Back in 2009 I made the transition into parenthood, an advanced class that I still don’t think I’m quite qualified for. Since then I’ve seen four small children enter into my household, all vying for my patience, love, and video game sessions. Video gaming isn’t the centerpiece of our family entertainment, but on occasion I do take my children with me on virtual adventures.
While there are certainly many younger and childless gamers out there, there’s also a noticeable contingent of MMO players who field a permanent dungeon group of their own, if you catch my drift. While it’s certainly harder to carve out large chunks of time to play an MMO when you’re a parent, ways do open up to bond with your kids through online games if you are smart enough about it.
It’s been quite a learning experience so far when my hobby has come into contact with my offspring, and today I thought I’d share some personal observations and techniques about ways that you can bond with your children (or younger relatives) over MMORPGs.
1. Find an MMO that you both enjoy
With such a wide range and number of MMOs out there right now, there’s absolutely no reason that you or your kid has to suffer through a game that the other enjoys. My son is dragon crazy and would probably love the (quite abominable) How to Train Your Dragon MMO. I would not. He, on the other hand, has little patience for games that don’t feature (a) dragons and (b) flight. So we usually head over to World of Warcraft as a mutual compromise, jumping onto my Twilight Drake and exploring the world from a bird’s point of view.
2. Join family guilds
One doesn’t need to join guilds at all, of course, but when you’re spending time with your kids in MMOs, you don’t want to join an organization that’s highly demanding on your time and punctuality (not to mention one that might be a breeding ground for conversation and language that’s not appropriate for the wee ones). There are just scads of guilds out there that advertise themselves as “family friendly,” with self-imposed language restrictions and an abundance of understanding over players going AFK to take care of family or instruct a young child on how to play the game.
Speaking of which…
3. Two players, one keyboard
Sure, you can get multiple computers and tablets going when it comes to family gaming time, but why rush that when they’re smaller? Younger kids might not be able to handle all of the complexities and controls of an MMO, but sitting on your lap, they are certainly capable of handling small tasks delegated out by the mama or papa. My youngest loves to jam on the spacebar to see my characters jump, while my oldest is figuring out how to move about on the Z-axis while maneuvering the camera around. They can do all of these things while I handle combat and other odds and ends.
4. Enjoy seeing the games through your kids’ eyes
There’s a lot for kids to get out of games, but other than getting to spend quality time with your child, what’s in it for you? I think one of the best benefits of parent-child gaming is that you get to experience MMOs through a very fresh set of eyes. Things that long since stopped amazing you are made wonderful again when you see the excitement and hear the squeals of joy when your kid makes these discoveries.
5. Look for teaching opportunities
Kids are learning sponges with a natural curiosity about how the world (and games) work, and they want you to teach them everything. While there are the obvious instructions regarding how MMOs work and why your kid has a shameful gear score, other teaching opportunities come about from often unexpected avenues and can be grabbed when you spy them. Maybe a quest gets you into a discussion about right and wrong with your kid, or you have to filter out what game animals actually exist in the world and which are myths. My son surprised me the other day by asking me how a skeletal horse could fly since it had no feathers or wing flaps (after a moment, I resorted to “a wizard did it, son”). OK, I’m not always the best teacher.
6. Engage in imagination together
Imagination tends to get beaten and/or drained out of you as you age, unless you make a concerted effort to feed and engage in yours. You know who’s wonderful at imagination? Kids! Take a cue from how kids play and make up stories as you go along in your game, narrating aloud as you one-up the studio’s professional writers. Give names to nameless critters that hop along in the forest. Play hide-and-go-seek in a village. Challenge each other to a footrace across the zone. Cheer and high-five when victory over the supreme evil (a level 4 kobold) is achieved.
7. Play the game the way they want to
Let’s just put this out there: Kids do not play optimally or efficiently. They are not out to make a bee-line for quests or to min/max stats. They want a fun experience and don’t care about adhering to the direction that the game’s designer provides.
So you know what? Just go with it! If your kid wants to explore and stay level 1 forever, then why not? About half of the time that I’m playing MMOs with my children, they’re forever wanting me to do three things: cycle through all of the mounts I can ride, cycle through all of the pets that I have (to watch their animations), and to play interior decorator with my house. I get nothing done during these sessions, and they are glorious.
8. Explain the narrative
When you’re not making up the story on the spot, you always have the opportunity to be the narrative interpreter between the game and your child. Who are those people? What are they like? Why do they need our help? Who is the bad guy? Why are they doing that? How can we win? Kids want to know the answers to these and more, and they will look to you to be their teacher and guide.
9. Observe and share delightful details
Gaming with my children has taught me to slow down and smell the polygonal roses, so to speak. Things that I whiz by all of the time on my mount are fascinating to the little ones, and so we stop fighting and become diligent observers. My daughter was captivated by a twitching little bunny in a snow-capped forest the other day, so we followed this critter around until a wolf suddenly pounced on it and killed it. Cue a tiny shriek of horror followed by a “Dad, GET THAT WOLF!”
10. Provide a gaming example
You ever see those raging jerks in game and wonder if they could’ve been a nicer person had their parents actually cared enough to guide them? Well, when it comes to your kids, the example starts with you. Kids absorb so much behavior from observing and mimicking their parents, and they will certainly notice how you act in video games.
Are you swearing up a storm when you don’t get a loot drop or do you shrug and high-five your teammates for a fun dungeon run? Do you go out of your way to help others (real or computerized) or is selfish acquisition the core of your gaming world? Do you belittle your kids for not knowing how to handle the mighty WASD controls or do you offer encouragement and support? They will notice, they will listen, and as they grow, they will emulate. Parents and role models are in the midst of training up the next generation of gamers, even while we do something as seemingly silly and inconsequential as playing an MMO.