My 7-year-old daughter is, I expect, a typical child of a gamer parent. On a rainy afternoon she's as inclined to curl up with a DS and Animal Crossing as she is to switch on the television. She's equally pleased when playing with Play-Dough or sculpting virtual landscapes in Viva Pinata. And she's just as likely to fire up a Reader Rabbit title on the PC as she is to read a book.
I monitor her gaming habits, of course. Gears of War stays on the top shelf of the entertainment center, and I'm quick to turn her attention elsewhere before her play sessions reach marathon lengths. But otherwise, I've got few qualms about her pursuit of the same hobby I enjoy. In fact, I'm thrilled we have this interest in common. And I'll admit I've encouraged it.
I've recently learned this makes me something of a pariah among non-gaming parents.
The realization occurred during a fundraising event at my daughter's elementary school, where I found myself chatting amicably with a few of her classmates' parents. Somehow the conversation turned to videogames and their widespread appeal among the elementary school set. I was all set to jump headlong into the conversation, when my initial rush of enthusiasm was dampened by a chorus of universally skeptical, even hostile remarks.
Every adult involved in the conversation, as well as several who had been listening casually on the sidelines, suddenly had something to say about kids and videogames. And none of it was positive.
"It actually kind of creeps me out," said one father, speaking of his son's GameBoy proclivities. "It's like when he's got his face in that thing he's completely and totally oblivious." Other parents nodded. An exasperated mother chimed in: "My teenage daughter has a DS she takes to school, a PlayStation in her room and then there's the computer. She even has games on her cell phone!" Observations along the lines of "Man, we didn't have all that stuff when we were young" were soon followed by dark musings on the state of youthful minds. "I wonder," said one father, shaking his head with grim resignation, "how these kids will ever make it in the real world."
My initial contribution to the conversation was silence, but when I recovered from the barrage of negativity I managed to blurt out a statement that effectively ended the conversation.
"I think videogames are great," I said.
Silence. Blank stares. And so I added, "And it really doesn't bother me if my daughter plays them. I mean, as long as they're appropriate for her age and I make sure she doesn't overdo it, I don't see what the big deal is."
If I'd been close friends with any of those folks, we probably could have had a good-natured debate on the subject. Instead, in the company of relative strangers, my rather tactless pronouncement was met mostly by raised eyebrows. With the exception of a mom who apologetically admitted that back in the day she'd played a mean game of Mario Bros., the rest of the group just shuffled their feet nervously, smiled weakly, or looked away until someone changed the subject.
I've had the opposite experience, of course, upon discovering that a fellow parent was also an enthusiastic gamer. But those have been much less common. Even among the 20- and 30-somethings contributing to the current baby boom, there's often a deep undercurrent of distrust and paranoia about videogames.
It'd be easy to write off these parental misgivings as a natural result of the negative game-related perceptions that have dominated the media and political landscapes in recent years. I don't think it's quite that simple, though. Just as I don't believe parental attitudes are the driving force behind game-regulating legislation, I don't believe most adults truly think videogames hurt kids. I think that distrust of gaming comes from someplace else, someplace much more personal.
These unsettled parents weren't complaining about the content of their kids' games. Instead, they were distressed by the distance they felt as they watched their kids wholly entranced by experiences they didn't understand or relate to. For them, the image of a youth focused intently on a screen, thumbs twitching with enthusiasm, symbolized an unsettling generational divide they weren't sure they'd be able to bridge. They were worried they were being left on the outside of their kids' worlds, looking in.
All parents face the inescapable fact that their influence in their kid's lives will diminish. For some parents games represent a powerful reminder of this fact. By their very nature, games provide engaging, rewarding experiences that to outsiders seem foreign, insular and even antisocial. Although gaming gets blamed for all manner of problems, it's this fear of disconnection that truly preoccupies parents.
In recent years much of the gaming industry has focused on expanding the gaming demographic by providing simpler, more accessible games that appeal to a wider range of players. And many of these efforts to draw in new audiences have been met with huge success. Nintendo's hardware is the prime example, of course, owing to its family-friendly marketing and emphasis on lighthearted, intuitive play. The thing is, Nintendo's selling more than just fun and games. They're selling a connection between parents and their kids. And in some respects, that connection is real.
Gaming parents typically light up with enthusiasm when they're asked about playing games with their kids. They're thrilled, entertained and often amazed by the experiences they've shared with their children. Who, as it turns out, feel exactly the same way.