I’ve got the best Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card of all time. My wife – not me, the guy who works in the video-game industry – introduced our sons to video games. So far, the boys’ catalog consists of a few iPad apps starring the Doras and Diegos and Elmos that populate their world, but the day’s soon coming when they’ll graduate to more serious fare.

Then I’ll have to step up like a responsible adult and further their education.

A lot of people already struggle with how to introduce kids to our frequently hyper-violent hobby. A decade from now, everyone will need an answer to those questions.

This situation isn’t unique to me. The average age of your typical gamer falls in the mid-30s range, prime parenting territory, and 67% of American households contain one or more game-playing individuals. A lot of people already struggle with how to introduce kids to our frequently hyper-violent hobby. A decade from now, everyone will need an answer to those questions.

It helps that I’ll play right alongside the boys, but it’s a point of honor that I get this transition right. Kids learn through play. I have to pick out the lessons I want to impart. At the same time, whatever I present shouldn’t present psychedelic lightshows, cannot include curb-stomped exploding heads, and must be awesome, or they’ll check out entirely. That’s a tricky juggle. And like “The Talk,” I’ve got to lead this conversation early to preempt some snot-nosed 3rd grader explaining the facts of Battlefield to my unprepared children.

This is exactly how I’ll do it.


Happy Action Theater

Want a demonstration in serious fantasy role-playing? Watch a kid for five minutes. A cushion on the lap turns the entire couch into a boat. Coat hangers become umbrellas. Curtains open to an arena of rock fans ready for a good face melting. And no video game understands this better than Happy Action Theater.

The Xbox 360’s Kinect camera peripheral essentially puts your entire room (and everyone in it) on your TV, then Happy Action Theater overlays your real-time action with some fairly wild scenarios. One fills your room with knee-high lava – grab a handful and fling it like a fireball. Another encourages you to flatten a city Godzilla-style. Then the game drops a hundred red playground balls on you to kick around, turns everyone into living fireworks, or drops you under the sea. And if you play on the automatic setting, Happy Action Theater switches between all 18 modes at random every minute or two.

Sure, it’s really more a toy than a game, but who cares? Happy Action Theater offers zero bar to entry and no goals other than to have fun. Perfect for a young kid who wants to go, not stop. And that’s every kid. Even if your child’s on the quiet side, Happy Action Theater will encourage them jump right in and engage.

Not every mode feels like a winner, but at its best, Happy Action Theater puts the ideas in a child’s head up on the TV and lets you play just like they do, driven by pure, unpredictable imagination.

Journey

Jenova Chen doesn’t make uninteresting games, though sometimes “interactive art” hits closer to the mark. He and his team take exploration as a basic concept and infuse it with emotion in subtle but profound ways, delivering small experiences that feel monumental.

Pure, unpredictable imagination.

All of which will zoom clear over my 5-and-3-year-olds’ heads. But in Journey, they’ll get a dramatic, gentle, and literal sandbox to play in. The game centers on a robed stranger heading for a shining beacon on a faraway mountaintop – very biblical – and exploring a series of desert ruins along the way. No timers. No difficult puzzles. Very few threats. Which means you’re at liberty to just breathe and amuse yourself without worry or hurry. It even strips down to an elegantly simple control scheme.

And as an introduction to multiplayer, Journey‘s seamless, online co-op can’t be beat. Players just suddenly wander into each others’ games (no voice communication allowed, so no worries there). That’s exactly how kids start playing with each other. Journey lets them walk up to another kid and say “Hello,” even if it comes out as a single note that echoes across a sand dune.

You can’t find a wrong way to play Journey, and that’s important to a kid. They don’t have to clear any of the puzzles if they don’t want to. They can skip to an interesting area and enjoy the freeing sense of flight along its corridors. Or sing and play with the magical scraps of cloth floating in the air. Or hop around tooting notes aimlessly. The real beauty in Journey is that the destination doesn’t matter nearly as much as the path you take…and the discoveries you make on the way.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii U

Hey, I don’t need to teach my kids anything about jumping on stuff. But aside from instilling a respect for the classics, I’ve got a few ulterior motives for introducing my boys to the bright and cheery wonders of Mario.

The general goals of a 2D Mario game pretty much assert themselves — go to the right, done – and drop-in/drop-out play ranks as an absolute must, given how “MINE!” is a child’s primary response to stimuli. But most importantly, a Mario side-scroller gets them sitting on the couch and competing, cooperating, talking to each other, playing and succeeding together. Much like they do now, only with less real-world kicking and whining. Me and Mommy can even join in, if that’s not too uncool.

The deft combination of direct goals, hidden secrets, and messy action pretty much mirrors the alpha and the omega of a young child’s life philosophy.

And while I listed a more recent iteration, it really doesn’t matter which Super Mario Bros. game you queue up. The gameplay might be opposite of revolutionary at this point, but they all fulfill the same basic function with the same grace and charm. The deft combination of direct goals, hidden secrets, and messy action pretty much mirrors the alpha and the omega of a young child’s life philosophy. Maybe that’s what makes Mario such an important rite of passage…and an essential co-op experience. Particularly once you subtract all the options featuring chainsaw dismemberments.

The real argument will be over who gets to be Mario. Answer: Me.

Portal

Games make you solve problems. Games like Grand Theft Auto make you solve problems with flamethrowers and vehicular manslaughter. Games like Portal, on the other hand, make you think. Then they make you think differently.

Where many titles stick you in a room and make you react to things, Portal makes you figure that room out. Your portal gun creates wormhole doors in nearly any solid surface – step through Point A, instantly step out of Point B. Only, reaching the exit is never so straight-forward, and the game offers no hints. You must employ a variety of physics-based tricks to get where you want to go. It rarely requires lightning reflexes or perfect aim, but brains? Oh, yes. Bring those.

Broken down to its essentials, Portal is a puzzle game, albeit one where you fling yourself hundreds of feet through the air to clear a wall. And like all good puzzles, Portal makes you stretch your brain, apply what you’ve learned, and connect new ideas together.

The level of menace increases sharply as you progress – it’ll definitely encourage kids to trust their suspicions when a stranger offers candy — so I wouldn’t roll this one out on everybody’s fifth birthday. But even when Portal‘s tests take on lethal consequences, your mind remains your best weapon. As it should be.

Bastion

Sure, all that happy-rainbows-and-hippies crap sounds nice, but I’ve still got to prep for the day when my boys want to killstreak their way to a deployable sentry gun. So when they’re older, they get Bastion.

Bastion is a throwback to (and a significant evolution of) the isometric shooters of old, but with a 21st century awareness of its own actions. You play as The Kid, one of a handful of survivors from a cataclysm that left his world a surreal patchwork of floating, broken islands. His job, as beautifully narrated by another survivor, involves collecting resources needed to power the Bastion, the last hope for their shattered civilization.

Yes, you start off shooting interesting creatures and segue into shooting hostile people. But unlike the faceless hordes of terrorist alien zombies other games throw into your crosshairs, the opposition in Bastion has a legitimate case for stopping The Kid, sympathetic grievances, and understandable fears regarding his mission. The player’s choices determine whether or not they’re ultimately right. Because past all the gunplay, Bastion is about consequences, responsibility, and the power of forgiveness.

That tips the violence from trigger-happy rampage to reluctant self-defense, an unfortunate-but-necessary concept kids need to internalize. As added bonus, Bastion‘s RPG-style economy might just instill a little financial responsibility before they start blowing their allowance on video games.

Rus McLaughlin has written for Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, GamePro, GamesBeat, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and IGN. He currently works on the PlayStation 4 team for Sony. Follow Rus on Twitter.

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