The Soapbox: Sharing MMORPGs with my kids

“Dad, can I pilot your ship tonight?”

I turn around to see my seven-year-old son giving me Bambi eyes with his hands clasped because, somewhere along the line, he realized that being ultra-cute got him what he wanted about 70% of the time. Plus, he only has a short while before that wears off and he becomes a belching, sweaty teen.

He was talking about Star Trek Online, although my kids never call games by their proper names. STO is “that space pilot game” and World of Warcraft is “the kill bad guys game,” both of which are far superior titles than the originals, I think you’d agree. I had let him fly my starship once and it got him hooked, mostly because it wasn’t super-fast and twitchy but forgiving and simple to maneuver. Now I get pestered at odd hours to help him further his Starfleet career, even though he has yet to see a single episode of the show.

For a guy who writes about MMORPGs regularly and shoehorns in a couple of hours of play every evening, I’m not the dad who’s pushing video games on my kids. My eldest are seven and six, yet their video game experience is thus far limited. Their all-time favorite games are Mario Kart Double Dash (GameCube) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES), mostly because those were the only games I’ve pulled out to play as a family. For the record, listening to little kids provide running narration of a botched Mario Kart circuit is far more entertaining than any streamer I’ve watched.

I want to put out there that, no matter what I say here on out, I’m not the kind of parent who’s super-judgy about how others raise their kids in regard to “screen time.” Some families get kids going on computers and tablets really early, and that’s fine. We’ve decided to curtail the digital side of life for them until they’re a little older, mostly because physical play is so important and kids pick up the tech stuff insanely easy anyway.

To my kids, video games are interesting, mostly because they are their dad’s hobby. Have you ever noticed now kids tend to take a shine to their parents’ hobbies and interests? If this is truly the case, then I’m raising a household of complete geeks. Could be worse, I suppose.

They don’t see me playing very much; I try not to spend a lot of family time sitting at a computer, sending a silent signal that games are more important to me than just hanging out together. But every once in a while, sure, I’ll log into my favorite MMOs while they’re awake, and the sights and sounds of these games function as siren calls to my children. They wander over, jockey for position to crawl up on my lap, then either start peppering me with questions or helping me play.

All my three-year-old loves to do is sit there and slam on the space bar to make my mount jump. Doesn’t matter if I’m trying to talk to an NPC or navigate a minefield — my character will be doing bunny-hops everywhere, robbing him a little of his dignity. But it’s great exercise, right?

My older kids have started to get the hang of more sophisticated operations, although their hardest task by far is manipulating the camera so that it it’s facing in the right direction instead of closely inspecting the ground or gazing up at the sky as an irate boar attacks. Star Trek Online has proven to be so great for multiple keyboard users because the camera is harder to position badly and moving the ship and firing weapons isn’t that difficult.

During these sporadic gaming sessions where we share MMOs together, I have started to cherish seeing these games through my kids’ eyes. What we take for granted and our understanding of these complex titles is upended when you put a kid in front of the screen who doesn’t know anything about “mobs” or “item levels” or even “vendor trash.”

Yet their comprehension comes in leaps and bounds. I sat in quiet amazement when I heard my daughter figure out what the different color nameplates meant in World of Warcraft. Can’t say I even think about it these days, but those colors have significance. Only the blue names stumped her, and it was then that I explained that they were over the heads of other actual people. “So who are they?” she asked. “Do they live next door?”

They could, I said, although I doubted it considering that my neighbors are pushing 90. When I explained that these players come from all over the world, she was astonished.

The kids always want to know “why.” Why are we going to this place? Why are we killing these guys? Also: “whom” are we helping and “what” is the story? My biggest challenge is trying to explain what all of these various weird fantasy creatures are.

What is supposed to matter the most in MMOs — the advancement and gear acquisition — means so very little to these children. Instead, they want to see what’s over the next ridge. My son keeps pestering me to pull out different mounts and pets, giving them names and ascribing them with more personality than any developer could. My daughter has strong opinions how I should arrange my in-game house.

They sometimes get cross with me and with the game. I don’t think they quite realize that I’m bouncing between MMOs, so they expect that my WildStar house is available whenever I’m playing, even if I’m in a fantasy setting (I wish!). When we come up against a wall raised by a lack of funds or items obtained or game boundaries, they have a hard time understanding why we can’t just do whatever we want. The game telling them “no” is a disappointment.

Occasionally, late at night my youngest will join me for a session after everyone else has gone to bed. It’s then that I switch to MMOs that can be completely played with a Naga mouse so that I can hold a squirmy six-month-old with my other arm.

I feel at a loss about what we’ll be doing in the future with video games in general and MMOs in specific. Sure, I’d love to share these worlds with them, since part of the joy of parenting is creating shared experiences. But there aren’t a lot of MMOs that let three people easily share a keyboard, and I know that I’ll want us to do the same thing together. I also feel strongly that we’ll be drawn more to activities where we can build and create and goof off instead of just run around as unstoppable Terminators.

It’s a shame that Free Realms got canned all those years ago, as that would be a perfect gateway MMO for the near future. Perhaps Wizard101? I have a little time left to decide, I think. Until then, I’ll serve as the sporadic ambassador to these far-off worlds while enjoying my kids’ sense of wonder as they encounter these games that have amazed me for so many years.

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