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 moms 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, Mom 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’ve 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’ll 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.
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.
Illustrations by Jim Cooke