“You should join us for Hearthstone,” my friend said last night. The baby in my arms, the one who refuses to sleep and just wants to be walked around the house, disagreed.
Hearthstone is actually a game that's very parent-friendly. The matches are relatively short, and the ability to play on a tablet means you can take the game with you while rocking someone to sleep. You’re given a relatively long amount of time to take your turns, which means someone getting up to get a drink of water or to use the bathroom in the middle of the night won’t ruin the game.
Keep in mind that children have the bad habit of sometimes waking up suddenly, only to vomit all over themselves. It's a thing. With five kids there’s around a five percent chance that it’s going to happen on any given night, give or take. I'm sometimes tempted to ask developers how easy it will be to leave their game if this happens, and I'm stuck on bath and laundry duties while cleaning said puke off the bedding and the child themselves.
If you want to test your partner's love, or their own dedication to game, try to explain an unlucky save point while they're covered in some form of child-based excretion.
You play differently when you have children of any age, but younger children are a deal-breaker for some of the most popular titles. It’s not something you hear designers talk about, but there are things done that all but exclude parents from participation. If matches are long, if your teammates depend on you, or if you can't save your game at any time? Those games won't last long in the houses of many new parents.
Every game we play has to be viewed through the lens of how easily or difficult it is to pause, to walk away for five minutes, or to suddenly stop a session. If you deliver a game that be can be saved at any time, that allows the game to be paused, and limits the amount of annoyance you cause other players by your absence, you're doing the parents of the world a favor.
This isn't to say that these design challenges should be rules or requirements, I'm not going to rage against games that reward long matches played online just because they're not welcoming to my personal circumstances, but it's something that parents have to think about, and it rarely comes up during a discussion of what a game does well, or handles poorly. Is this game parent friendly? Will I be hurting other players if I have to leave suddenly?
Hell, the consoles themselves are becoming more friendly to parents. Both the Xbox One and PS4 allow you to hit a single button and suspend a game. No menu, no bullshit, just suspend and go take care of business. May the gods bless them.
It's always a struggle
My personal case also borders on the extreme. With five children of all different ages I'm always struggling with what they want to play versus what I'd like them to play as well as I'd like to play versus what is realistic in this situation.
I used to love the tension of games like Dead Rising, and the need to find a bathroom in which to save. The longer you went without saving you game the more you had to lose, and the more tension you felt while being overwhelmed and trying to escape. The classic Resident Evil titles required you to collect ink ribbons which allowed you to save at a typewriter; a mechanic that turns save points into both game play and a finite resource.
You play differently when you have children of any age
Players wouldn’t tolerate that sort of thing now for a variety of reasons, and it would make the game unplayable for me today. But I remember enjoying the cleverness of the system when I was much younger, and my evenings were spent happily gaming with few other responsibilities.
The days of simply trying games are over, and the need to carefully plan your gaming time while sneaking in what you can have arrived. It’s rarely discussed when someone is thinking about having a child, but young children will often wake up at random times and cover themselves, and everything around them, in vomit. It’s a thing. You never know when it’s coming.
to the rescue
3: Ultimate Evil Edition on the 4 is currently my go-to evening game. It’s the platonic ideal of everything I want out of a parenting-friendly game: It’s fun in short bursts or on the rare nights where a marathon is possible. I can quit at any time and the game saves my progress, so if I’m called away suddenly it’s no big deal. You can give the game 30 minutes or so and gain a level and find some loot, and be satisfied by your session. Friends can jump in and out on a whim.
Diablo 3 is also simple to play, especially when you’re soloing at the lower levels. It’s meditative, allowing you to cut through swaths of enemies while leveling up your character and zone out a bit.
It allows me to shrug off the worries of the day and the stress of lunches, sick kids, getting everyone to school on time, school supplies, and everything else. If I were to put together the perfect survival kit for new parents I would include a copy of Diablo 3 on consoles. It’s my reward at the end of every day, and I've used it as such for enough days that the title screen itself calms me down, like the smell of a lit candle before a bath.
Parenting is hard work, and no one is arguing that game design needs to change to adapt to your life as you raise children. On the other hand, finding games that fit the life of a parent is an amazing thing, and it's fun to share games that fit that description.
You don't have to give up gaming when you're a parent, and in many ways the simple act of valuing your time helps you become a more mindful gamer, but with school starting back up and the pressures of watching a baby while also getting a kid ready for kindergarten and another in middle school and everything in between, I especially treasure games that fit into my life.
These may be few and far between, but they can feel like holding onto a life preserver in the midst of some very rough seas.