A Blag Post
by Chris on October 15, 2013
I’ve always been a gamer. My first gaming experiences precede my earliest memories, and I’m so grateful to my mother and my aunt for introducing me to games like Tetris and the first Final Fantasies so early in life. I love telling the story of when I tried to grab the controller from my mother during a Final Fantasy 4 boss fight (Asura or Leviathan, I think) and they locked me out of the room for distracting her—I had to watch the fight through the gap between the door and the frame.
In March, my daughter, Hadley, came into the world. As a new father and gamer, I’m plagued by the inevitable question: “How do I get Hadley into video games?”
Much of my adult life has been devoted to gaming. From writing a monster of an Honor Thesis on video games as art, a labor of love that had been in progress since the 3rd grade, to my professional pursuits while working on Bioshock Infinite, and now, Tiny Tycoons, video games have become more than a hobby.
Because I’ve been playing for so long, and my friends have always been gamers, I’ve never had to teach anyone about video games beyond the first 15 minutes of explaining a new game’s rules and controls. So for me, “What games do you want your daughter to play?” has this nebulous cloud around it. What will Hadley enjoy? What games are good for really young players or someone who has never played games?
First of all, many mobile games are simple, small, enjoyable, and also affordable. It’s an easy route—my niece, Sydney, could use an iPad better than some adults at the age of two. Games such as Angry Birds or Tiny Wings for iOS are perfect for children because the mechanics and flow of the games are enjoyable on their face but there’s depth as well. Each uses touch controls eloquently, and Angry Birds’ presentation (particularly its memorable sound and visual effects) and driving motive (destroy stuff to reach the goal) appeals to children very quickly.
That said, I grew up on console gaming and want Hadley to experience consoles like I did. Console games require understanding that what you do in your hands affects what’s on screen. That hurdle is removed with tablets, which is partially why they are so successful with children, but the right console games overcome that issue.
Flower for Playstation 3 is a great starting point. The controls are ultra-simple: just press any button and move the thing in your hands as though you’re the wind. There are no timers, almost no clutter on screen, or real goals to focus on (although some danger in later levels). The game is bright and the music vibrant, making it perfect for a kid.
Older console games are great for building gaming literacy. Super Mario Bros. for the original Nintendo is historical, fun, and basic (2 buttons plus d-pad). Numerous articles describe how it teaches platforming mechanics without the use of dialog bubbles or big notifications about what to do. As you play, you learn what to do because it’s what you must do in order to progress.
Similarly and also for Nintendo, Legend of Zelda is simple but about exploration and the adventure. You arrive lost in the world with no explanation and have to find your bearings. The best way to do that is through the map and other user interface elements which make the world readable and memorable. You may not know why that pier is jutting out into the water on tile P-4 right now, but you know it’s there and something later will show you why it’s there. Because being able to read UI is important to modern gaming, Legend of Zelda is a great stepping stone to more advanced layouts.
The story is the typical Hero’s Journey with Professor Oak as the mentor and your rival, the gym masters, and Team Rocket as forces you must overcome. Because the story isn’t complex and something that is near-universally enjoyed the world over, it appeals to kids as well as adults.
The challenge of the game can be overcome in typically 3 ways: level grinding, strategy, and, of course, the preferred mixed approach of both. You can overcome most gym masters with enough grinding of any type or with enough skill in terms of choosing the Pokémon type that is the gym master’s weakness, but a mixed approach is best, since that approach means less grinding and therefore a faster victory.
The way Pokémon’s challenges are lined up, though, is what makes the game digestible for kids. Whereas Final Fantasy is an unknown road ahead into the world, Pokémon has very clearly boundaries from challenge to challenge: you can see many of the battles you will fight (the trainers on map), you know what gyms you have to beat and what type of pokémon they’ll use, and the road ahead to the Final Four, the biggest challenge, is very direct. That directness is what allows people, and particularly kids, to get lost in the smaller stories in between and leading up to each gym.
This leaves the last element, tension, which Pokémon is particularly good at. While you have direct goals, randomly encountering pokémon and capturing them is the tension that fills in the gaps between the intense gym battles. Capturing pokémon takes finesse and patience, since you must lower a pokémon’s health down to near death and then hope to capture it with a Poké Ball. The rumbling and sway of the Poké Ball, not knowing whether it will make its satisfying *click*, is one of the best tension moments in gaming—if you haven’t ever experienced finally hearing and seeing that click after you’ve been hunting a pokémon for several minutes, or worse, hours, then you’ll never understand why Pokémon is so beloved by gamers across the world.
My final pick is something closer to my heart, and that’s Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation available on PC. I wrote about it in my thesis, and to me, the game has a lot more meaning now than ever before (description from my thesis):
Gravitation opens on a darkened, colorless world with a man lingering in frame. Eventually, a ball enters. If the player touches the ball, it will bounce back to where it came from. More color and vision is added with each bounce. The player will eventually see a small girl throwing the ball on one side of the screen and an oven on the other. The player can jump as far as his vision extends, and if he jumps up to the platforms above, he can see a block. When the player touches the block, it falls to the bottom of the stage where the girl is. At the bottom, the player can push the block into the furnace. This gives the player points; the player must accrue as many points as possible within a time limit.
Pushing more than one block at a time is also very difficult, so you can’t just pile up the bottom of the stage with 10 blocks and then push them all into the oven: you have to think about pushing in only so many at a time. Also, if you stop throwing the ball back to the girl, your vision narrows, so you can’t jump as high, and therefore you can’t get as many points. The tension in the game is all about pushing the blocks and juggling the ball.
Rohrer stated that the game was metaphoric of his constant struggle to be a working father. He’s trying to juggle scoring points and pushing as much as he possibly can while still making time to be a dad and play with his daughter. Once more, if you don’t play with your daughter, the world becomes colorless and impossible to maneuver. If you stop bouncing the ball for too long, the daughter leaves, and it’s impossible to jump to any of the ledges with blocks on them unless some ball tosses are under your belt. Playing with his family, that’s what’s essential to him and gives him the ability to score points, to work and go forward. It also brightens the world, since with every toss, the world is more vibrant and alive, and with each failed toss, more dark and monotone.
I don’t know if my daughter will like video games. That worries me a lot, as though her not liking video games means she doesn’t like me. I love her, so I want to share my hobby with her.
I know we won’t always agree about what to play, but as long as we’re playing something together, I’ll be happy. I just want her to understand that I always care about her, even if I’m not always around, and everything I do is for her and her mother, whom I love dearly (To Jess: INFILY).
If any of you have kids, enjoy games, and enjoy playing with them, I’d love to hear from you on our Facebook or Twitter! Whether it’s Super Mario Bros., Minecraft, or Monopoly, I’d love to know what got your child into gaming. Thanks so much for reading—now hurry back to Tiny Tycoons before you lose that property you want!
Chris is our lead Quality Assurance Tester, chief game-breaker, master bug-crusher and resident super dad!