I have recently entered a new, strange and exciting phase of my gaming life: Dad Gaming.
To put this in context, I’ve been playing games for a long time. I Mutant Camel’d through primary school, Sonic’d through the student days, PaRappa’d through my early career and Mario’d into marriage.
But at all of those points I was playing with peers. Consenting adults, fully aware of gaming tropes and vernacular, able to hold down several buttons and a trigger simultaneously while loosing off a round of sniper fire.
Nowadays, my gaming partners are 2 girls under 10 and my outlook and attitude to gaming has completely changed. Vast swathes of the electronic landscape are off limits, and to be honest, I’m enjoying the change of scenery.
As ridiculous as it sounds I was initially torn about whether to introduce the kids to the world of console video gaming at all. I could clearly remember having to be prised away from my Vic-20 by my mum and ordered to go outside and get some fresh air. Obviously it didn’t do me any harm, but surely it’s a different and more dangerous addiction now?
Luckily, I was blessed with female offspring. Fundamentally different creatures to boys, it turns out, when it comes to becoming obsessively and compulsively focused on beating some elaborate arbitrary goal (a ridiculous generalisation, obviously, I’m talking purely from my own experience). So far, they’ve proved remarkably adept and switching off the television set and going out and doing something less boring instead. Your mileage may vary.
What my new companions have made me realise is how relentlessly focused most of the high-profile gaming industry is on the teenage boy market. Quite embarrassingly so, judging by the TV adverts for many triple-A titles. Some people in the industry have been looking at a different demographic though. As UbiSoft’s Patrick Plourde says: “here’s a huge audience of passionate fans for quality content that is outside of the Space Marine fantasy”. And of course, indie gaming has been a real hotbed for more abstract, child friendly gaming experiences too.
In case you want some inspiration on what to enjoy with your kids, here are some highlights of our gaming journey so far, in roughly chronological order:
Mario Galaxy - great, but quite challenging. Initially spending more time watching than playing. By the time we got to the recent Mario World 3D, both girls were much more eager to learn the controls and play themselves and got much more out of it as a result. They responded to the kidnapped princess theme and the Bowser threat.
Kinectimals - cute animals and no controllers, what’s not to love? They forgave the woolly (no pun intended) and imprecise controls that put off many people.
Dance Central - luckily using the radio friendly versions of the tracks, as I discovered to my surprise when I listened to a version of Skrillex’s Rock and Roll on iTunes. One other nice aspect is that the visual accompaniments to the tracks are often less sexualised than the official videos in some cases. As a father of girls, I think this is a good thing.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn - great art direction, fascinating game mechanics and a cohesive world meant that we played this all the way through (it’s not that long), but mostly with me
Lego Harry Potter - after reading the books at bedtime (and many times themselves) over the last few years, the girls loved being able to play the characters and story lines from them “for real”. On one of the few times they played without me they had immense fun playing the knight bus section. It proved to be a kind of child-friendly introduction to the GTA style driving sandbox…
Mario Kart 8 (and Wii) - this has been another series where it’s fascinating to see their skills develop. Playing with the Wii steering wheel controller proved quite challenging for my youngest; she found it difficult to turn it around a ‘fixed’ central point without moving her arms and whole body in the direction she wanted to go. Playing together is a great way to get over this. She sat on my lap and we held the wheel together, with me gradually helping less as she got the hang of it. And of course, there’s the power-up factor; the moment when they’re stuck in 12th and then get a bullet bill!
Zelda Wind Waker HD - I got a free copy of this when purchasing MK8 and thought it would be great to introduce them to the Zelda universe in HD. It’s early days so far, and it’s proved a bit wordy - even though they love reading - so I wait to see how
It seems there are a few factors that make a game a great candidate for enjoying as a family:
Engaging - both in terms of visuals and characterisation. That doesn’t have to mean Barbie or some condescending kids-specific styling. Kawaii is cool.
Accessible controls - remember your kids probably have about 30 years less experience with game controllers than you do.
Thematically appropriate - of course.
Nintendo are traditionally good at all of these things. If you’re thinking about getting a console for the family, don’t discount getting a Wii U just because hordes of teenage-boy gamers decrying its lack of resolution and/or triple-A first person shooters.
So, dads - and mums - don’t be scared to share your love of gaming with your kids. It doesn’t have to be about snatching 5 minutes on the iPhone when you’re bored on the bus, or - ouch - using it to keep your kids quiet at the dinner table.
It can be about discovering or re-discovering an engaging, enjoyable and challenging experience on that big screen TV in the living room, together.