Growing up, my most consistent gaming companion was my mother. She wasn’t at that time someone who would describe herself as a gamer – still isn’t now – but she saw my interest in the hobby and made time to play with me when I asked for her company or for her help. I know for sure some of those experiences playing games together were mutually enjoyable. I also know for sure a few were not. But through it all my mom made time for me and the memories that have persisted over the years are the ones of us enjoying each other’s company with a controller in hand.
Now it’s time for me to experience the other side of the equation. My child (who I will refer to as Inkling throughout the post) takes after both parents and loves to play video games. Each day when I get home from work and in the morning on the weekends when I wake up, Inkling asks for father-kid time. A lot of days that time is spent playing games together. It’s something I always looked forward to when I thought about being a parent; being able to carry on the memories my mother shared with me to a new generation of the family. As it turns out, though, my mom made it look easy.
To understand the challenges that Inkling and I face trying to play games together, it’s important to understand how each of us plays games on our own. I tend to hold space in my mind for one or two games at any given time. For example, recently on my blog I’ve been covering ‘I Was a Teenage Exocolonist’ and ‘Paper Mario: Black Pit.’ One game on Switch, the other on PC. It gives me something to do even if one of the consoles I am actively playing is unavailable, allows me to jump between different experiences if I am getting bored or frustrated, but also keeps me focused on a small, manageable number of games so I can finish them. Once I finish a game, I put it down and move on to something else, and it may be a very long time before I ever have space again in my brain to pick that game up and play it some more.
I think part of why I engage in games in this way is because of how my brain focuses more broadly. I have a hard time returning to things I have stopped doing. I couldn’t tell you how many potential blog posts ended up getting deleted because I couldn’t finish them in a single sitting and I lost my vision for how to wrap up. Interruptions upset me more than I perceive them upsetting other people because when my attention is pulled away from what I am doing, getting refocused and picking up where I left off is a struggle. So in many ways my method of playing games – focusing on a small number of titles that I play to completion and then don’t touch again for a long time – reflects the way I engage with many other aspects of my life.
Inkling on the other hand is curious and distractible. They don’t like to do any one activity for a long period of time. Fifteen, twenty minutes on a single thing is plenty for Inkling, who will then jump to a new idea or activity until that one becomes boring too. Inkling also has space in their head for a wide variety of interests and keeps what feels like to my brain a large pool of games they are happy to engage with at any given time. And finishing a game doesn’t mean it’s over, either. Games we’ve played together and beaten like Mario Odyssey, Rayman Legends, Plants vs Zombies, and more all still come into the equation when we play together. With a variety of interests, a desire for lots of experiences, and seemingly boundless energy, it’s no wonder Inkling seems to flit back and forth between games like a kitten chasing a laser pointer.
I’m sure you can see where this is going, yeah? I like to play a game until it is finished and then put it away, and interruptions drive me crazy. Inkling wants to interrupt what we are doing every twenty minutes to jump to another activity, and keeps a running list of games we’ve already beaten to revisit every time we play together. We are each other’s kryptonite, two people who could have been designed in a lab to have as little in common as possible when it comes to how they engage with the same hobby. It inevitably leads to frustration between us as I have to try to make space for Inkling’s needs while also trying to teach them to understand the importance of taking what other people want into consideration when spending time together.
Playing games with my kid was something I dreamed about well before I ever had a kid, and there’s a part of my anxious that I am ruining that experience for my own child. I think back to how my childhood self perceived my mother. Always there for me, always willing to help or to play together no matter the circumstances. Happy, smiling, gracious. And then I think of myself when Inkling and I are playing together. Impatient, frustrated, half the time there out of obligation rather than any genuine desire to play together. I get aggravated at Inkling for not living up to my expectations of what this experience would be like and then get mad at myself for ever imposing those expectations on them in the first place.
I know on some level that I am doing myself a disservice by comparing myself to my idealized childhood memories of what my mother was like. After all, I know something about myself that I could never know about her: my internal monologue. Did she spend some of those nights wishing for nothing more than for me to want to be alone so that she too could be alone? Was she sometimes smiling through clenched teeth as she agreed to help me with a game that drove her crazy? I have to imagine she was. Ironically, in striving to be like my mother I also inherited the quality about her which helps to drive this problem: an standard of perfection for myself which is impossible to meet. We can both list our flaws for hours but can never be made to see the parts of us that are admirable, positive, enough. Our generational curse is perfectionism, and if I’m not careful then Inkling too could walk away from our time together thinking it is impossible for them to ever be good enough.
Awareness is a gift and knowing the challenges we’ll face when trying to spend time together has helped us to strive for a more positive father-child gaming experience. There are a couple of different tools I’ve used to help curb my own frustrations and to be more positive with Inkling. One has been finding the good parts in the way Inkling plays games. For example, only ever spending fifteen minutes or so on a single game means I never have to commit for too long to a game I’m not excited about. “Let’s do one floor of Luigi’s Mansion 3” or “okay, how about three levels in Rayman Legends?” allows us to play in a way that fits Inkling’s style and helps my mental state by giving me a solid out with a game I’m not really excited about.
Another helpful approach has been to look for the ways in which our gaming habits do overlap rather than focusing on the ways in which they don’t. For example, while I typically don’t like to replay games, something I do enjoy from time to time is a challenge run: self-imposed restrictions on a game I’ve got a good grasp on to make it harder to overcome. Inkling likes challenges too; more specifically, Inkling likes giving me silly challenges and coming up with ways to prank me, trick me, or otherwise get up to some mischief. So when we play Plants vs Zombies together now, Inkling will choose my plants for me and I have to figure out how to beat the level with the tools assigned to me by a seven year old. It really comes down to the same elemental components that make up any successful human relationship: honest communication and setting expectations.
I’m still not perfect when it comes to playing games with my kid. And although I do understand that part of my problem is expecting perfection from myself, I still want to strive to be the best dad I can be for Inkling. My boss has a motto: “I expect perfection but I’ll settle for greatness.” I know it is not possible for me to be flawless in my interactions with Inkling every single day. But by trying to address problem areas and leaving space for when I mess up, I can model to my kid a healthier way to carry themselves than the one that was passed down to me. Slowly but surely we are learning to play games together in a way that’s positive for both of us. And hopefully, someday when Inkling looks back on playing games with their dad, those memories will come with a smile.
I have no desire to be a parent but I did grow up with a younger sister who played games pretty differently than me. I enjoyed playing with her but while I could play a single player game for hours, multiplayer games get tiring after maybe 30-40 minutes. It sounds like you’re being very aware of both yours and your kiddo’s gaming needs and that’s great, I hope the two of you make some awesome memories.
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