Monday, June 16, 2008

Father's Play How games connect kids and parents: A Father's Day requiem for a gamer.

A dear friend of my wife lost her 12 yr old daughter, Kaela, earlier this year to pneumococcal meningitis. This blog was written by Kaela's Step Father.

Reposted with permission

On its top-10 industry-facts list, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) states that the average age of gamers today is 33 years old and that they have been playing videogames for 12 years now. As such, one would surmise that the majority of today's gamers already have, or are starting, families of their own, and that their deeply rooted pastime will be introduced to their children at some point or other. Meanwhile, everywhere you look, politicians and others seem to accuse games of having a horrible influence on people -- especially children. But can videogames really and truly be a positive influence in a family setting?

I'm here to tell you that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes! How do I know? Well, let me explain.... The nickname I gave to my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Kaela, several years ago was "K.K. Slider." I gave that name to her because of her fascination with the cool, guitar-playing canine character of the same name from Nintendo's Animal Crossing games. It started out as a silly joke, but she liked it, and it stuck.

Kaela and I shared a love of videogames, and she was about as hardcore a gamer as a tween girl could be. She was always playing something, whether it was on her Nintendogs-skinned DS, on the PC, or on one of the four consoles we own. In fact, she and I bonded through playing a videogame: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for the Nintendo 64. I remember it distinctly: My wife and I had only been together for a short while, and this whole concept of a "blended" family was still very new to us all. Kaela was about 6 or 7 at the time and was, understandably, having a rough go with some of the more difficult parts of Link's second N64 adventure. She came to me for help, and over the course of the next few weekends, I guided her to the final battle with Majora's Mask, which we beat together. From that point forward, K.K. and I always had something to talk about, whether it was who was the best character in Super Smash Brothers, who could create the crazier characters in The Sims 2, or who was better on the drums in Rock Band. Videogames had become our means for understanding one another.

Common ground

John Davison, former Ziff Davis editorial director and president of What They Play, agrees, saying that parent-kid gaming sessions are something children will remember for a long time. "It's not mom and dad imposing something on the kids, or the kids dragging the parents into something that they don't want to do," Davison says. "For us, there's equal interest on both sides, and that's what makes it really special. I know it's not going to be that way for every family, but there are more and more games available now that lower the barriers to entry and make this kind of activity possible."

I know from my own experience as a father: Nintendo, with both its Wii and DS, seems to have the pick-up-and-play/gateway-type games that Davison speaks of. I can't tell you how many impromptu games of Mario Party, WiiPlay, WarioWare, and Carnival Games I've gotten sucked into over the last year and a half that we've owned the Wii. As Derrick Schommer, father of two and proprietor of game site Tech Diversions, relates, "Nintendo has this area conquered. They understand how to make a game appeal to kids and adults at the same time without having to alter any difficulty levels or give either side a major advantage to equal each other. These are usually casual games with thin storylines -- my kids can't read anyway -- and lots of Wii-controller motion. My daughter cannot grasp the Xbox 360 controller as easily as she adapts to the Wii controller so these games work the best. Kids seem to have some innate abilities to controllers based on touch and motion."

Lovable losers

Another way of bonding with your kids thorough videogames: losing. Let me tell you, there's nothing quite as humbling as having your butt handed to you by one of your kids. I'll always remember the first time it happened to me (a severe thrashing in Sega Soccer Slam on the Gamecube by my oldest son, Kyle) because it reminded me of the first time I schooled my own father out on the basketball court. Now, I was a bit older than Kyle was at the time (I was 14; Kyle was 9) and the venue was different (a real court as opposed to a virtual one) but the sincere feelings and emotions that came through in those moments were practically the same: "It's OK to beat Dad -- in fact, it's kinda cool!" This sentiment is echoed by parent and renowned game designer John Romero: "When [my kids] were older, it was fun to play as a team or go head-to-head. There was nothing like smacking the crud out of dad to make them get excited."

Working together as a team to achieve a common goal, as Kaela and I did with Majora's Mask, is something that another celebrated game maker, Fable's Peter Molyneux, does with his five- year-old son, Lucas. "We play games like Ratchet and Clank and Zelda," Molyneux says. "We will discuss the problems together and work with each other to come up with the solutions. I think [videogames] are a great level playing field. Lucas is about as dexterous as I am and this means we can play together as equals. I can't think of any other activity that we could do together where this would be the case."

Fun and games

Psychiatrist and author of Video Game Play and Addiction, Dr. Kourosh Dini, sees great benefits in the "two-way learning" that videogames offer a parent and child. "Some of the best parenting I've seen occurs when parents are willing to learn from their children," he explains. "A parent is still a parent, and guides and protects as necessary, of course. But, a parent in wonder and support of watching a daughter as she makes it through a level...does several things [for the child]. It sends the message that the child is trusted by the parent to do things differently. The child discovers the capacity to do things differently. And, [thirdly], it tells the child that the parent may be willing to learn the ways of the child's world -- which will always be completely different from the one in which the parent grew up. Together, these sentiments can carry much value in bringing a family together."
Humor is also a great bonding element and that was always big around our house, especially when Kaela was involved. She just had a way about her that could make you crack up at any given moment. She knew this too, and she'd usually use this "gift" at a critical moment to make you lose whatever game you happened to be playing at the time.

It is a given: Kids do funny things while watching you play or playing games themselves. As TechDiversion's Schommer relates, "At one point we had both our kids trained to say 'Yeah Baby!' after we'd finish a Guitar Hero III song. It got to the point where they would be in the living room while I was playing Guitar Hero in another room, and after I finished the song I'd hear off in the distance 'Yeah Baby!' They knew the sounds of a successful completion and would scream 'Yeah Baby!' wherever they were in the house."

After their Zelda sessions together, Molyneux says that his son Lucas has become somewhat infatuated with that storied franchise's main character, Link. "This is all fine until you go out shopping and Lucas draws out his plastic sword from his back yelling 'Hi-yah' at passersby," he says. "The worst occasion was in a shopping center when a rather grubby old man was walking towards us. Lucas pulled out his sword and said, 'Look, Daddy, it's a troll!' I don't know if the poor old guy heard but thankfully he turned in different direction. We're rather relieved that the Zelda phase is staring to wear off a will make shopping trips easier!"

Unfortunately, all the humor and good feelings that this story evokes have to end here, for much like Ebenezer Scrooge, who foresaw a crutch without its young owner in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, I have Playstation, Wii, and Xbox controllers at my house that are collecting dust but are carefully preserved all the same. You see, pneumococcal meningitis claimed Kaela's life this past February. It was like she was walking down the street and got hit by a bolt of lightning. It was just that random and rare -- something that happens to other people or only on sappy television shows -- never directly to you. Honestly, I didn't even realize that people still got meningitis, or just how deadly a disease it can be. But, in a matter of hours it rendered her comatose and then, ultimately, brain dead. Yes, it was a shocking and most undeserved end because of her tender age, but also because you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who could, or would, say a bad word about K.K. And, in turn, it was a very rare thing to hear K.K. utter a bad word against anyone else. This was a genuinely good kid who possessed wit, character, and charm in spades and wasn't afraid to let you know it. And that is what set her apart. It is a damn shame that we will not get to see this singular personality in the full blossom of womanhood.

Sieze the play

Videogames have always been a very good thing in my life and in the lives of my family. From the various interviews I conducted for this article, it's clear to see that games are an exceptionally positive influence on the lives of many other families, as well. Personally, I know that they've provided me with endless hours of entertainment, information and education. To this day, I have "real world" friends because of videogames. I don't care what any pundit, or politician, or overzealous nutjob tries to spoon feed me -- those facts will never, ever change.

And, best of all, videogames brought me closer to a special girl, who I miss talking and playing with very, very much. But, I know in my heart of hearts that I will see my K.K. Slider at the Roost Café next Saturday night, 7:30 PM sharp. And I just know she'll be playing my favorite song. So, all you gamer parents out there, pick up a controller and play with your kids if you aren't doing so already. Let's do our level best to prove the naysayers wrong. I cannot promise that you'll have the same experiences that I've had, but I do know it is something you will always cherish and look back on fondly when your children aren't with you any longer for whatever reason. Take this advice from someone who knows all too well.

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