If you're reading this, you've probably guessed that I'm a gamer, but you might not know this is my first Father's Day. My wife, Lauren, and I welcomed our daughter, Lyra, on April 4 of this year. Being a new dad means many things: love, transformation, new identities, new roles, new responsibilities, and so much more. But what does it mean to be a dad and a gamer?
The word "gamer," frankly, has a lot of baggage.
For years, it was only a term for children. Then, teenagers. Then, lazy or developmentally-stunted "basement-dwellers." Over time, it started becoming a term the media, especially right-wing outlets like Fox News, started associating with real-life killers (which is false and offensive, by the way). However, as nerd culture started taking over the mainstream, the word gamer has started to lose some of its former stigma, and we're even starting to see successful adults identify with video games, like Frank Underwood on House of Cards (even if he does feel the need to hide his hobby). Gaming has grown up.
The word "father," though, comes with its own subtext and connotations.
"Father" means many things: teacher, rule-setter, friend, guide, philosopher, and comedian. Fathers have to know the way on the road trip, be able to solve the tough problems, help provide food and shelter, and help bandage that skinned knee. They need to be the solid rock for their children to lean on in tough times, the person who can pick them up when they fall sleep in the car, and the one who can teach them all sorts of stuff they didn't even know they had to know.
When video games were in their infancy, it was rare for gamers to be men, let alone fathers. Thankfully, as generations have grown up with and evolved alongside video games, we now have dads and moms who identify as both parents and gamers. This has interesting implications for both parent and child.
As a kid, I remember getting my first Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and playing Super Mario Bros. with my own father. To this day, it's one of the few games he really enjoys, (although I do remember him giving L.A. Noire a try a few years ago, as he enjoys classic cars). Trading off levels as Mario and Luigi with him in those early days of my own gaming history is a memory I've always remembered fondly.
While I graduated to Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and beyond, the hobby became much more my own. My family would watch movies and television together, but gaming was something that became part of my own identity, not my family's or father's.
Even so, I often thought about what it would be like to have my own children and the role that games might play in that relationship. Would I still play games after having kids? Would those hypothetical kids like playing games? Would games still exist in the future? How would I introduce my kids to games without forcing the hobby on them?
Of course, having an 11-week old daughter has helped answer at least a few of those questions: yes, I still play games, and, yes, games still exist (in fact, they're only growing in popularity). Other questions, though, won't be answered until farther in the future, like how I might introduce Lyra to gaming—although I have some thoughts on the matter, which I'll get to in a bit. But a question I hadn't thought of before is: what will gaming mean to my daughter if it becomes something we end up sharing as an interest compared to what it meant to me as a mainly solitary pursuit? And what might games even look like when she's older?
As a technology-based hobby, it's inevitable that change has been a constant part of gaming: hardware advances, graphics improve, controllers evolve, and storytelling in games continues to reach new heights. But I could have told you all that would be the case ten years ago. What I couldn't have predicted was the explosive rise of mobile/casual games that has drastically changed the landscape, particularly for kids. Dedicated consoles and handhelds aren't dead yet (just look at the sales of the PS4 and 3DS for proof), but I don't honestly know if they will live forever.
In the mid-2000s, it was commonplace to see kids with Nintendo DS systems out in public: at restaurants, at the mall, etc. You might even see the occasional PSP. The Nintendo Wii was a mainstay of holiday toy lists, and the PS3 and Xbox 360 weren't far behind. And while current gaming hardware still sells, it's hard to ignore the fact that nearly every young kid I see out in public has an iPhone, iPad, or other mobile device. Seeing a young 3DS owner is rare, and I've only seen two kids ever with a Vita.
Mobile devices are everywhere, and they're changing the types of games that kids grow up playing (this is likely part of why Nintendo finally decided to bring their characters to mobile games because, otherwise, we might have a generation kids of who don't know who Mario is). I, however, like many "old-school" gamers do not typically play games on my iPhone, even though my daughter likely will. How might that impact that the way we bond over the hobby? Even beyond that, what lasting impact will new virtual reality technologies have on the way we play and experience games?
Earlier, I mentioned the idea of introducing games to my child. While this won't be happening any time soon (she's hardly even figured out how to watch TV yet), it's something I still think about eventually doing with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Gaming has a rich history, and living through that history is a big part of why games mean so much to me. As much as I might want to make my daughter graduate from console to console, "earning" her way to current gaming technology, that's not fair or reasonable. No one expects their children to sit through every highlight of cinematic history just to be able to see the latest blockbusters, but the relative youth of the gaming industry and the way it grew up with my generation in particular makes this approach somehow attractive as a way to usher in a new generation of gamers. I want Lyra to play an NES. I want her to experience the surprise of seeing the SNES' parallax scrolling and higher pixel count. I definitely want her mind to be blown when she suddenly sees Mario in 3D on an N64 for the first time. I want to share the excitement of gaming's history with her so she can really understand gaming's present and future.
But, like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, it's never going to happen.
Before she even reaches the age where she'll have the hand-eye coordination to pick up a game controller, she'll already have seen touch devices, with their ever-accelerating graphics. She'll have seen computer graphics on TV shows and movies far more advanced than the 8-bit NES long before I can fire up my old copy of Super Mario Bros. to let her try her hand at World 1-1 for the first time. All of these historic experiences will seem old and outdated to her, like trying to get a child to appreciate the special effects in Ben Hur. They're all relics of a time that can't exist in a vacuum alongside modern advancements.
Even so, at least I'll know that gaming's past will still exist: I have all of my old consoles, you can buy vintage games online and in local shops, and digital versions can be purchased through services like Nintendo's eShop. So, while Lyra probably won't cut her teeth on any of these classics, they'll be available to her if she ever wants to see how gaming got started. I'll never be able to force her to play them, but I'll always be able to make sure she can.
For now, although gaming is still my hobby, she's already having an impact on it. I have less time to play, more responsibilities around the house, and less disposable income to spend on the latest titles. And, yet, I have been able to find a balance.
I play my 3DS and Wii U while I walk around the house, baby wrapped to my chest. I try my luck at getting her to nap to give me a spare hour to fire up my PS4. I even write blog posts (like this one), trying to bounce her on my knee while she grows fussier by the minute.
These are tradeoffs and compromises, but they're hardly bad ones. Games are, after all, entertainment, and having a child is an unexpected but fascinating new source of entertainment. For every evening hour I can't spend gaming now, I get to know my child. I get to watch her experience the world for the first time. I get to see her grow and smile. In the future, I may even get to share my hobby with her; and, for now, just considering that feels like a pretty great first Father's Day gift.