land, which is essentially a game designed to teach kids how to play a board game? Of The Cat in the Hat? Of Sesame Street? Of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"?

Not only do I want to play games with my kids, but I also want them to grow up to be people with good taste. Last night, we watched Rick Steves travel to festivals in France and Spain on PBS. I'm that kind of monster. We do more than watch educational TV, but I'm careful with the fun stuff, too. We watched Star Wars together when our first daughter turned 4, but it was the 1977 theatrical edition. I'm that kind of monster, too. The problem is I'm not quite sure how to apply my monstrousness to video games.

My kids aren't Luddites, although we did follow the pediatric guidelines to forbid television for the first two years of their lives. They have both spent time with Metamorphabet, among other terrific iPad games — many of which aren't thought of as games even though they are very obviously interactive entertainment. The older girl has a Leapster GS. They both enjoy watching me play Child of Light on the Xbox One in our living room. They're taken with the story of a daughter who is trying to help her father, and they're pleased to be a little scared, I think, by the turn-based fights. I let them choose our tactics, for the most part, as well as which of the characters' abilities to unlock next. Even so, watching me play a game is a relatively passive activity, one that's not all that different from sitting down to watch Octonauts or (regrettably) Jake and the Neverland Pirates.

I posed my question — how should I introduce video games to a 5-year-old? — to some of the best minds in academic game design. They, too, were basically stumped. "For a cultural form that is so steeped in kid's culture, where are the equivalents of classic children's literature?" said Frank Lantz, the director of the game design program at New York University. "Are there game analogues to Goodnight Moon, to Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, Lewis Carroll, The Phantom Tollbooth, Little House on the Prairie?"

Lantz did add, however:

Maybe games are less age-bound than books? I don't listen to the same music as a 12-year-old or read the same books, but we both play The Witcher 3, League of Legends, Smash Bros., Burnout, etc. This doesn't necessarily mean I, or video games, are inherently immature (although it might mean that!) It might be a property of games in general. Many non-video games, like chess and tennis, are things you can learn to play when you are 5 years old, and then play your whole life, and the experience a 5-year-old has while playing these games isn't all that radically different from that of an 80-year-old. Different, of course, but on a certain level they're both enjoying the same experience in the same way. There aren't many books or movies that you can say that about.

My father played Space Invaders and Pac-Man and more with me on our Atari 2600, so it's not as if I have no role model to follow. But I want to be more discriminating, to try to introduce my children to the right gateway drugs so that they will become hooked on the good stuff.

One thing I won't do: Take the bananas approach prescribed by Andy Baio in Medium for his son. He methodically required his offspring to play through each generation of video games as he experienced them, in chronological order, from the arcade age to Atari to Nintendo (Famicom to Super to 64 and beyond) to Sega and Sony and Microsoft.

Even Baio couldn't muster enthusiasm for the Atari games he foisted on his son, nor can the authors of Racing the Beam, a history of the Atari Video Computer System. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost struggle to do more than issue cave-painting praise for the best games of the console of my childhood, despite its canonical status. I didn't introduce my kids to reading by hauling out a dusty copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

The Gamer Parent's Dilemma

I'm not sure where this leaves me, other than to continue groping forward in the dark. We will finish playing Child of Light. We might dabble with Splatoon. We'll play more touch-based games, but I want them to know the feel of a controller. Maybe I just have to wait a few years until they're old enough to play Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda or something else that combines interaction with exploration. I'll set up a laptop for Minecraft in the living room.

There's a certain logic to wanting to start at the beginning. It's more difficult for a kindergartener to manipulate a gamepad than it was for me to use its training-wheels equivalent, an Atari joystick. But the danger, as the novelist Gabriel Roth recently pointed out in Slate, is that children's culture can become canonical with repetition, even when that culture is awful. (His target was was The Poky Little Puppy.) Like cave paintings, Atari games are beautiful and important and worthy of study — but not by elementary schoolers. Let's not embed them in the minds of future generations for all eternity, just because that's all there was to play when we were young. The Atari 2600 must not become The Poky Little Puppy of video games.

Except for Breakout. Let's make sure everyone grows up playing Breakout.

Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.

Illustration: Jim Cooke


Comments

    How do you stop a kid under 2 from watching television unless they are your first kid?

    We have a 3 month old and he will crane his neck to try and see the telly when his bigger brother is watching something. He doesn't even know what it is or what is happening but he knows he want's to see it.

      My friends' solution with their kids was not to watch television until after bedtime and instead spend the time doing things with their kids. Then once the kids are in bed they watch TV if they feel like it. But apparently the thing that's changed for them the most is that they now watch much less TV.

    From my experience of turning my non-gamer fiancee into a gamer wife, I've found that games for kid's aren't necessarily easy, and games for adults aren't necessarily difficult. Game designers regularly overlook the fact that newbies lack motor control and finer understanding of game mechanics, and in bringing my wife to gamerhood I found the best first step was co-operative games that are incredibly forgiving when player 2 dies a lot (ie Rayman Origins/Legends). In the end, Diablo III console version was the perfect combination of difficulty and complexity that allowed her to graduate to full gamer.

      I got to the end of your comment, saw Diablo III and thought "Wait, what?? That's totally unsuitable!!" Then I remembered that your comment was about your wife, not your kid, and it seemed totally appropriate :)

      Diablo II was the first co-op game my now-wife and I played, Diablo III the most recent. Really need to get back to finishing the final act.

      Totally agree with the motor control. Rayman Legends was a good example of this recently. This game is fantastic for the young kids on the easy levels, but seems to ratchet-up the difficulty way too fast for some of the younger kids - the time based levels have them usually just sitting there with their character dead, and dad panicking to try and finish it so we can get to the next level.

    I discovered mini game pads while searching for my kids.
    This will make their learning so much easier!
    We started with games like Minecraft, simple racing/kart games.
    Bit of the ol' N64 too

    This really seems overthought, but I guess that's probably to be expected when thinking and writing about games is your whole career.

    As I've said many times round here, I've found that as soon as they understand that hitting buttons makes stuff happen on the screen, you can involve them in a combination of co-op (mostly) Nintendo games that work when one of the players is capable (Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Galaxy, Yoshi's Woolly World, Once Upon A Monster) and "competitive" games where you can compete as much or as little as you want (Smash Bros, Trials). Probably from about 2.

    Also, explain the rating system early on. MA15+ means that it has scary monsters in it that you probably don't want to see, because it will give you bad dreams.

    Last edited 14/07/15 11:23 am

      I think you miss the point of establishing a path into gaming by defining which game are 'classics' such as the comparison to moving from board books like 'spot' onto Dr Suess onto Enid Blyton. While the author (and many other gamer parents) may be over thinking it, I think it is a good idea for the gaming community to work with academics in both game design and children's development to ensure that parents are introducing their (younger) children to games that are appropriate to their age and stage of development.

      Although, yeah I'll probably just dust off the N64 and go buy a Wii when my baby is ready to be indoctrinated...

    I'm lucky enough to be considered the "cool" uncle. Part of this is because of my gamer status, and the wealth of stuff I've been able to introduce them to. I do think we have reached a point graphically that games released now have the potential to become staples for future generations of kids when they get into gaming.

    Top of my speculative list is the Trials series. It starts of so easy, and the controls are seemingly simple. At one point, one nephew was always asking for help with certain jumps. The look of revelation on his face when I taught him how to lean was priceless.

    Pacman never ceases to go out of style. The game is so good, I'm cursed with watching that damn Pacman cartoon on Netflix.

    Lego Marvel Super Heroes could last forever in remake form. The Lego games in general actually. The pricing model for Dimensions is making me cry already.

    Bad tastes is something I think you just have to accept sometimes. My Mum put up with Astyanax (I think) and in return I'm cursed with Cloning Clyde and some weird Fish Frenzy game that I had never touched the demo of. It was just sitting there on my Xbox. Parental controls for taste would be nice.

    I'm not perfect though. One time I was playing Revengeance. Bad choice. Raiden cops it pretty hard at the start, and one of my nephews acted as though I showed him Bambi for the first time. Quickly explained that he's a cyborg and didn't die. Was a lot quicker to change the game I was playing when they arrived after that.

    I think you sort of start to get to a point near the end of the article. You don't want to subject them to the old and probably terrible atari games, but you want games with controls that are just as easy to grasp. Therefore arcade-y style games are a good idea. Hit the buttons, stuff happens, and as the stuff happens you can learn to hit the buttons better next time. Go easy on the progression side of things at first, because losing progress could be upsetting at first (I know it was frustrating as hell in Super Mario Bros when I was little)

    Looking for a "Doctor Seuss" or similar of games, the only thing that springs to mind at the moment is the Lego games. They pretty much all have the same set of simple controls and failure is barely punished. Plus it's co-op, so you can let them control the action, but when they get stuck gently help them out of it without having to take the controller off them.
    Plus Nintendo have done a good job of keeping mario games pretty kid-friendly these days (much to the annoyance of some grown-up players looking for a challenge) and Kirby games are usually good for the young'uns.

    who here even played children's games as there first gaming experience? talk about creating traditions, hows about not starting your child out on a fkn dr seuss game.

    91, (6yrs old) it was all space quest, kings quest, leisure suit Larry, wing commander,
    92, wolfenstein 3d
    93, doom and 7th guest
    96, quake
    98, HL

    Thats Tradition! of course there was the occasional wacky wheels and commander keen. but i would never want to sell short my child's first gaming experience with dr suess games.

    If I were you, I'd worry less about your children being good little conformists in the form of "having good taste" and be more concerned with their growing and developing along with the games that they play and enjoy...

    I mean, do you really have such little faith in your children that you would deny them the opportunity you had to wade through multitudes of crap and develop your own gaming palette?

    That's the great thing about growing up a gamer because you and your peer group are constantly finding new games to play and sharing them with each other. There are many games that you've played for countless hours only to realise how lame or pointless they were.

    That "good taste" that you're talking about. That wasn't formed through maturation. It was formed through playing all of those terrible games in the past. If you try and shield your children from this experience, you prevent them from developing their own "good taste".

    Last edited 14/07/15 1:14 pm

    I play in the home theatre where the PS3 and PS4 are hooked up, and I close the doors. The kids have the Wii U set up in the living area and they know not to come into the theatre if the doors are shut. My son gets curious, but never comes in unless he's told he can. Not an ideal solution for all families, but it works well for us.

    I have 4 kids (GBBG, 6,4,3,2 respectively) and I've gamed since I was 5. My wife got addicted to Facebook games, but that's it. I tried years ago to play with her, but I don't bother anymore. She just doesn't dig it.

    My kids though, it started with the eldest boy. They watch me play games, they play games, almost exclusively on the Wii U first. I used to try and play with them, but I just let them do their thing now. It's remarkable how quickly a 3 year old can start coming first in Mario Kart with absolutely no help whatsoever.

    They all have DS's now, purchased second hand. Only one destroyed and replaced so far. They toss the games around a lot if the youngest gets them. She doesn't have one yet at 2. They play all sorts on them, from the most basic junk (Thomas The Tank Engine, Imagine Cooking etc - side note, they love those ones the most. Must be the simplicity) to Mario Kart and Super Mario Bros.

    They've watched me play games a fair bit. They occasionally sit on my lap and play games with me, like Forza Horizon, Assassin's Creed "Pirate Game" mostly, occasionally Unity.

    I've played all sorts of games with them. I mostly tone it down, but I've played some awful stuff in front of them. Think GTAV, COD and the like. They also watch a lot of movies that would make people raise their hands and scream like Reverend Lovejoy's wife, but I was raised without borders when it came to movies to watch or games to play, which got my parents in trouble when a friend would stay over and I would put on an R rated film, without thinking it was bad (Running Man and Ninja Scroll, I'm looking at you).

    I like to spend time with them, I try not to hide things from them or dilute them. I like to let them process stuff for themselves. They constantly demand that I help them with a game or a puzzle, even with simple stuff like jumping over a gap in Mario, but I make them try and fail so they learn how to overcome stuff, and eventually end up coming first in Mario Kart or whatever by their own volition.

    The best thing about this article is it captures the parental spirit of introducing your child to things you loved as a kid and trying to do it right.

    And then ultimately walking into their room when they are a teenager and not recognising a single band name/famous actor poster/game title, wondering what that horrible sound is coming from their stereo and why the hell the game they are playing has an avatar that is facing the player and the entire game is inverted and played in negative space... Damn punk kids and their new fangled shenanigans! What the hell are you wearing anyway, you're not leaving the house like that!!!! /getoffmylawn.

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