What's the difference between a good video game parent and a bad one?
In the days and weeks ahead, untold millions of children will play Grand Theft Auto 5, a game that is explicitly designed for adults. If you do not believe that this is true, you don't know children.
Kids always find ways to experiment with adult behaviors, and always have. As a schoolboy in the 1980s, I was fond of degenerate diversions such as smoking, gambling, drinking ... and that was just to pass time on the school bus.
As a former dissolute teenager, I am hardly in a position to castigate today's children for following the same behavior patterns. But now, as a father of four boys, I am in a position to question grown-ups, most especially myself, for shitty parenting.
When it comes to video games, it seems to me that there are three rules for parents. (If I claimed to always follow these rules, I'd be a liar, as you will see.)
1. Always know what they are playing
There are plenty of moms and dads who have no idea what games their children are playing. But special scorn should be heaped on those who know but don't care.
Anyone who works at a games retail outlet has stories about those parents who come in to buy violent or sexually explicit games for their kids, and who are not swayed in the least by any advice that "this product is not really appropriate for children."
Parents who understand but don't care that their small children play games involving murder, strippers, drug use and torture are not likely to be producing ideal citizens. It's not necessarily the case that these games will wreak any lasting damage — they're just video games — only that extended over-exposure to careless parents is rarely an ideal start to life.
If parents don't care what games their kids play, what else is being waved through?
Leaving aside my teenage son, who moves in orbits entirely alien to me and to society as a whole, I always know what games my kids are being exposed to.
That doesn't mean I always make the right choices.
Gazing fondly as my 7-year-old played 'war' in the school playground recently, I heard him yelling, at the top of his lungs, "Terrorists win!" Perhaps I should have been more judicious in allowing such a small child to watch me and the teenager playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Parents and kids are all individuals and it's mostly a question of common sense, of trial and error, but those ESRB ratings really are a good starting point. There's a good reason why the sticker says "For Adults."
2. Try to play with them
I know some amazing people who have spent their formative years playing video games with their parents.
Leaving aside those games that are morally dubious in their outlook, it doesn't seem to matter which games they played, everything from Uno and Kinect Sports to Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft.
Games are good at teaching kids about the value of striving towards a goal, of practicing to achieve perfection. They show how problem solving takes thought, patience and cooperation.
They are also full of trashy stuff, but that doesn't matter, because so is just about everything else, whether that be kids literature or pop music or your favorite sports team.
The game I enjoyed the most with my kids was Quantum Conundrum, in which we solved puzzles together. Now we play Minecraft; there are few games more harmonious and useful to family life.
Even if there is limited utility in video games, the mere act of doing something with your kids, anything, is better than doing nothing with them.
It probably doesn't matter if you venture out on nature hikes or throw a ball about or read a story or play a board game; the mere connection of parent-plus-kid is good.
3. Don't be a dick
That old Larkin line about parents is bang on. There's just no escaping the fact that every day I am doing something, probably the same thing, over and over again, to fuck up my kids.
Most of my parenting effort goes into hiding the truth from my children that I am kind of an asshole. Video games are not often involved, but when they are, it's illustrative.
The kids come sauntering into my den, asking for my time and attention, just at the point when my Civilization 5 empire is going through a medieval rampage of glorious expansion. Can't these brats see that they are interrupting a golden opportunity to seed the very globe with my benevolence?
An offer to name some settlements after their nighttime snugglies can only keep the little barbarians at bay for so long. Sooner or later, reluctantly, I am going to have to abandon my own fun and attend to my pesky responsibilities as a parent.
Turns out, making a video game a higher priority than raising kids is a poor way to parent. This may seem like an obvious point, especially if you are not a parent, but saying and doing are two different things. Putting anything in front of your duties as a parent — work, booze, TV, sports, the need to just sit in a hotel room for a week or two — is non-optimal parenting.
No parent wants their kids to remember them, later in life, back turned, hunched over the dull glare of a screen. In celeb biographies of the future, MMOs will be the new "my father came home late, often smelling of alcohol."
It may be that video games can add to a rounded and positive child-parent relationship and, as the likes of Jane McGonigal remind us, that they contribute immensely to life and health and liberty.
But whether or not you have games in your family life is probably not as good an indicator of your value as a parent, as your capacity for being thoughtless, lazy or selfish.