As strange as it may sound, getting my kids to play games is important to me. My daughter’s turning three early next year, my son’s newly born, and I’m already working out what we can play together. Does that make me a bad parent?
No. At least, I hope not. And, here’s why.
Apparently, older games are unplayable. It seems we may have finally hit a point where the level of literacy required to play the games of yester-year no longer exists. As a child of the ’80s, that breaks my heart – that Abbott’s class specifically couldn’t play Ultima IV is a tragedy.
A tragedy, but not necessarily for the obvious reason. Sure, it’s a ground-breaking game and worth studying from an academic and interpretative perspective in its own right. But, that’s not why it’s tragic. My real concern is that in a class of university-level students, so many of them struggled to do something as simple as review the material they’d been provided with. In a class structured to develop game literacy and an understanding of the genre as a mechanical and literary field, many of them apparently threw up their hands and gave up when presented with what’s in reality such a basic mental challenge.
To me, their reactions are a sad indictment on how games have been progressively moving from an intellectual challenge to what my parents were always concerned they were – a timewaster. Growing up with these games taught me stuff, damn it; games were more than mere mechanics, they were personal and social challenges.
You think I’m kidding? Here’s what Ultima alone taught me:
- Research skills: Understanding and interpreting the game required reading relatively copious amounts of printed material and relating it back to the extremely abstract world I was dealing with.
- Memorisation and memory skills: With no worldmap, I had to remember the location of every character and location. And, I had to memorize every possible key combination – you think dealing with a 12 button controller is hard? Try memorizing a command for every key on the keyboard as well as the key combinations for thirty odd spells!
- Problem solving and procedural elimination: Getting it running in the first place was a challenge in its own right – I not only had to understand memory architectures and memory optimisation on the PC, I had to incrementally update my config.sys and autoexec.ini files to minimize my memory footprint.
- Imagination: The minimal graphic design meant that I was free to overlay my own perceptions of what I was interacting with.
- Social skills: Without an Internet to rely on, my Gamefaqs was the playground. Together, we fought our way through this and a multitude of other games, working together to solve the hairier problems.
The trend in today’s games is away from this level of complexity – the general design ethic is one of simplification and, to be blunt, mollycoddling. I mean, Final Fantasy XIII has a freakin’ 20 plus hour tutorial!. And, Resonance of Fate, a game that offers a similar level of complexity but drops the player straight into the thick of it, has been specifically criticised for providing a challenge.
Rightly or wrongly, this dumbing down of material is often the quickest path to commercial success. To me though, it’s indicative of a broader societal trend towards oversimplification and accessibility. The reality is that the world isn’t accessible – life is complicated and problems are real, and if you’re not comfortable with creative thinking and dealing with change, you’ll struggle. “Easy” sells, but just like junk food, it doesn’t help us.
As a gamer, I care about entertainment and enjoyment. As a parent though, I care about development and enjoyment. And, that’s a whole different ballgame. Obviously, not every retro game was good. But, they taught me stuff, stuff that’s increasingly lacking in today’s games. Stuff that’s important, regardless of how you learn it.
So, I’ve made it my mission to make sure my children build the same skills I developed (albeit by accident).
Surprisingly, it’s difficult. Finding recent games that are accessible and worthwhile for a three-year old isn’t easy – it’s not only that most games need a certain level of motor control, it’s also that in the main, most games are crap. Not only in terms of mechanics, but also in terms of development; timewasters like Modern Warfare 2 have their place as leisure activities, but historically speaking, they weren’t the only option when I was a kid. I played Mario 3, but I also clocked Red Storm Rising while I was doing it.
After unsuccessfully trawling a variety of forums trying to find games that fit the bill, I had a brainwave – I enjoyed the games I grew up with, so why not test them out on my daughter?
Guess what – she loves them, just like I did when I was a kid. That their graphics aren’t the latest and greatest? So what; she doesn’t care! And so, in the interests of helping other interested parents out there, I thought I’d run through some of what we’re playing, what I’m thinking we’ll eventually play, and why.
Before I get into the detail, some important (and obvious) clarifications. Parenting is hard work, and everyone has their own opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong; I’m as human as the next person, but here’s what I try and hold myself to:
- Games are only one aspect of personal growth – they can teach a wide variety of skills, but they only teach a small set of the skills needed to be a balanced person. We spend more time hitting the beach, reading, and playing with our musical instruments than we do playing computer games together. And, that’s the way it should be.
- I believe that my role as a parent is to help my kids grow and experiment while keeping them safe. That means helping them constantly test their own boundaries and have new experiences while being extremely conscious that they’re dealing with appropriate material.
- When it comes to kids, games are a way of spending fun time together – they’re not an electronic babysitter. If I’m not playing them with her, they’re normally a waste of time.
Next up: what we’re playing now.
If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy our subsequent article, Toddler Games: What we’re playing.
- Toddler Games: What we’re playing
- The game they let you play in heaven and make you play in hell
- Baby games