Playing Video Games with My Kid

Modern parents have a fraught relationship with video games. The popular view, at least among many parents I’ve talked to, is that these games are harmful and that we’re supposed to feel guilty about letting our children play them. High-profile violent titles like the Grand Theft Auto series feed this perception, even though those games are clearly identified as being for adults only.

Not everyone subscribes to the “video games are a barely tolerable evil” view, though. A lot of us grew up gaming and somehow managed to turn out okay, so we think there’s probably no harm in letting our kids do the same. As someone who was getting chased by grues and swinging across quicksand while still in middle school, I certainly fall into that camp. The scientific evidence also seems to lean that way. Various studies have found that at worst, video games are no worse than TV, and at best they may even boost intelligence.

Nonetheless, I took a multi-decade break from video games after high school, and was only vaguely aware of what was happening with console and computer entertainment during most of the industry’s development.

My daughter dragged me back into it, initially through repeated requests for game-related gifts. She wanted a Nintendo DS. Or a Wii. Or a PlayStation. Or an iPod or iPad. Or pretty much any device (besides the computer) that could be used to play video games. When it finally became clear that “all of my friends have them” was not, in fact, an exaggeration, we decided to give in just a little bit. Last Christmas, we loaded my wife’s old iPod Touch with a few games, repackaged it, and gave it to Sophie. Looking around at iPod games beforehand, I saw a gaming platform I could easily understand. Indeed, one of the top games on iOS is strikingly similar to a classic I played decades ago.

Then came Skylanders. This massively successful game-plus-figurine-collecting system became all the rage for the elementary-age set last year, and we quickly got drawn into it. Yes, I did mean to use the collective pronoun there – Sophie and I both love it. Unlike the iOS games, Skylanders is a proper modern game – more of an interactive movie than a test of reflexes. A Nintendo Wii U soon appeared in our living room, the first dedicated game console I’d used since the Atari 2600 era.

One of the great features of Skylanders is a two-player cooperative mode, so my daughter and I could battle enemies and solve puzzles in the story together. It reminded me of evenings long ago spent with my own parents, sitting around the glowing green monitor of our Apple ][ and working our way through the Scott Adams adventures. The graphics, design, and hardware have changed radically, but interactive fiction is still interactive fiction.

Sophie and I have since continued our shared gaming in the astonishingly beautiful world of Pikmin 3. This was marketed as a kids’ game, and while its action is certainly G-rated, the dark underlying themes and somewhat complex strategy and mechanics make it quite challenging. The characters are adorable, the zoomed-in scale makes everything initialy seem less threatening, and the scenery is stunningly rendered in high-definition. But underneath this thin veneer of adorability lies a story of starvation, conquest, ecological exploitation, and duplicity.

This led to some interesting parenting moments. As a real-time strategy game, Pikmin 3 calls for a combination of long-term planning and quick decision-making. It also demands some emotional fortitude. Once you’ve grown your army of tiny Pikmin, you start throwing them on much larger enemies that sometimes eat them. Whenever a Pikmin dies, it lets out a plaintive little moan and sends up a tiny ghost. Once you’ve defeated an enemy creature, it doesn’t just politely vanish like the enemies in Skylanders. Instead, your Pikmin gather around and haul its lifeless corpse back to their ship, which devours it to make more Pikmin. This is “nature, red in tooth and claw,” and it caused some real tears around here.

While anti-gaming prudes often complain about desensitizing kids to violence, this game actually seems to have the opposite effect. And someone could probably write – heck, someone probably is writing – a cultural studies thesis on the layers of meaning in the final boss fight.

So yes, I let my kid play video games, and I play them with her. If you’re not doing the same with yours, perhaps you should give it a try.