Idly reading through my feed while a script was running last week, I saw a tweet from a good friend with a link and the text saying something along the lines of "here's the real letter that inspired today's Penny Arcade comic."
I'm not one to leave something like that lying around, so I went and read the letter and the comments that were then appended to it. Turns out someone on Riot Games' League Of Legends message boards had written an open letter to all parents about teaching their kids to stop quitting in the middle of ranked matches because of what it does to the rest of the team.
First thing I really barked my shins on was in the comments on the letter. Several people were saying that sometimes the reason for the kid going AFK was that the parent needed to check email or Facebook or something on that computer. The concept that people are letting their kids play a game on their computer instead of on the child's is a train-wreck looking for the un-thrown switch as far as I'm concerned. I'd rather share a toothbrush than a computer. It's safer, and more sanitary.
"...when you start talking about when I can and cannot set limits on behavior, or withdraw privileges, because of your Statz or because it might attract the ire of a community already legendary for its player abuse, you’re punching above your weight, kid."
Ouch. That seemed a little harsh. But over the next several hours I sat with the text for a while and thought about it. My second reaction is probably not what either the comments or Tycho wanted.
This may sound like a namby-pamby cop-out, but both the letter writer and the annoyed parents have good points. Yes, the writer comes off as a twerp with an insufficient grasp of reality, and that comic is a bit strident and dismissive, but both sides here have a role to play. Every part of this is more complicated than the writer or the derisive respondents are thinking. Let's take a knee and think it through.
Of course, the letter writer doesn't really have any context. Is this is the fifth rule that kid has broken today, and we're past where enough is e-frelling-nuff? You're not their parent. You don't know what their household is like or anything else. You don't even know if they're telling you the truth about why they had to leave. You have no idea of the problem-space on their side, so it's not helpful to throw up judgmental, facile solutions to what you have decided is the base issue.
But let's presume for a moment that the letter's assumptions aren't off the mark. The letter-writer's notion that the parents should be paying attention to what their kids are doing, helping the kid learn to manage their time and uphold the obligations they've chosen to shoulder, is dead on the money. In fact, that notion is very similar to the rules I had in place when my gang was in the tween/teen years. All the gaming parents I know who've read this and commented to me all agree to that, even as they write off the letter (including Tycho).
When my children were growing up, one of the tenets of my household policies for extracurricular activities was that they must finish the obligations they sign up for. Even if that was an unpopular thing to others. I'll never forget the school counselor who had an epic fit at me because I made my daughters finish the block of violin lessons they'd signed up for. Yes, they'd decided they'd gotten what they needed out of it (and it was long after I'd gotten tired of having two 1st-year violinists practicing in the same small apartment every day). But the rest of the ensemble needed them to finish their obligation. This is how I managed everything. If you signed up for an activity, part of that was laying out the commitment level and the term. Then, even if you didn't like it, you finished out what you'd agreed to at the beginning. So the frustration of players (of any age) being left in the lurch by others starting something they couldn't finish resonates with me.
But I'm also the sort of jackbooted fascist who unplugged the system and put a padlock into the holes on the end of the cord to enforce time restrictions, no matter what the kid was doing at the time. (This was Ye Olden Days before game consoles had a Parental Control system with enough teeth to solve this problem). With the four kids and I all trying to manage our gaming habits and real-life obligations on the same set of equipment, I just didn't have the leeway to let things slide like that.
Because I am a gamer myself, I knew that you can't have the same rules for turn-taking and time-management for a JRPG, with an hour of wandering Ivalice between save-points, and a car racing game that lets you switch out every 3 minutes and 20 seconds. So I had that built into the system, and the kids were taught not to start the JRPG 20 minutes before bedtime unless they wanted to lose their progress when bedtime hit and their controller turned into a pumpkin.
I can count the number of times over the years I had to yank the cord on one hand, because we worked out house rules out to help minimize the need for it.
That said, those solutions the letter-writer suggests for when something goes awry are a non-starter. Even if you, as caregiver, assume perfect purity in the kid's choices that brought you to this unfortunate place – even if you assume that kid isn't just pushing your buttons (uh ... yeah) – the idea of just blowing off your rules and punishing later raises a nearly Vulcan eyebrow with any knowledgeable parent, even those of us who play games themselves and understand how important they can be to your life. Proportionate, direct, and immediate consequences to conflicts are a crucial part of teaching the kid those time-management skills that the letter-writer wants them to gain. Indirect, delayed consequences based on non-corporeal harm to someone they cannot even see? Doesn't cut it.
I can think of one time I came close to something like the letter-writer suggests, but it wasn't really that close. I was working on a review with my son, and we needed to be at a certain point for me to write it up. We were behind because we had problems in one stretch, and this was one of those games with a long time between save-points. So I actually asked him to stay up past bedtime and work it out with me. My kids still make sweatshop jokes about "the time I made him stay up and game."
But let's look at the whole parents-booting-the kid-for-the-sake-of-email idea. My above hyperbole for comedic effect aside, League Of Legends does require a non-trivial computer. It's not Crysis, but it's not Fez, either. If the kid regularly uses a stipped-down-for-homework machine, it's probably not going to handle the graphics requirements all that well. Generally speaking, onboard graphics chipsets are fine for typing a book report, but not so much for blasting your enemy. So I can sort of see (barely) the concept that you might have the kid on your work machine to play.
That said, while what they're doing in a LoL match may not be "real," it is an obligation to a lot of real people when they're playing in those ranked matches. And you can read your email/Facebook on practically everything else in the house (down to that toothbrush I mentioned above).
So if we posit that they're within arm's-reach of your house rules about time-in-game, why would you boot the kid? If your smartphone and iPad are both out of battery and you don't have a PS3 or Xbox360 that's sitting fallow in the living room, go use their computer! Just remember to clear the browser history before you log off. (If you were following what I consider to be sensible family computing practices, you'd have your own secure log-in on that machine to use already, as well.)
I could spend several thousand words detailing the awkward algebra of managing my household when the kids were smaller. In the interest of sparing you that, where does all this maundering land us?
Managing time in and around gaming is a problem whether or not they're a kid. To paraphrase an old saying, what's sauce for the gosling is also sauce for the goose and gander. My kids had rules to keep them straight, and the real-world limitations of life and my Daily Planet job put similar limitations on me. It's why I don't play a lot of big MMORPG's: I can't support the time commitments to raid or even manage decent guild responsibilities, so I don't set myself up for that. People must be figuring that puzzle out somehow – according to The Daedalus Gateway, about 50% of MMORPG gamers work full time, 36% are married, and 22% have kids of their own – but avoidance is a good enough kludge for my needs.
My adventures in remembering where that Daedalus link was were a reminder to me that we need to look at some underlying assumptions on both sides. I couldn't get a lot of hard numbers, but according to this infographic put out by Riot Games, 85% of LoL players are aged between 16 and 30, but 60% of all players are enrolled in or have completed some college as of 2012. This puts a question to the assumptions that everyone who goes AFK does so because their mommy is making them take out the trash – the ages don't fall right. Statistically, odds are pretty good that parents may not be the actual source of other player's bailing out on you, because the person isn't under a parent's jurisdiction anymore.
Ultimately, everyone needs to all do what is being said by all parties:
- Parents need to pay attention and build their house rules in such a way that they take to heart that very helpful advice about game length and quitting's effect on other players.
- Players of all ages need to remind themselves that pulling out affects more than them, so they need to work to minimize it as best they can.
- Players affected when it does happen need to keep the perspective of the parents, as voiced by the P-A comic, in perspective.
- And everyone needs to stop thinking they know what's really going on on the other side of the screen in any direction and making armchair decisions about the others and their motivations.
If everyone does that, there will be a lot fewer AFK's – and when someone does go AFK mid-game for some reason, it will be easier to take in stride.
(edit -- My younger son read this and pointed out he'd shaved the race-time in that example down to 3 minutes and 17.4 seconds and that I should put that in here. :eyeroll: )