What it means to be a dad in the age of games
Last week, my 11-year-old son had a stark self-revelation: All things, including life, come to an end.
Faced with his own mortality, brought on by a discussion of the Mayan-predicted end of the world in 2012, Tristan had one major concern: “Halo 4” is coming out just one month earlier.
Perhaps it’s because he’s a third-generation gamer. Perhaps it’s because his dad makes a living talking about, thinking about, writing about, and yes, playing video games. Or maybe it’s how steeped in gaming culture everything seems to be today. But for Tristan, and a lot of children his age, video games aren’t just a way to pass time or hang out with friends; they’re the gateway through which life is explored, experimented with, and maybe on some level, understood.
It was through video games that my son managed to so easily adjust to a cross-country move last year. While the idea of packing up his life in the Colorado foothills and driving to a new home near the Appalachian Mountains in New York initially sounded like an adventure, the inevitable homesickness quickly set in. But connecting and playing with friends online, through computer and console games, helped Tristan feel like he was never too far from the friends he had known his whole life. And soon he had a whole new set of friends in New York. And it was “LittleBigPlanet,” a PlayStation 3 puzzle and platform game, that first ignited Tristan’s full creativity. He became so enthralled with crafting and playing levels in the whimsical game that he wrote to famous developers to ask for advice. When they replied, he quickly set about applying those little lessons.
That creative spark blossomed in a first-person shooter, of all things. Where most gamers play “Halo 3” running around inside virtual maps shooting one another, Tristan devoted nearly all of his time in the game to “Halo’s” map editor. But instead of creating new places to play space cops and robbers, Tristan and his friends designed elaborate flying race tracks, recreated scenes from movies, or built forts and acted out virtual plays.
Of course, not all of the lessons video games can teach are found inside the games themselves. It was illicit “Call of Duty” sessions that helped teach Tristan the importance of honesty. Caught red-handed in the middle of a “Call of Duty” deathmatch (a Mature-rated game Tristan isn’t allowed to play), his initial instinct to obfuscate and lie his way out of trouble quickly gave way to a sincere apology. It was a learning moment triggered by gaming that has since mostly stuck with him.
My wife and I use gaming as both an apple and a stick. If he does well in school, he earns extra game time. If he misbehaves, he loses game time.
On a broader level, I see Tristan playing games and absorbing some of their more subtle messages as well. While the debate over whether video games are art is dying down among culture critics, for children Tristan’s age it never existed. When he plays “Journey” he experiences the game like I experienced “The Harvesters” when I saw the painting hanging on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When he plays “Shadow of the Colossus” he experiences that game like I experienced “The Gift of the Magi” the first time I read O. Henry’s short story.
That doesn’t mean that video games are somehow blotting out their more obvious artful cousins; just that children immersed in the world of gaming can as easily explore broad ideas and discover themselves in the context of virtual interactivity as they can in the static works of more traditional creativity.
It may have been “Halo 4” that Tristan first thought of when the notion came to him that the sentence of his life had a period, but ultimately he still wanted to know about those bigger, darker things.
“Is it true, Dad,” he asked me after asking about “Halo.” “Will the world really end?”
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding news editor of Polygon.