Gaming with Children

When this column originally ran, it was primarily about playing games with your children. To be perfectly honest, I started writing it early. My kids are all two years old. We play Kinectimals together, and I’m looking forward to playing Once Upon A Monster with them when they’re a little bit older. For the time being, though, I am perfectly happy with them being thrilled to play with MegaBloks, stuffed animals and picture books.

What they have done, however, is permanently affect the way that I view the world and how certain things affect me. One game hit me particularly hard this year: Telltale’s The Walking Dead. READ MORE

I remember when I was a kid my brother and I had an NES. Christmas was the one time of year when we got new games for it, one each, and we were supposed to share them.

This made sense seeing as the NES was for sharing, too. My parents were careful to make sure that at least one of the two games we got had multiplayer so we could play together. Playing this idea forward, I now have kids of my own and a Nintendo Wii. If I were buying video games instead of diapers and formula, these would be the two games I picked up:

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Why? Because it is good, clean fun. The multiplayer is a riot when people start bopping one another on the head and picking each other up with the intent of tossing them in a pit. And when played solo, it has a neat feature where if you die five times in a single level the game will show you how to pass the section you’re stuck on. I can’t think of a better way for a young kid to play a favorite game, progress where he can, and still feel like he’s having fun.

Why Else? Because it has four-player cooperative play. This means that for me, all of my kids could be playing at the same time, and for most people, the whole family could play simultaneously.


Why? Because NBA Jam was my favorite game as a kid. My brother, my dad, and I all used to crown into my bedroom, root around for the multitap, and then play game after game. Whoever was teamed up with my brother usually won (to this day I have no idea how he was so good at that game), but we all had a great time, and Jam sessions hardly ever ended until my mom yelled that supper was ready. 

Why Else? Because like NSMBWii above, NBA Jam can be played by four people simultaneously. Also, I really want to play it, and I know that some of the games my brother and I got as a kid really should have said: “To Dad, Justin, and Jordan… From: Santa” instead of “To: Justin and Jordan… From: Santa” on them.

R.C. Pro Am, Brunswick Bowling, and Rollerball are now obviously colored by my dad’s taste in games. And I’m glad that that’s how he shopped – because it shows me now just how much he wanted to play with my brother and me and how much he wanted to pass on the things that he thought were fun. What I’m really trying to say here is that I hope my kids end up liking arcade basketball and pinball because if they do, my wife will be yelling down to us that supper is done while we play just one more match for years to come.

My kids have been sick this week, and a ton of people have been in and out of the house. Oxygen delivery, nocturnal O2 sat tests, RSV vaccine delivery, physical therapist visit for my smallest daughter, and two visits to the dentist for me to get and repair a crown. On top of that, I am in the middle of a 12-day second shift cycle at work. Things have been a little hectic to say that least, and that is why this article will be short. Today I have an anecdote for you that I have taken to heart.

My neighbor has two great kids. His son loves to read books and comics, pretend out in the yard that he is Luke Skywalker fighting for the rebels, and play video games like Rock Band, Blue Dragon and The Maw with his dad. His daughter is younger, but she still wants to be just like Daddy. When she isn’t watching Baby Einstein or Pokemon (with her big brother, of course) she likes to hang out with Daddy and play with Xbox 360 controllers. She used to not know the difference when there were no batteries, but now she knows that no lights means it doesn’t work. 

One night my neighbor and I were playing PS3 while his daughter was sitting on the couch playing with an Xbox 360 controller. She was happily pressing buttons, giggling, and generally having a good time. When our time with LittleBigPlanet was over, we went to play a little Gears of War and my neighbor noticed that he had 4,000 more Microsoft Points than he used to. It turns out that even when the video isn’t visible on the TV, the 360 controller can still navigate menus.

My neighbor had already set up parental controls to ensure that his son could not play anything higher than E10+, but after spending $50 extra on XBLM, he turned off auto-login for his account and put a password on it as well. It is important to protect our children from the world when they’re young, but it is also important to protect the world from our children because where there’s a controller and a toddler, trouble’s not far behind.

A year ago, my play sessions usually ended with me looking at the clock, realizing that 3 a.m. is too close to 5 a.m. to keep playing and stumbling to bed.

Now they end with one of my children crying, spitting up, needing to be fed, needing a diaper change, needing play time, needing a bink replaced (they can’t really hang on to stuff yet), or a combination of the above. There is no “in a minute,” “let me find a save point,” or ignoring what is going on around me. Kids need something, game has to end post haste. I have a lot of time to think while doing baby stuff – especially when I’m trying to stay quiet because I managed to cease the crying before my wife wakes up – and naturally my mind drifts to video games. Here’s what I’ve decided all games absolutely must have going forward. I won’t rule a game out for missing one, but it’d be great if more developers realized that we can’t all play for four hours at a time and wait 20 minutes until the next time the game auto-saves.

Content filtering: At the menu screen of any game I should be able to turn certain effects off – blood, gore, and foul language should be user selectable. Nintendo forced the issue with Mortal Kombat in the 90s, and today I’d like the ability to toggle between “blood” and “sweat.” And in an otherwise appropriate game it’d be nice to replace any swearing with a broadcast radio bleep out noise.

Save anywhere: I don’t need quick save, but at any point while playing a game (aside from in multiplayer) I should be able to hit start, select save, and shut off the console. If you don’t want the save system abused then make the game delete my save after I load it – I just want to be able to play, save, and not lose my progress when something more important demands my attention.

Pause anywhere: Similar to wanting to save anywhere, I want to be able to pause anywhere. This should be too hard – on all three current consoles the OS is constantly present (this is why you can return to the menu at any time). Every time I hit the 360 button, the PS button, or the Home button on the Wii the system menu should suspend the current game. This would allow parents to wipe up drool, change a diaper, or replace a lost bink without missing the narrative scene being played. It’d also be great for everybody else out there who answers the phone when it rings. 

Theater mode: It is inevitable that I will miss a cutscene. I will forget to pause, or your game doesn’t offer it, or the cat will hit unpause for me while I’m in the other room taking care of things. After I have used the handy “save anywhere” feature and exited to the menu let me rewatch that scene by selecting it from the video menu. You made those films and are proud of them, I want to watch them, and all you need to do to make that happen is add a menu pick.

I’m going to miss things, my kill/death ratio in Halo: Reach is going to be terrible some matches, and my kids are always going to be more important than running to save point. Your audience has quite a few parents in it now, and technology has advanced to the point that player convenience can be built into consoles and games. If more games took advantage of these things then those of us who play games and take care of kids would have more fun and probably spend more money on your games in the future.

My kids aren’t old enough yet for this to be a big concern for me (unless I’m scarring them for life by playing Halo: Reach while they sleep), but it will be in the future. Looking over my game shelf here are the best three games I could find for some quality time between Dad, one of the kids (or maybe more), and a video game console.

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (360, PS3, Wii, PC):  I love the Lego games regardless of who I get the privilege of playing with, but it’s hard to not notice that Tt Games designed the games with a younger player in mind without making the experience boring for an adult. The humor is cute, the controls are simple, and lives are unlimited. Combine these three things and you have the perfect storm of adolescent game design. Kids can have fun no matter how many times they jump in the lava, and parents can still feel like they’re accomplishing something because episodes are fairly short and forward progress is always possible. Being able to control your favorite characters and introduce a whole new generation to the wonder of Star Wars is a nice bonus as well. Other Lego games are certainly appropriate, but as more games have been made they’ve gotten a bit more difficult and lost a little bit of their charm. If you’re hurting for another Lego adventure when Star Wars wears thin, however, Lego Indiana Jones 2 should be your next stop.

Lego Rock Band 2 (360, PS3, Wii): Everybody likes music, and with songs that only last a few minutes a Rock Band session doesn’t need to last multiple hours to be worthwhile. With five separate difficulties, the addition of a no-fail mode and the addition of a filter that only lets you play family-friendly songs (these reasons are why I’m recommending Lego Rock Band vice the original Rock Band or RB2) and the ability to set up a player on drums and then turn off the need for a bass pedal makes Rock Band 2 a great choice for the whole family. It is also possible to get four people playing simultaneously, and letting your players choose songs (that can be sorted by difficulty) round-robin style means that all four kids can play a favorite within 20 minutes of sitting down. Lego Rock Band also has a kid-friendly story and a great Lego aesthetic.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii): New Super Mario Bros. Wii is another title that lets four kids play together. Younger kids probably won’t see the end of the story mode for many years (it took my wife and I more lives than I’d care to admit to beat the final level). NSMBWii artfully combines cooperative multiplayer with competitive. Sure, the big goal is to reach the end of the level and save the princess, but along the way it’s great fun to fight over helicopter hats, throw your teammates into pits because they stole the aforementioned hat, and use one another as bouncy blocks. Unlimited continues ensure that nobody will get too frustrated, and an easy save feature means that when things get too hectic it won’t be an ordeal to turn the game off with a promise that everybody can come back later. 

It was harder to find child-friendly games on my shelf than I thought as most games, even those with child-friendly themes and stories, seemed to difficult for kids to play and have fun with. Ratchet & Clank is a great example of this. I love it to death, but the guys over at Insomniac have clearly made an adult’s game with a child’s veneer. Anybody who has attempted the time puzzles (which, admittedly, are skippable) in R&C Future: A Crack in Time can attest to that. The combat sections aren’t exactly a cakewalk either. I know that I love the game for those things, but it would spell nothing but frustration for a new player. It can be difficult to find fun games for kids, but they’ll play them long enough (thanks to rationed video game time) that a small supply of high-quality games is all that’s really needed.