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Face it; children are a mystery. Like so many superhero costumes delivered to us out of the blue by invisible alien benefactors, they arrive without instruction booklets, yet we’re expected to somehow shape them into respectable wetware with no guidance other than a desire to avoid repeating the same mistakes that were made on us. As a trial-and-error process, parenthood ranks right up there with explosive ordinance disposal, piloting the space shuttle, and cobra wrangling; you really only get one shot at it, and personally, my money’s on the cobra.

Back in 2001, a few days after the release of Grand Theft Auto III, I was busy plumbing the depths of the game’s satirical wit and sandbox exploration when I was briefly called away to answer the phone, or a knock at the door, or some other irrelevant nonsense; realize only that one minute I was alone in the living room with my safely preoccupied three-year-old son and Grand Theft Auto, and the next I wasn’t. The place was baby-proofed, to be sure, sockets covered, lead paint chips long since consumed by Test Child Alpha (sorry to see him go, really), so it was generally acceptable for the offspring to remain alone for no longer than one-point-seven-six minutes with a maximum parental separation radius (MPSR) of eighteen feet. Any longer than that and Misadventure would not only court Disaster, but they’d soon find themselves waking up together in a seedy motel room, all vodka-eyed and disturbingly devoid of memory. I returned well within the established time limit, never letting the top of his round, Charlie Brown head out of my sight. Father of the year, I.

So imagine my dismay – indeed, my blithering horror – when I discovered that the little opportunist had stealthily discarded his Blue’s Clues Sing-A-Long Radio in exchange for my PS2 controller, and was happily tooling around the streets of Liberty City. Had I returned to find him slurping tequila-lime Jell-O shots off Dora the Explorer’s exposed midriff, I would have been slightly less mortified.

I reached for the controller in one of those closed-loop, slow-motion eternities of parental relativity in which I had sufficient time to not only contemplate the nature of the Universe, but also to extrapolate the exact chemical compositions of Spam and Joan Rivers. (One has fewer preservatives. Take a guess.) Imagine jumping on the back of a tortoise in Seattle to stop a friend in Miami from making a horrible mistake, say, downloading Boom Boom Rocket, and you’ll have an idea of the maddening suspense.

I was about to leap in front of the screen, all Secret Service-style, to shield him from the most vile wickedness perpetrated upon humanity since four guys gathered in a garage somewhere and called themselves White Lion, but then I glanced at the TV and stopped for a moment. Not only was he driving around Liberty City, he seemed pretty good at it, taking care to maneuver past the other cars when he could, but also making a special, painstaking effort to avoid pedestrians. It was a bit touch-and-scream for a while there, as the concept of braking seemed to elude him as thoroughly as does the concept of putting away his toys, but on the whole he did a pretty good job.

Intrigued, I did what any unsupervised dad would have done in that situation; I let him play. And I watched.

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Oh, there were explosions. Police chases. Many hospital visits. There was frustration, but mostly he laughed at my horrified reactions to his Steve McQueen driving style, and not once during his relatively brief time with the game did he try to hurt anyone, or ask how to use the weapons, or blow anyone up. He took pride in his many near-misses, his pajama-clad legs bouncing up and down excitedly on the couch with the exhilaration of speed and the discovery of a budding skill. What ultimately ended the experience for him wasn’t my brooding fatherly concern, but rather his own disappointment at plowing across a crowded sidewalk and up against a building. At the point where he “hurt” people he didn’t want to play anymore, so he handed back the controller with an indifferent shrug and resumed his Blue’s Clues karaoke session.

After performing a cursory check of his spine (yup, still straight), and feeling his head for burgeoning nubs of horns (none yet), I breathed a sigh of relief.

The fact that my son was left apparently unscathed by a six-minute stint with GTA III is hardly the point. He’s still a work-in-progress, after all, but I know that if any game can turn him from someone I respect and admire into a slavering minion of Gozer, it will be because I omitted more than a few vital ingredients from the parental bouillabaisse. After all, character is not determined by what we play, but is instead revealed by how we play.

What I learned about my son that day might not have been especially noteworthy, except that today, seven years later, I know him still. I know that I-Ninja was the first game he finished on his own, four times now, and that he’s as familiar with the levels of Psychonauts and Super Mario Sunshine as he is the rooms of our house. I know that we saw Transformers (yes, Michael Bay’s Transformers) five times in the theater, and that he wasn’t even remotely interested in the Decepticons version of the DS game. I know that he can smoke me at “Strutter” on Guitar Hero II, but that he’s no good at all with “Message in a Bottle.” I know that his favorite Power Rangers have always been Red, and I know that he’s a master Bionicles builder with a patient, meticulous nature and a mind for problem-solving. And I know that gratuitous villainy and destruction have no place in his heart.

I know these things, and I know him, because I watch him play. Not that it’s always easy, or fun; countless hours of “hey Dad, watch this!” can grate your nerves to a fine Ped-Egg powder, let me tell you.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose patience, but fortunately that great parental equalizer, perspective, comes rushing back to whisper a truth that I cannot escape; that someday he’ll not live here anymore, and that I should savor every moment while I can.

So I pick up the plastic guitar, or we draw goofy pictures back and forth in PictoChat while sitting two feet away from each other, or I watch him clear a planet in Super Mario Galaxy. I watch him play because if we’re smart, that’s what dads do; we learn about the people our kids have become, holding on to the things we can hold on to, and inevitably letting go of everything else.

Matt Turano is a freelance cat whisperer who’s never harvested a little sister.

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