What it means to be a dad in the age of games, told by game industry dads themselves
For Father's Day, we wanted to share something special: The stories of five fathers, telling us what it's like to be fathers, gamers, and fathers of gamers.
Sharing their stories are five game industry dads:
- Ryan Henson Creighton, creator of Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure (with his daughter's help)
- Raymond Crook, Lead Animator at Double Fine
- Steve Gibson, of Gearbox Software
- Jeff Green, of PopCap Games
- Derek Smart, of 3000AD
- and our very own Brian Crecente, News Editor for Polygon
Their children range in ages from 6 months to 18 years. They are gamers and creators. And these are their own words about their most precious creations.
Happy Father's Day.
Brian Crecente, Polygon
This 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 playsJourney 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?"
Raymond Crook, Double Fine
I'll tell you of an experience I had recently when I was unprepared as a father to sit down with my son and give him The Talk. Questions are running through my head: What age is appropriate and how much detail should I share? My son is 8 years old and he wants answers. I had not prepared him, I thought he was too young, and I was unprepared, but my hand was forced. It was time to explain the complex and sometimes dirty subject of microtransactions.
Through my son's howling and tears, he explains the familiar story of how he sold all of his hard-earned plants to Crazy Dave and blew all of his coinage on that enticing Silver Mystery Box. Oh, it was too much for an 8-year-old boy's imagination. Second grade taught him the word "mystery" and this Silver Box was full of it, with its promise of a 50 percent chance that it contains seeds of something he doesn't already have in his arsenal. Hmm, he thinks ... 50 percent, that's like a lot because 50 is a lot. An 8-year-old boy's brain is like my home tool box: it contains enough tools to hang a towel rack and do the small jobs, but the hollow hex bits, and digital calipers, just aren't at their disposal.
"Dad, Digger's Diamond Mine is only $3.99, it's at the best value!" the boy says, breaking out his limited knowledge of smart consumerism. "I need it! I really, really need it!" I quietly say, "No." "Please!" he cries, "Please!" Again my answer is no. "I'll do anything, anything!" he screams. "I just really, really need it!" It's time for a lesson in patience and tempering desires.
Through the pleading and tears I explain, "Son, this is how they get you to spend your money." When I say "they," I realize I am a part of "they"; it's my industry. I didn't say that out loud, by the way, but my home and professional worlds were colliding in a way in which I was unprepared because fatherhood exposed me to this new perspective. I love my job and I love my industry. I also love my son and want to prepare him for real life and to teach him to temper his desires. The fact is, it's my job as a parent to police what my child does, what he's exposed to, and for how long. The way I have balanced my worlds colliding is by demystifying microtransactions and explaining what's in the secret sauce. My hope is that he will know the industry motivation and that he'll be able to temper his desires by mindfully buying Digger's Diamond Mine or earning the points the slower way. Either way, he knows the secret sauce and can make an educated decision with my guidance, which will hopefully lead to similar logic for all decisions, big and small.
So despite my initial fumbling, I rallied, but what I forget is that a child's concept of time is so different from mine. An hour to me is like 14 years to a child. When a child is asked to wait for their money to accumulate again so they can get a new Sun Flower for their Zen Garden, you might as well tell him to go outside and watch the grass grow. We don't actually have grass because we live in a condo. Microtransactions are a proven business model with a reliable ROI. It's not going away, so I do embrace it. My hope is that microtransactions will be successful enough that my son and I can play on our very own grass and watch it grow together.
Jeff Green, PopCap
There are many awesome things about being a father. Like having someone call you "daddy" without having to pay for it. Or teaching your kids all sorts of wrong stuff - like "2 + 2 = salami" - just to mess with them in a way you can laugh with your buddies about later over beer.
Not everything is awesome, though. If you're a gamer, prepare for your life to be pretty much over once you have a kid. Well, not "over," really. I guess that's kind of harsh. Let's say "barely worth living," just to prevent any angry responses here.
One thing you'll immediately note, as a new parent, is that "just a second!" is a phrase that immediately holds no water anymore. If your partner is in the middle of dealing with a catastrophic diaper, don't expect a whole lot of sympathy if you haven't quite reached the next Rayman checkpoint yet. (This is why noise-canceling headphones are a must-have for any new parent. You can't exactly help out when you can't hear what's going on, can you?)
You can forget, too, about any big time-consuming gaming events, like a WoW raid, as your gaming time is going to be reduced to tiny, bite-sized chunks, squeezed in when the kid is finally asleep, or your partner (in this case, hopefully your wife) is breast-feeding, or they're out shopping at the market or whatever the heck people who go outside and take care of things do. These are your moments. This is what you have to live for now. As soon as the coast is clear, you must beeline immediately to your console or PC or handheld device and game as fast as you can, because before you know it, they're going to be back, demanding stuff from you again. I cannot tell you how annoying this is.
Don't expect it to get any better or easier when the kid gets older, either. One big problem is that as they get older, you get older. Which means by the time they're finally self-sufficient enough that you don't really have to pay attention to them anymore, you realize that all your gaming skills have so totally atrophied, and you get so tired so early, that all you're good for is like a couple rounds of Bejeweled (hi boss!) before you pass out in a puddle of your own drool. At 8 p.m.
It's even worse if your kid is a gamer too. Because then, not only are they using the machine that you paid for, but, if you're playing games with them, they're probably kicking your ass, too. It's like the worst of everything.
My kid is 18 now and leaving for college in two months. I'm dreading her departure. If you're a new parent, enjoy every goddamn second of it, will you? For me? Because it goes by way too fucking fast.
All I'm left with now are these horrible memories.
Ryan Henson Creighton, Untold Entertainment
There's a lot of paranoia about technology and video games floating around out there, as I suppose there's always been. At one time, I'm sure teachers feared the newly invented chalkboard and decried it as a tool of Satan. I used to teach technology in elementary schools in the late '90s, and I was dismayed at the state of computer instruction at that time.
Now that I have two daughters of my own, I was keen to visit my 6-year-old's school to discover how computer education had evolved in the intervening fifteen years.
Many of the parents in downtown Toronto have had their kids late in their lives. They're still largely technophobes, having come of age a few years too early, before the advent of the Internet Age. It's from these people that I hear the common, obnoxious refrain: "My 6-year-old knows more about computers than I do!" Yes. Yes, she does. There's a real fear of technology, for good or for ill, and the standard tactic is to limit screen time, to busy your kids with gymnastics and organized sports, and to remain largely ignorant of what goes on down the "Information Superhighway" in "Cyberspace," which is apparently accessed via a "series of tubes."
I have a different approach to parenting my children. I've read the reports that suggest that increased screen time limits kids' ability to focus on tasks for long periods of time. I've heard the alarmists shouting that soon, kids will no longer be able to hold a pen or read a long-form novel. And that's okay. Because while elementary schools continued to teach children how to write cursive with ball-point pens, the world had moved on.
It was once thought that only people who were "good with computers" would go into some sort of "computer field" when they were older. Today, every adult I know, regardless of occupation, uses a computer throughout the work day, and again through much of the evening for recreation. Every single one. If the computer is now common to most occupations and lives here in Canada, why do so many of our schools have twenty comparatively ancient machines for every three hundred students, relegated to a lab or a library to which teachers have access twice a week, which periods they treat as prep time while their students amuse themselves with software like Reader Rabbit (1986)?
Instead of fleeing from the future, or expecting my kids to pick up computer skills in the later grades of high school, I am actively and deliberately immersing them in the new interactive screen-based world. At my house, we play games - all of us play games - often together. Video games, board games, games at the dinner table ... guessing games, trivia games, racing games (both real and virtual). I want my daughters to be able to type before they can write. I want them to be able to program a computer before they reach the fifth grade. I want them to embrace a fast-paced world in which they're expected to juggle tasks, catch on quickly, ask questions, and successfully search for knowledge.
I have nothing against physical activity (my daughters swim, skate, and ride their bikes), but I won't indulge an educational system that will not, cannot, move on. Latin is a dead language. Cursive writing is a dead form. I can count on one hand the number of times this year that I've had to write on a piece of paper to communicate. When I was in grade school in the 1980s, our ancient desks had holes in their tops for holding ink pots. I'm a dad who embraces new technology and the new world economy in the hopes that my kids will have a distinct edge when The Future - their future - arrives.
And then, when the zombie apocalypse hits and the lights go out, they'll be completely hosed.
Steve Gibson, Gearbox Software
Being someone who works in the field, I tend to often feel some extra responsibility for how my daughter will eventually be introduced to the world of video games. I imagine as time goes on, we'll see the perception of our medium continue to transform from "for kids" to "for everyone," which will be nice.
To me, one of the biggest points of confusion and contention about this industry is the all-too-common assumption that any game created is done so with children as the audience in mind. Things tend to go off the rails from there.
There are all kinds of games with all kind of audiences in mind, just like many other forms of entertainment. I'm excited to one day enjoy some games with my daughter as she gets older, but at 6 months, I've barely got her trained to hold a cigarette.
Derek Smart, 3000AD
I have been a gamer for longer than most and I remember hours lost playing Pong or shoveling streams of quarters into machines running Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Tempest,Battlezone, Galaga, and the like.
In those days, we never had to worry about violence, nudity, or profanity in games. Never had to worry about bringing our kids to the arcades to play games or to wander off and let them play on their own whatever they fancied.
Most of us from back in the day didn't even have girlfriends, let alone wives or children. That was the age of our videogame innocence.
The ESRB wasn't anyone's figment of imagination and the government didn't care about a bunch of geeks tucked snugly somewhere between a niche entertainment category and geekdom. No, the government was busy fighting and/or regulating porn, marijuana, and teenage drinking.
They never saw us coming.
Somewhere on the way to progress, technology caught up with the hardware and soon the software to match followed. Games became big business. And with that came the unbridled creativity and aspirations to make bigger, better, and in some cases, more profound games.
As the father of a pre-teen daughter, I never once thought that I had to worry about what games she had access to, let alone was playing. While the arcade has largely made way for mobile and web games for children, the key issue for me is not what she is playing - because I know what she is playing. No, the key issue for me is what she can inadvertently have access to. Either through innocent browsing, through friends, or through aggressive marketing.
The ESRB system is an inside joke, designed to appease someone's peace of mind and to prevent our industry from being government regulated. The sad truth is that our industry - as largely irresponsible as it is - is quite incapable of self-regulation. We know it. The government knows it. Our kids know it.
Don't take my word for it. Instead, look no farther than the recent shocking Habbo Hotelfiasco.
As a parent, I cannot rely on the ESRB or the government to protect my child from inappropriate content and games. Only I can do that. It's not fun, because I get to explain - usually in confusing details - why she can't play certain games, even if they are for her age group or because the (largely ineffective) ESRB says so.
As a "gamer dad" and videogame developer of over twenty years, I admit that I am sometimes ashamed of where we as an industry are today. And the sad truth is that there is no going back.
I am lucky that I have a daughter who has the right upbringing from both her parents, and so we never have to worry too much about whether or not she is violating our rules about the type of games she should be playing, let alone have access to. We don't worry that she will disobey us and play them behind our backs, at school or at a friend's house. We are lucky because we get to be parents and as such it remains our duty to protect our children.