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I’m turning my Steam backlog into summer camp for my two kids

Wish me luck

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Cities Skylines Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The last three months of this school year felt more like three years. Despite that, the kids have taken our quarantine fairly well. The 10-year-old digs Zoom now, and my six-year-old is getting pretty handy with the Wacom tablet. But summer ... summer is going to be hard. Where I live in northern Illinois, social distancing is still in effect, and will be for some time. Everything — softball, volleyball, sleep-away camp — is canceled. My kids basically can’t leave the yard. So I’ve decided to get creative: I’m turning my Steam backlog into a kind of summer camp.

I got the idea a few weeks ago when my youngest daughter walked into the bathroom while I was fixing the toilet. She poked her head around the corner just as I’d taken the lid off the tank to adjust the flapper.

“Wait,” she said, leaning in close while I held the porcelain shelf off to one side, “why is that full of water?” What followed was one of those teachable moments that every parent dreams about.

Five minutes later we were standing in the basement, tracing the lines of copper pipes that run up through the floorboards to the second story. Ten minutes after that we were outside looking into the storm drain with a flashlight. My youngest daughter had been running around the house for years, but that one moment of curiosity revealed her entire living space to be an intricate set of interconnected systems. It also got her to stop using so much toilet paper, but I digress.

An aerial view of a city in Cities Skylines. The structures are all white boxes, and a colorful overlay shows how traffic is flowing on arterial roads.
Cities: Skylines
Image: Colossal Order/Paradox Interactive

That’s when I started thinking about Cities Skylines, a game that I’ve been meaning to spend more time with for years now. The city-building genre has always been about systems, and each of those systems is another opportunity for me to reveal something new to my kids about the world around them. Our journey began with roads.

When you boot up Cities Skylines for the first time, before even a single new citizen has moved in, the game provides you with several different kinds of roads that you can build. My girls initially thought they were all interchangeable, so the first challenge was explaining why they weren’t. But Cities Skylines goes a step further, providing multiple informational overlays for us to toggle through. Not only can you track an individual citizen to and from their place of employment, but you can also look for traffic bottlenecks along the way.

Our town is already up to around 700 residents, and traffic is starting to become a problem. That has me planning for our first field trip. We’ll be taking a box of crayons and some paper out for a drive around town. The girls are eager to sample local round-abouts, four-lane intersections, cloverleafs and more in order to try and work them into the design of our town. Then we’ll experiment across multiple saved games, checking in with our little citizens to see if we’ve been able to cut down their commute.

Next on the docket is sitting down with my oldest to talk more about economic systems, like loans and taxes and property values. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll also be able to get her engaged in learning about some of the social issues that make funding public schools in the United States so anachronistic and problematic.

For my kids, however, interest in a given video game never lasts that long. Just a few weeks back, K.K. Slider showed up in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and since then the family’s interest in the Stalk Market has started to wane. I’ll be lucky if I get a month out of Cities Skylines before it devolves into a lovely little ant farm. So I’m already on the lookout for the next game that we can all play together.

A Kerbal dressed like the Apollo 13 chief flight director Gene Kranz, white vest and all. Image: Squad

Kerbal Space Program looks like a good bet, with its physics-based gameplay and Lego-like construction system. There’s enough real-world activity with NASA and SpaceX in the news right now that it shouldn’t be too hard to find some inspiration. I’ll just need to spend some time brushing up on the controls before I try and teach them both how to dive in.

Meanwhile, the English major in me is looking for kid-friendly narrative experiences as well, something that can inspire a story or a piece of art. Perhaps we’ll dip into more emotive puzzle games like Far: Lone Sails or The Witness. Maybe we’ll go exploring in The Flame in the Flood, trying to find creative solutions to the survival problems we find along the way. There are also evocative experiences that teach something akin to programming, games like Factorio and a personal favorite, Duskers.

Just like my daughter staring into the toilet tank, I’m seeing the games that I’ve been sitting on for years in a very different light. Summer locked up at home with two curious kids suddenly doesn’t seem as dire as it did in the first place.

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