16 NovBattle for Thessia – Make Playing Computer Games a Family Asset
Computer games have been a center of controversy for the better part of forty years now. Did they play a part in the Columbine Massacre? Do they aid and abet the obesity crisis? Do they instill into our children anti-social tendencies? Well, in the words of Tevia from Fiddler on the Roof, “let me tell you—I don’t know.” All I do know is that in our family computer games have been a source of hundreds of hours of quality family time.
I do not approve of all computer games. There are many that are in bad taste and, no matter how popular, make me question the intents and morals of those that make them and play them. On the other hand, the computer gaming industry is healthy and diverse enough that mixed among the less than stellar are gems of varying luster.
What’s funny is that I don’t even play computer games per se. Still you will find me intelligently conversant on the subject. How can that be? Because my children (I have eight of them) do play computer games. I did play computer games at one time. I started in the 1970’s on an Atari in my family’s living room. I played Pong and Missile Command and other two-dimensional games of dubious quality.
Many years later I was blown away by Doom. I had gotten a small taste of quasi-3D gaming in Wolfenstein, but when “Doom” came out and I found myself playing in a virtual 3D world with friends I couldn’t get over it. I brought my young boys to the office after working hours where there were networked computers so we could play together. They were hooked. Side-by-side we ran through hallways and caverns battling legions of demonic monsters with pistols, shotguns, and the BFG (Big “Firing” Gun as my boys told me). We were comrades standing courageously against superior numbers. When one of us was low on health another would lead to a health station. We screamed together when monsters surprised us and cheered together when the room fell silent with the last dying demon. It was great.
Of course there was death match mode when we hunted each down. It was these that caused me to stop playing computer games. Was it the violence? Certainly not. Back in the “good old days” before there were computers when we would actually go outside to play one of my favorite games was Army. We took a stick and ran around the neighborhood and shoot each other making machine gun noises with our tongues. These games invariably ended in arguments of who shot who first. Death match in Doom or Half Life or Unreal Tournament was no different than this—except there were no arguments over who shot who first. When my vision suddenly went red and I found myself looking at the game from the floor level I knew I was “got” first. That was the problem, during death match I spent almost all my time looking at the game from floor level. I couldn’t win. My hand eye coordination was just too slow. I got so frustrated that I quit playing. Of course I still could have played single player and enjoyed the storyline. I quickly learned that I was too nervous and couldn’t shoot straight even when playing on easy against AI opponents. I also learned that I was no good at figuring out puzzles, a skill that is critical to most games. However, this did not end the role of computer games in my life.
My kids were hooked and the computer gaming went on. For the family this could have been a neutral thing at best or a divisive thing at worst, but because of my Peter Pan syndrome it turned into a very positive thing for the family. I have always been inclined to spend more time with my kids than other adults. As my kids continued to play video games after I quit I tended to hover behind them to watch. There were two reasons. First, I liked to be with my kids when I was home. Second, the games they played were colorful, creative, and intriguing. My oldest son discovered StarCraft. This game had a wonderful storyline, but it was the competitive mode that interested him. This is one of the games that professional gamers who earn six-digit incomes play. I found myself sitting next to him watching recorded tournament games while he called the game for me. The various races had different strengths and weaknesses that called for different strategies to have a chance at winning. The variations of gameplay seemed never ending. Watching and discussing those games with him were hours well-spent and great memories.
My second son had a completely opposite approach to computer games. He was non-competitive. He played games for the storyline. When Half Life 2 came out I found myself sitting by his side in his room watching the story unfold. He was at the controls shooting the Combine enemy or driving the various vehicles. There were so many characters and such good story writing that I was able to watch it like a mini-series on tv. Often there was one or two of his little brothers and sisters sitting on my lap watching, too. What a time we had, scared out of our wits in Ravenholm and crying with the death of Alex’s father.
This second son’s taste in games was such that even more family members got involved. There was Final Fantasy 9 where we gave each of the characters in the game our names. Then there was Psychonauts with the delightful children characters training to fight the battles going on in people’s psyches. There was Escape from Monkey Island (pure fun) and Grim Fandango (a delightful journey through the world of the dead). Again, it was only my son who played the game, but the whole family was there watching and discussing it night after night, week after week, until the end. Now quotes from games rank up there with quotes from movies (“How are you doing, because I’m a potato” – Portal 2) .
Most recently we have been playing Mass Effect 3. We have been playing this game for more than a year because my second son is married now and lives fifty miles north of us. We can’t get together all that often. Last night we travelled up for another episode. Six of my eight children were there. We brought pizza and made a night of it. Mass Effect is rich in character development, plot, visual graphics and music. We saw the world of Thessia fall to the Reapers. Commander Shepherd got her butt kicked by Kai Lane, the Elusive Man’s henchman. Nobody has ever kicked her butt before. What a night it was for ages nine through fifty-three. It was a family night.
Sure, there are legitimate unresolved issues with computer games and their effects on families. My wife and I have to actively intervene with the amount of time our younger children spend on the computer. Yet I’ve been lucky to have found games (through my son) that are beautiful, exciting, and creative enough that the whole family has joined together to enjoy them. I would like to take credit and tell you I was brilliant in seeing the family opportunity in computer gaming. The truth is it started accidentally by my natural interest in my kids and the games they were playing. When more of the kids started gathering around it was clear I should be encouraging this. What is typically assumed to be a thing bad for families has turned into something that has made my family stronger.