Don't Rush It
I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it. -- Harry S Truman (1884 - 1972)
I played some Halo2 with my son a couple weeks ago. We got out the old Xboxen so we could play SystemLink, with a system in each room so there could be no screen-looking. I had been practicing, but it didn't help as much as I would hope. I got my arse shot off. It was so bad the girls left the anime they had running out in the living room to watch. We have a house rule that the ultimate loser for the day has to use a profile with lavender armor and a screen name that's an abbreviation for "Grenade Magnet" for the next day. I lost so bad it was duly decided among all of them and with much laughing and joshing that I had to use it for the rest of the week.
I pretended to be grumpier about it than I was. They expected it. But it was hard to pull off. I kept having to hide a rueful smile. I don't appreciate getting my arse handed to me, don't get me wrong, but I really wasn't upset. I love that I can have that time and that connection with my kids.
But it wasn't always this way.
When this gang was little, games were pretty much PC in my house. Their first game was a very restricted login of their very own and a blank screen of Notepad starting about 18 months. They were blissfully happy banging gibberish into the keyboard. Once they got really mobile, they pretty much lost all interest in favor of things like taking their bedroom window out of the wall, soldering all the silverware in the house together, and flushing interesting stuff down the toilet (true stories). When they got to school, the whole thing was pretty much ruined for them by the horrifically bad edu-tainment software their school shoved at them. When they got home they didn't want to even see the thing except to occasionally watch us play Wingcommander and kibbitz. We moved to Seattle, and their new school had a bit more to go on. They started in with some arcade stuff and some of the licensed kiddie-stuff. Then after the divorce, my ex got a Nintendo 64 and I picked up a used Playstation. I got a copy of Typing of the Dead for our PC, which definitely got the boys interested in the fine art of keyboarding. Then Myst, The Neverhood, and Pandora's Box caught everyone's attention. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I give you all that back story to bring up a point. Even though both myself and my ex-husband are huge gamers, my gang really never hit the gaming hard until they were older. They played off an on all their lives, but it wasn't until the girls were seven and the boys 9 and 10 that things got to a point that we inaugurated what we call "Playstation Order" (the order in which turns are taken to this day on all our gaming/movie hardware).
I see a lot of parents who are gamers pushing their kids to game. There's a guy at my church who is pushing his three-year-old son to play Call of Duty with him. I got him to switch to the Cars game, but even that's a bit more than the little one is up for. He can't even pronounce the name of the game. I know you want to share this with them. It's a huge part of your life. It takes time, though. Some of them aren't interested. They have other things that keep their attention. Some of them don't have a good grasp on some of the basic skills required to enjoy the games so they get frustrated or bored. And if they're not ready, shoving it at them isn't going to make them that way.
I totally understand where you're coming from. It's hard to wait. I have a list of my favorite things I want to share with them, and the waiting seemed endless when they were little. I wasn't perfectly patient, either. I got the movie Highlander one night and we turned it into a popcorn party (with me having a ready hand on the fast forward button on the remote). The girls were 14 for that, I think. This brought on a huge obsession with the TV version (and Adrian Paul) for about a month or so. And I know the rating on Typing of the Dead doesn't suggest that 11-year-olds should be pounding those keys, but I chose to grant the exception. This one was a two-for -- I got to play House of the Dead with them without spending $.50 a credit, and they all learned to type very well without the evil beast codenamed "Mavis Beacon" I had been subjected to back when I was in school. It's shorter now, but I still have some stuff on that list.
There are some things to keep in mind while you are choosing a game or hardware to start your kid out.
- Reading skills -- make sure the game doesn't require reading skills to complete unless you want to play Hooked on Phonics: Hyrule Edition every time they want to play. And I don't mean with just little tiny kids. The ability to read Seuss is not the same as the ability to read fast enough to cope with many games. And sometimes the vocabulary is way over their heads. This is something you're going to want to keep in the back of your mind until they're good enough they can handle subtitles relatively well.
- Dexterity -- you'd think platformers would be tailor-made for this group, but it's often not so. The ones with tight or imprecise jumping puzzles can be the kiss of death until they're old enough to handle the skill required, and the frustration of missing and having to do the level all over. And great big grown-up controllers can be hard to manage in little hands. If your child is still in the big-crayon set keep this in mind.
- Their particular fears -- think twice before you get the Bionicle game for a kid who is terrified of the dark. The bad guy is a black shadow who may have them hiding under the coffee table. Just be aware of your child. Some kids will be helped to work on fears like this, but this is a heavy supervision type of situation and you need to be ready to support them on it.
There are some types of games that are better than others for starting little ones out. Active games are wonderful. If you've got one, this is where your Wii really takes the cake. Or an Eye Toy for your Playstation 2. Or a Dance Dance Revolution game. Anything that gets them up and going but isn't frustratingly hard is great. And they love licensed games. I know. Licensed games are bad. But not if you're five and Elmo RAWKS! Take a look at what they have emblazoned on their underwear, bedsheets, or backpack and I'll bet you there's a game out there to go with it. Or the latest Disney/Pixar flick is also a good bet.
Lately there's been a lot of focus about the content of games and kids, but that's not the most important part. You also have to teach them the skills it takes to manage the time and money investment of gaming. If you suceed and your kid becomes an avid gamer, they're still going to interact with the whole thing differently than you do. They don't have any of the skills of self-control you have. You can get up and go to work and balance having access to that box in your living room because you know things have to be done. They don't have any of that if you don't teach it to them. This is where you can help them by modeling good gaming behavior, and by having structure set in place so they learn to cope with the excitement and with the frustrations of a game.
There are some things you might want to consider in your choice of games and in the way your household rules are set up that can help.
- Short sessions -- you'll have to figure out specifics for yourselves but half-hour sessions with breaks in between for the other kids to have a turn was what worked out best at my house so that's a starting point. That's long enough to get somewhere in most games, but still allow for plenty of other things to go on.
- Play with them -- finding time can be rough, and their games might not exactly be your cup of tea, but they love it.
- Play separately -- if you want them to take up the hobby, then let them see you playing. This means you need to watch the content for those times, but it's an investment. I'm not saying you should go all the way back to Dora the Explorer - there are plenty of E-10 rated games that are pretty good and even some T-rated there wouldn't be too much trouble with the littles watching you play.
- Length/type of game -- that 100 hour RPG with only one save point per level is going to be a tougher slog than a 10-hour platformer.
- Winning/Losing -- think about how you're going to handle it when you beat them and they get frustrated. And more importantly, how you're going to handle it when they beat you.
- Siblings -- Don't forget to take the whole family into account. Siblings add a whole dimension of complications. Especially if they are far enough apart in age that one is going to be allowed to play games the others are not. Can the little ones even watch? How do you manage taking turns?
- Interaction between each other's games -- I have a friend with three kids on Animal Crossing and those overlapping towns are causing her a lot of problems with kids sabotaging each other or brokering rules-lawyering deals with each other and then falling out and then fighting. And what about your save games on the memory card?
And you have to think ahead. It only feels like they're going to be too little forever. You may not believe me, but your child will grow older. Soon your E-rated little one will grow up to E-10, and from there to T-rated games. Plan how you're going to negotiate those changes.
Before you know it, the day will come when they achieve the fabled M-rating. Then you guys can proudly walk into the game store and both of you pick up a copy of the latest blood-drenched FPS and mix it up. Don't worry, it will come. Then you can join me in my pretty purple Mjolnir armor.