My Son Taught Himself To Play Video Games

Fatherhood has completely transformed my relationship with video games. If you have kids of your own, I'm sure you can relate.

For one, I have less time to play them. That's almost a given. Before kids I could legitimately come home and be playing a video game — any video game I choose — within minutes of arriving.

Now conditions have to be right.

The kids have to be asleep. And if they're not asleep I have to play something suitable for kids to be watching. If they're watching I have to be careful not to play for too long because well... that sets a bad example right? And kids shouldn't be sitting dead-eyed in front of a television for too long... right?

Truth is I'm not too sure, but if you have kids you'll understand the quandary, and most likely you're gonna want to err on the side of caution.

Long story short, over the past couple of years I've been playing a lot of Nintendo games. I've been playing a lot of Super Mario 3D World.

First my son watched. He was around two-years-old at this point. Then he started requesting it. "DADDY WANT MAH-REEO". Soon he figured out I was controlling 'MAH-REEO' with this strange hunk of plastic. Soon he wanted to play himself. That's when the fun began.

If by 'fun' you mean intense, furious frustration.

Kids are so stupid.

First he couldn't really move. Then he figured that out. Then he couldn't jump. Then he could jump but he couldn't move and jump and the same time. Then he figured out how to move and jump at the same time, but used this knowledge for evil by running straight forward and leaping off the edge of every nearby cliff like some demented lemming. It was extremely difficult to watch.

I tried teaching, but it was a tough one. He didn't seem to really listen so I just left it. We occasionally played together, but I didn't really push the issue. He's more of a physical, almost kill himself on his scooter kind of kid anyway.

But then something strange happened. When I was in the office, and my wife was home alone with the kids, she'd often let our now three-year-old play Mario for 30 minutes of so, while she hung up laundry or answered emails. He was completely unattended during these periods, didn't have Dad barking instructions over his shoulder or sighing outwardly every time he ran headfirst into a mushroom. He was free to engage with Super Mario 3D World as he saw fit.

Then one Saturday morning I woke up a little later than normal. My son had said 'WAKE UP DADDY' but I must have swatted him away for an extra 30 minutes in bed. I stumbled downstairs and my son was already on the Wii U, playing on the GamePad screen. He was playing Super Mario 3D World of course.

I was honestly shocked by what I saw. The last time I watched him play Super Mario 3D World he was struggling to jump and move at the same time. I had to be around to push the shoulder buttons so he could go down pipes. "DADDY I CAN'T DO IT".

Now he was completing levels by himself. Now he was zipping into world 3 and world 4, completely competent and able to finish increasingly difficult levels. He had learnt how to do this completely independent of my instruction. He didn't need me to tell him where to go or what to do. He had endured, and figured this out, all by himself.

I was utterly bemused.

I thought about what it must have taken to get to this point. The sustained effort it must have taken to get from point A to point B. When I last played Super Mario 3D World with my son, he could barely complete the very first level without my help. Now he had an implicit grasp of complicated movements and game mechanics. The amount of failure, repetition and learning he must have gone through to get this far — almost unimaginable. Yet he had done that in the month or two since we last played.

How? How.

Children are incredible. Not just my own three-year-old — all children. My son is not an exception, he's hardly a savant. Luke Plunkett from Kotaku US has a son the same age as mine — he's been playing (and completing) the ridiculously difficult Rosalina levels in Super Mario 3D World. My friend Lance E MacDonald has a three year old daughter that plays Portal.

"I DID IT BY MYSELF," is a phrase my son usually shouts out loud whenever he finishes a Super Mario 3D World level.

Yes you did you clever little bastard. Yes you did.


    This is like, every Mario game, mate.

    EDIT: But so that doesn't come off sounding totally crass, this is great news also!

    Last edited 31/05/16 12:07 pm

    My young bloke was exactly the same with Commander Keen. He couldn't figure out the arrow movement keys and ctrl for jump. 2 months later he was whizzing past the first couple of levels, 2 months after that he was getting all the collectibles - lil' smartarse :)

    Yeah, never underestimate where unlimited patience can get you. When I was a young boy I learnt how to fly a plane because an old flight simulator game was one of the only games I had, and by jove if it was a game I was going to play it.

    When I was roughly 4 (am 22 now) I 'passed the time' on Mario Kart, Diddy Kong Racing and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, all on the N64. My (grand)Parents owned a Home Entertainment store and quite often, most of the time, I had my N64 set up in their demo rooms. Apparently I had hooked it all up myself too.

    Had a similar situation where I woke up the grandies at 3am one morning where I was playing Jurrasic Park through the laser disk home theatre system in the basement. Apparently there were about 4 different remotes I had to use, power up the 2 different pre-amps in order, etc etc.

    Point being, kids are bloudy smart.

    I don't remember a time when the idea of avoiding koopas was foreign to me, but it took me time to develop the timing to do it right. When I think back to my earliest memories of games, such as Wonder Boy and Mario Bros, it took me years to realise that you could run and achieve longer jumps by holding the one button then pressing the jump button, something that would have enabled me to attempt to complete these games much more effectively. I think the idea of using more than one button at a time baffled me.
    Later I was using keyboard and mouse to circle-strafe and rocket jump with the rest of my peers when a friend told me about his adventures in trying to get his father into gaming. His father, who used one key on the keyboard at a time, tried to play Doom. His meaty forefinger mashed the up arrow until he collided with a wall. A pause, and he stabbed the right arrow, completing a dozen revolutions before finally facing back down the corridor. Then forwards. Then another 10,000° turn to eventually face left. Then pressing the CTRL key to fire his pistol, missing the enemy as he wasn't lined up with it. He wildly oscillated between left and right trying to keep the enemy soldier in his sights long enough for him to remember to hit the fire key, but in that time the soldier got the best of him and he died, returning to the start of the level.
    "Games are dumb." he declared, and went back to whatever it is grown ups do when they're not being terrible at games.
    Being a parent must be nearly as tough as being a child.

      One of my favourite memories of my dad is a point where he'd built up so much flex time at work that he was told he had to take a bunch of it, and my father didn't really know what to do with spare time. We used to play a few games when I was younger, but I reached a point where dear old dad wasn't much of a challenge, and he became more of an observer for many years. So when he asked me to set up my Xbox for him so he could try out Halo, I was surprised. I of course obliged, and went of to school or work or whatever I was doing at the time. I came home to find my father struggling with the idea of analogue sticks and how you were supposed to use both at the same time, and occasionally taking himself out with his own grenade. Not hugely surprising to anyone, seeing as the last time he'd touched a console was the Sega MegaDrive.

      So I was quite busy the next couple of days, and working night shifts, so I didn't get to see much of my dad during that time. I finally got a day off from everything, so after sleeping in until the early afternoon, I stumbled out to see my father sitting on the couch, staring intently at the screen. I walked over to see him quite a few levels in, circle strafing around a Grunt whilst gunning him down, and then turning and nailing another Grunt with a sticky grenade.
      "Dad, how the heck did you learn about circle strafing?!?"
      "Circle strafing."
      "Circle what-ing?"

      I ended up sitting down beside him and just watching, and was absolutely amazed at the progress he'd made in only a few short days. My father, being who he was, rewarded me with some fantastic zingers like "These soldiers are a bit shit at driving. Typical.", "Why does it look like those guys in the other room had a 'rager', got blind drunk and then puked everywhere?" (not long before you encounter the Flood, in the room with crap all over the floor and walls), and a cornucopia of terrible puns and jokes, such as "Tanks for nothing!" as he shot someone with a tank and "Who ya gonna call?" as he 'busted' a Ghost with a rocket launcher (I had to get him to explain that one).

      My father passed away a few years ago, but we still have some fantastic memories of him. This is definitely one of my favourites.

        Exactly, it's more about the time you spend gaming with your kids than being proud that your kid learned gaming without you being present.

          That's...not at all what I was saying. In fact, I absolutely believe both are valid, and not mutually exclusive.

    And so begins the long journey of a gamer. In 15 years you'll hand him a controller and say "Son, this is Dark Souls, I wrote about this series for years. Good Luck"

    My oldest son is 3, turns 4 in a bit over a month. He's yet to really play a video game. He's played bits and pieces on his mum's phone but we haven't really encouraged him to and we don't own any tablet computers etc.

    It's at the point now where I'm thinking I should introduce him to games so he can learn what they are and also jump on a PC and use the mouse/keyboard. Was thinking of loading up Super Mario (1) as that's the first game I can remember playing when I was 3.

    I know it's going to be a struggle to teach him but no doubt he'll get the hang of it fast enough.

    Double post

    Last edited 31/05/16 12:21 pm

    Kids' brains are like sponges, they'll learn things without even having to try until they're in their teens. Gaming is an awesome skill to have, especially if you think your little one might want to be a surgeon later in life (apparently the best colonoscopists and microsurgeons are mostly all gamers due to the spectacular complexity of the devices they use and the necessity for them not to be looking at their hands whilst using them), but also languages, music, sports etc etc. Anything really.

    On the weekend I gave my daughter (8) the controller to Super Meat Boy. Without saying a word, I sat there and watched as she learned how to jump, how to run, how to wall jump, how to jump with the run button held down. She made it to the end of the forest after a short while but cracked under the pressure of the boss.

    Still, proud.

      Mate your daughter made it as far into Super Meat Boy as I have. :P

    does your son write articles for kotaku?

    Last edited 31/05/16 1:40 pm

    Stop him now..!! I made the same mistake when my son was that age and now that he's 16 he's finished Dark Souls 3 in a few days and is already halfway through a second time, I on the other hand am still stuck in the catacombs, and have to listen to his "need help defeating the boss dad.?!?" comments and snide laughs.

    Ah yes he'll learn, one day you'll have a job and kids and no time for play too you know.
    (little s%$...!!)

      LOL - my 12 yo has only two lords of cinder to go (having dispatched the first two and the dancer) meanwhile I'm still in Farron Keep!

    Did you just call your own kid a bastard?

      It's a Scot thing. 'Wee bastard' is a term of endearment... :-P

    My son does all this same kind of thing on the iPad.. he was doing stuff I didn't realise well before he really should be able to. At 18 months he was already knowing where the icons he needed were, even if they were inside folders etc. Now he's 2.5 years-old and knows exactly what to do with everything on the iPad..

    He still wants to play the games I do on the PC, but hasn't mastered the ability to use a mouse yet, but I doubt it will be long till he does.

    I'm really looking forward to getting NoMansSky because he loves animals and general exploration games that I already play.. I have an XBox for Windows controller, so I'll likely use that and try to get him to play it a bit too..

    Good work Dad, Now give him Dark Souls and watch him become a grown man in a matter of days.

    At 4, i knew my way around a Commodore and how to insert the 8 Inch Disk, use the keyboard to select what i wanted to play (Ghostbusters) and off i went and a year later i was completing games like Altered Beast and sonic on my mega drive

    So i imagine it would not be that hard, but everything usually easy when you want to do it

    My 6 yr old is well into the Lego games, we can play together now, it used to be frustrating, but less so. He also likes Lara croft go, learning to try a different tactic each time. Looking forward to introducing them to shooters... But that's a few years off.

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