We Could Learn A Lot From The Way Kids Play Video Games

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Every Saturday morning I wake up at 5.30am to the croaky sound of my three-year-old son. He always says the same thing. It’s Groundhog Day. Only instead of an alarm clock, it’s a barely hatched human being delivering the pain.

“Daddy, I want to go downstairs.”

Every goddamn time.

Just typing these words makes me shudder.

It’s hardwired to my brain. I’m looking at these words. I’m curled up, eyes crusted, body screaming. 10 more minutes. Just 10 goddamn more minutes.


Children are creatures of habit.

My child is a creature of habit at least. Every morning he wakes up at the same time and requests the same shit. He wants Weetbix for breakfast. He wants it to be ‘nice’. ‘Nice’ means popping it in the microwave, so that it isn’t cold, but not too hot either. ‘Nice’ means adding a little bit of maple syrup. He’s also “COLD DADDY”, so I need to wrap a blanket on him while he eats.

I do all this in complete autopilot as the sun rises. In my scants, half-shut knife, eyes barely open, squinting at the sun, which has only just risen because for Christ’s sake it’s 5.45am on a Saturday and what the hell am I doing in my underwear, feet on the cold floor making Weetbix for this tiny little sociopath who shows no mercy at any point ever.

Parenthood certainly is an interesting life stage.

After the Weetbix comes the Mario.

Mario. On the big teedee.

Teedee means TV. Mario means Super Mario 3D World, which my son plays religiously, endlessly, to the exclusion of all other video games. I am here to tell you something shocking: my most played game of 2016 is Super Mario 3D World and it is not even close.

But it’s weird, I have learned a lot about video games from my three-year-old son who loves Super Mario 3D World more than I love any non-sentient object in this universe. Some of it is actually interesting.

The way children consume things is otherworldly. You or I — adult people — are content to play or watch something once – two or three times if we’re big fans. But there’s a diminishing return here. You don’t get the same pleasure the third or fourth time. At the very least it’s a different experience.

Children are different. Children are like a goddamn etch-a-sketch. A pure miracle. They are living the dream. They can watch the same movie endlessly and they can play the same video game until every single second of the experience is rote. Somehow, they will enjoy this. Frequently, they’ll drag their parents along for the ride.

Which is painful as all hell. Adults, we seek out new experiences. Children couldn’t give a fuck. All children care about is mastery. It makes total sense. Put yourself in their position. You spend every single waking second being told what to eat, what to wear, where to go and when to sleep.

Then you get this video game. All of a sudden you are the master of your own destiny, you are the king of this digital domain. The sheer power Children must feel in these universes, with their clear rulesets, and comforting, unchanging worlds. The more they play, the more sense it makes, the more fun it becomes.

And they play over and over and over again.

I must have run through the first level of Super Mario 3D World… Man, I couldn’t even count. But it’d have to be at least 200 times. At least.

“Daddy I found secret.”

I don’t know how he did it but, on like the 80th run through of this goddamn opening level, my son found an area I’d never seen before. I lost my shit. I couldn’t believe it. We’d played this level so many times. So. Many. Times. Yet I’d never seen this. He found it, without my help, possibly on his own and he wanted to show me.

Now, every time we play that level: “Daddy, you didn’t know about this secret.”

My son understands the first level of Super Mario 3D World better than I know any virtual video game space ever conceived.

But it’s the way my son plays Super Mario 3D World that’s intriguing.

I truly don’t think he understands the linear progression of video games and how that’s supposed to work. He doesn’t move from world 1, to world 8 in sequential order. He doesn’t defeat Bowser, dust his hands and say, ‘job well done’.

No. He just wanders on a whim, jumps into levels casually. Switches randomly between worlds. If he wants to use the cat power-up, he jumps in a level he knows has the cat power-up. If he wants to be ‘fireman Mario’ he selects a level that features the Fire Flower.

To my son, Super Mario 3D World is simply a multi-faceted, endlessly malleable toy to be experimented with. It’s not an experience to mindlessly plow through. I think on some level I admire that, even if I don’t share his enthusiasm.

It’s weird. I’ve learned so much about Super Mario 3D World. In that time I’ve gone from quietly resenting its lack of ambition to admiring its commitment to multiplayer. To respecting just how accessible it is, how well-balanced its learning curve is. It’s probably the best children’s game ever made, and one that’s perfectly suited for my situation, as a father looking for a video game to share with his son.

We’ve lived in this world together. Some days it’s trying, but for the most part we’re having a tremendous amount of fun. That’s been a unique experience – seeing video games through his eyes. Removing the need to ‘achieve’ or ‘experience’ and instead just engaging with this toy on its own terms; in a lot of ways it’s forced me to question the reasons I play video games: to be part of the conversation, to engage in a culture, to achieve? Those are all perfectly good reasons to play video games but the original impulse to play — my son’s reasons for playing – feels far more noble. He plays because it empowers him. He plays because he wants to. He plays because he likes it.


    Have you not heard of MMO's Mark? It's full of people playing the same game endlessly for hours =D

    Now, every time we play that level: “Daddy, you didn’t know about this secret.”

    I completely understand this.

    How old is your son? Mine is a bit over 4 and is trying to master Mario Kart. I figure it's an easier start that this game. I might let him have a go of it.

    Great article and I know this feeling all to well.

    I was amazed how accessible Super Mario 3D World was for young kids. My son, who was 5 around the time the game came out, progressed from flailing about in Disney Infinity toy boxes to working out all there was to learn about SM3DW. To the point where one day he showed me how he had managed to complete the game and found the rocket that takes you to the special world. Granted he used a number of white leaf's along the way but that's what they are there for right, to not hinder ones progression and enjoyment of the game simply because they are not "good enough". It's genius design really.

    He was fixated on SM3DW for quite some time, occasionally we would play co-op together and the game is brilliant for that but the majority of game progress he achieved by himself through simple trial and error. Happy to play the same levels over and over, moving back and forth all over the maps and worlds.

    It's fitting really given that I cut my teeth on the original Super Mario Bros on the NES.

    So whilst my son still struggles to work the camera and player movement at the same time ruling out games such as Minecraft, as it ends up being too frustrating for him to enjoy. SM3DW will continue to be a staple in our house.

    Wow this brings back so many memories, except with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I remember playing the s#@$ out of that game. Every day for months and months. I actually long to recapture that same experience in a game that existed for me in Sonic 2, and perhaps this article explains why I was so happy to explore it for so long. Hmm.

    It actually reminds me of an article somewhere else that talked about playing large games like Skyrim. The writer was commenting on how it can be overwhelming to try and "complete" a game like Skyrim, and was offering an alternative view of just enjoying the ride and becoming immersed in a world without worrying about the achievement or completion.

    Nice write up Mark, I have a 21 month old son who I would like to get into video games at some point (to the dismay of my wife). I think this would be a great first one to start with, just don't know when to start!

    My head gets messed when I see my 4 year old not bother about sequence in games. I am amazed to see how his brain works. Same for Lego and jigsaw puzzles. No order (so far as I can tell) but he gets the job done.

    He also doesn't care about overwriting the 1 save game slot in Disney Infinity

      Spent the weekend looking after a 4 year old. The way their attention span shifts so quickly is very interesting. Was playing a game on the iPad and he just kept picking random ones instead of playing in order. Then, after about 5 rounds (10 min) he just says "next game" and picks out something else to play.

    Awesome article! This sort of writing keeps me coming back. Thank you.

    My son is 2 and half and he fucking loves watching me play the "air superiority" mode in Battlefront. He gets so excited when I manage to nab the Falcon. Recently I've been letting him fly and he can't get enough of crashing into the ground. It's just a repeat of crashing and starting again and crashing again. He's not so good at aiming for the ground yet so it becomes quite an entertaining acrobatic display as the X-Wing gets closer to the ground. Crash! Again! So awesome.

    Great article! It's like holding a mirror to my own life....I go through the same experience with exactly the same game with my son. It's just it goes hand in hand with the inevitable guilt of me having to tell him we have to stop so I can go and play something a bit more "mature". Although...we also spend countless hours on Lego Dimensions too which beautifully scratches my childhood nostalgia itch and lets me go round collecting/unlocking things while he just noodles about with all the characters.

    My youngest was the house champion of wii bowling for a while. I use to play a game with her then let her play on her own while I did some house work and then come back to play with her again. Slowly she got better and better until she was wii bowling a 260 easily.

    You or I — adult people — are content to play or watch something once – two or three times if we’re big fans.
    Hmm, I guess I'm rather strange then, I replay almost all of my games, I've played through the Half-Life series at least 7 times all the way through, the Mass Effect series 4 times, LoZ: OoT 3 times, Fire Emblem: Awakening 2 times, Deus Ex: Human Revolution 3 times and many, many more at least twice.

    Most of them are better the second time around too and I don't spend as much on new releases or find myself disappointed when I play them as I'll usually have bought them for less than $20. As for multi-player titles Team Fortress 2's the only one I really play, so I've never had the urgent need to buy an experience that will be short lived before all the players stop playing, it's nearly 10 years old and still has an active fanbase, and if I can play it for over 1,500 hours and still have a lot of fun why bother with other multi-player titles.

      Yeah my fav games get obsessive amounts of play too. Castlevania SOTN, RE4/5, wipeout 3, mario 64. Games I just 'like' though I'll just play once.

    Great piece, Mark!

    My son is exactly the same. He's 4 and is addicted to the Trials series ("fewchas' is Trials Fusion, "e-one" is Trials Evolution, "Outside" is Trials HD and "speshul one" is Trials Blood whateverthefuckthatshitis).

    While he knows if he's 'green' (i.e. ahead of his best time) he will get to the last stage and just... bail. Over and over, again and again.. 'look Daaaad, the man jump!' Or he creates tracks where the finish line is just 10 meters away and then pack the middle section with everything he can find (usually the atom bomb that he'll spin in a circle and spawn 50 in the one spot, or light sources which then causes the game to state in red 'too many light sources' and I'm asked to tell him what that is at least 5 times, like he understood it a single fucking one of them). Once the track is made... it's bail, bail, bail, bail, bail, forever.

    Like your son, he's also found secrets. I'm an experienced Trials player, but I play the track... Lucas throws himself off at every possible point, tries every possible combination and finds squirrels or some of Red Lynx's more esoteric puzzles... stuff I've not seen in a thousand hours of gameplay. Not only can he find them, but he can get straight into any track from the main menu and find the squirrels... I usually need to find a guide on the 'net somewhere to remind me of the track name.

    Oh, and he spends most of his time now not bailing... but dressing 'the man' up. Hats, tops, motorbike parts... obsessive amounts of time spent playing electronic dolls. My favourite bit of this is getting home each night to find out what my XBL avatar is dressed as.

    The only real problem here is my wife who is convinced that she's a bad mother because he plays too many games. SHe works from home and has quite a successful business (no, no links, this is not an extended 'work from home' troll), and he plays the xbox a lot. She blames me for this, but he only ever sees me play an hour each saturday and sunday, all my gaming time occurs when he's in bed! And this whole "when we were kids"... bullshit. When we were kids (I'm 39 now) I would have traded in fucking around at the local creek with a gameboy, no doubt about it.

    Sounds similar to my 4 year old son, except he lets me sleep until 6am. 6! Ha Mark Serrels!!

    We bought him this thing called a Leap Pad Epic...best idea my wife ever had. He gets up, wakes me up and I make him porridge. Sometimes it's Weetbix he wants but not often, he's a porridge with honey kid. After that though he'll sit there and play games on his Leap Pad or watch the same lego cartoons on YouTube for the 100th time. His favorite game is township - a mobile game where you grow crops and make stuff and he loves it. I got bored of it in a week.

    More recently though I started playing WoW again and now every time he sees me he wants to play it with me. Started out with him seeing me flying around on a dragon "Woah DAD! DRAGON!", "Yep, that's my dragon", "It's YOUR DRAGON, WOW!!". After watching me for 10 minutes he says "Hey dad, I can press those buttons"...and just like that he's hooked.

    Made a new character for him so he doesn't get me killed in high level areas. He chose to be a Worgen (Wolf, daddy!). His first name choices of "Puppy" and "Wolf" were already taken but with the help of the random name generator we managed to get Roardon.

    Now he runs around like a little psychopath killing things and laughing in a way reminiscent of an evil genius. He hasn't managed to figure out how to use the mouse to turn yet and requires my help most of the time but he's getting better.

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