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No one needs to convince kids to play video games. The Millenials are a group that easily embraces the medium of video games. But since there are quite a few 30-somethings that play games targeted towards mature audiences, there isn’t necessarily a clear bridge between the games that we like to play and the ones that our kids are playing. Worse, most modern multiplayer games are not designed to play alongside a small human in your living room because they are meant for online experiences.


During the initial wave that brought video game consoles into homes, many titles were intended to be multiplayer games. Atari’s first successful home system came with the largely two-player experience of Combat, a grand mix of tank vs. tank, fat airplane vs. three skinny airplane competition that would erupt in all of its fat pixelated glory on a tiny screen. As console generations evolved, arcade ports of games like Joust and Mario Bros. would make for play more conducive to bonding with a teammate, since these games did not necessarily focus on competitive play but on cooperative gaming experiences.


Unfortunately, the advent of 3-D gaming has largely cut down on these sorts of very simple-to-learn, pick-up-and-play co-op games. Since the current crop of next gen gaming systems tend to offer games with connections whose boundaries extend well beyond the limits of the television screen, playing next to a friend or family member has become an altogether unlikely affair. Split screen gaming is difficult to accomplish technically and also to still remain compelling when two characters occupy the limited range of the screen.


There’s also the difficult problem of most 3-D games being too violent for play with a child. All is not lost, though, a number of series and genres have emerged in these early years of the millenium that do suggest some interesting ways for parents and kids to play together. In many cases, however, they are still hampered by some of the same restrictions to success as the violent ones.


The first genre well worth considering in how it might create a space for parent-child interaction is the rhythm game. Since games where you form a band are inherently co-operative (everybody needs to play a role in playing a song, be it on guitar, bass, drums, or vocals), it seems a genre well suited for at least creating bonds with folks standing right next to you. While early iterations of multiplayer band experiences in the Rock Band and especially the Guitar Hero series exhibited some potentially prohibitive difficulty levels, especially for younger, inexperienced virtual musicians, the most recent versions of these games (especially The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5) have some excellent possibilities for younger kids to play some tunes while not leaving Mom and Dad bored because the game isn’t challenging enough for them.


Of course, both games feature the ability to alter difficulty levels for different members of the band; Mom can play Expert drums while Dad plays a Medium difficulty guitar, and the kiddo plays an Easy bass line. This scaling feature in and of itself is a bridge for generations just because it allows for more inclusive play amongst a variety of skill sets. However, the later versions of Guitar Hero currently feature the ability to scale the game’s difficulty down even further with a Beginner setting that doesn’t require anything but some simple strumming (no additional buttons needed) to successfully jam on guitar. Really, really tiny folk that occupy the single digit age group can get in on the action as a result.


While Rock Band has yet to adopt such a feature, The Beatles: Rock Band‘s generally easier songs accomplish a pretty low difficulty level for the smallest of potential Fab Four surrogates. In addition, songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus Garden” also offer something in the way of more welcoming offerings for little humans. A lot of early Beatles Tunes, like “Twiat and Shout” and “Drive My Car”, likewise seem to be likely to produce general bopping and bouncing among the wee folk.


However, both games are still hampered by a few limiting factors for truly successful parent-kid gaming. While the aforementioned Beatles tunes that I mention are good ones for getting the kids excited, later Beatles material may not be stuff that gets parents of smaller children excited exactly. Parents who don’t feel like explaining what John means by “Everybody had a wet dream” in “I’ve Got a Feeling” quite yet or that may be bothered by some of the message of “With a Little Help From My Friends” may feel a bit limited about what songs they want to sing along with the kids.


Similarly, Guitar Hero 5‘s “Hungry Like the Wolf” is some good campy 1980s fun and its sexual metaphor is probably coded well enough to not feel like covering your five-year-old’s ears, the same probably can’t be said for the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” (great song in my opinion, but “The head while I’m driving, I’m driving/Soft lips are open, knuckles are pale” are not lyrics that my seven-year-old is quite ready to sing along with yet).


Barring potentially age inappropriate content, though, there is another (and to me) more problematic quality to creating a truly co-operative gaming experience between players of varying ages in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. While the game’s format is co-op and fun singalongs may commence as players shriek, “You give love a BAD name!”, nevertheless, the experience of playing your specific section of the song tends to keep you pretty focused on your own business, your own track of the song. The cooperative mechanics that focus on planning scoring strategies based on when players should kick in power-ups are relatively complex things to insist that a little kid participate in.


One of the beautiful things about a game like Mario Bros. is just how simple and intuitive helping out the other player is. Once you knock a turtle on its back, calling out, “Quick! Kick his shell, kick his shell!” is a simple enough tactical and teamwork-based play style that anyone of any age can quickly adapt to. While “playing” together might be a possibility in rhythm games, “gaming” (you know, to succeed, strategize, and score) may not be as it once was in older games. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero formula is likely to be successful for bonding with teens (my 14-year-old is absolutely wicked on drums) but for preteen bonding, it can be catch as can.


Chattering about strategy, though, seems to me to be one of the central tenets of a series that is seemingly very much oriented towards allowing some good co-op fun between Gen X and Gen Y relations, especially those belonging to the youngest set. The dual-licensed LEGO games, LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones, and LEGO Batman, all certainly skirt any issues concerning inappropriate content and additionally focus on a style of gameplay that is far from a self-focused style of play. That is, of course, if everyone manages to cooperate.


The LEGO games return to the older and more traditional two-player co-op style of the Atari and Nintendo eras by allowing two players without a split screen to co-operatively battle enemies and solve puzzles by building machines and other mechanisms with LEGO blocks. To successfully advance through the levels of these games requires that players constantly co-operate in fairly simple ways by throwing switches together, figuring out what needs to be built next, and how to use built items to reach the next section of a level. While players might feel stumped at times figuring out what to do next, camaraderie can be built as a result of brainchilds hatched by both the young and old as to how to go about solving the next section. Additionally, the subject matter (LEGOs, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman) is generally subject matter that evokes a childlike nostalgia from Gen-Xers and seems pretty fun as all of these things are the stuff of childhood, speaking to young Ys as well.


While developer Traveler’s Tales has created a successful co-operative strategic formula to occupy kids and their parents, there are some limiting factors to maintaining harmony amongst all of the participants. That players can get hit by friendly fire can generate some degree of ire amongst the players. While it is sometimes fun to smack one another’s avatars around for awhile (especially because death results in limited penalties, losing a few LEGO studs that can be collected again in most cases and nearly immediately dropping back into play with no sitting out), players accidentally killing one another during a fire fight against enemies may cause consternation and some tension to begin building amongst parents and kids at times.


Coupled with the fact that the players are “handcuffed” to one another to some degree, because they remain on the same screen at all times, can also result in some heated words when one player keeps moving too far from the other, often causing them to drop off a cliff (and more often over and over and over and over and over again) or just angry debate about which way the “team” should be headed at a given time (“Come over here!”, “No, come over here! NOW!”, “COME OVER HERE!”). These frustrating battles of will are not necessarily what most parents would consider time well spent getting to know the kids, especially if someone starts crying (and it could be Mom or Dad in some cases). At times the LEGO series is as fresh and fun as Mario Bros. was, but at times, the games can feel like a sadistic, nightmare vision of that 1980s frivolity because of, not in spite of, the fact that you have to play together.


So, one might wonder, is it possible for parents to really play with the kids given some of the limitations of the medium in providing balanced and fully cooperative fare? For me at least, it always comes back to Mario.


By far the most sensible and successful game to aggressively seek to create a way for parents and especially preteen kids to play at their own level in a truly cooperative manner that also keeps everyone happy is Super Mario Galaxy. My middle child, who like myself seems to have a body made invulnerable to the wiles of sleep, was eight during the Christmas break when I rented Super Mario Galaxy. While my wife and two other daughters rarely made it past the 10 PM or 11 PM mark that winter, she and I frequently managed four to even six hour sessions late into the night, wandering the strange, often spherical, often topsy-turvy worlds of Mario’s galaxy for nearly that whole break.


We were both enchanted by the fantasy physics of a mushroom universe (and, as someone who had grown up with Mario, I was, of course, struck by nostalgia while she, as a kid, was mesmerized by the game’s humor, cuteness, and overall weirdness), but even more so, we could each play the game at a difficulty level suitable to our ages while still contributing equally to Mario’s efforts to save the Princess. Undaunted by the seeming limitation of trying to create a 3-D game that two players could conceivably still share, Nintendo developed a simple and elegant solution to the problem of two players needing to share a screen.


While Dad played Mario and performed all of the complicated jumps that require fine motor skills and good timing, my daughter used the Wiimote to jab around the screen to collect stars to shoot at enemies that might attempt to hamper what Mario was doing. We shared a screen and different responsibilities, but in doing so, the game allowed us both to enjoy observing and discussing the world and the game more fully. We both still talk about what a great time we had playing the game and have created a very real bond by experiencing and conquering a virtual world together. While I certainly have had other moments in which she and I have bonded by accomplishing things together (frankly, working on Math homework has also produced equally accomplished moments for she and I), I have no other gaming experiences with my children that compare to it.


With age appropriate content (for kids and parents), varying difficulty levels that still allow for useful co-operative responsibilities, and gameplay that doesn’t interfere with one another or leave a player feeling as if they are playing solo, but instead complements one another, Nintendo just clearly “gets it”.


Describing the gameplay does not do the simplicity and successfulness of a truly intergenerational experience of gaming justice. If you have a preteen who normally just watches games or struggles to play games that you like and you are a gaming parent, try Super Mario Galaxy if only for an hour (it won’t be an hour—just saying). You may be surprised at what simple things like sharing strategy, failure, and accomplishment in a silly little video game can do. It is better than mere play; it is gaming, and it’s the sort of thing that parents and kids should do.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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