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No, You Can’t Get That Video Game

The ChickieNob and Wolvog move through video games faster than Superman.

Allow me to be crotchety and old for a moment.  In my day, if you wanted a fancy new Intellivision game such as Pitfall or Utopia, you had to beg your parents for several weeks.  You had to make empty promises, such as the fact that you’d make your bed every single day before school.  Then you actually had to make your bed once or twice to give your parents a sample of the orderly world that would exist if you could have said game. (But just a taste, I mean, why buy the proverbial cow… or in this case, video game.)

You had to save up your allowance or babysit the kids up the street.  You had to do your homework very quickly so you could run over to your friend’s house and play their copy of the game a few more times to be certain that it’s a game you really really wanted to get.  And then, after writing an essay complete with a thesis paragraph, explaining how playing Utopia will help you to better understand the plight of farmers and fisherman in America or how Pitfall will make you a more adventurous, scorpion-jumping person, your parents would relent and purchase said game.  And you would play it, gratefully, for the next six months.  And not make your bed so you would have something to bargain with when it came time to beg for the next video game several months later.

And we liked it while we trudged uphill to school both ways.


Screenshot of Jetpack Joyride

Game obtaining is unsurprisingly very different for the twins.  If they want a new game, we don’t need to leave the house to get it.  Every game they want to play can be downloaded directly onto their iPods.  They don’t have to promise to make their bed to get it; not that I’d ever believe them but almost every game they want is either free with in-app purchases or the cost is minimal — less than a cup of coffee at the gas station.  Which means they ask for a new game pretty much on a weekly basis.  By the time I figure out what Hay Day even is, they’ve ditched their farms and are now Jetpack Joyriding around with Barry Steakfries on a grand adventure.

While games have gotten less expensive (depending on the gaming system) and easier to obtain along with graphics obviously leaps and bounds ahead of when Pitfall consisted of a brown blob retracting in three jerky steps to indicate a growing and receding mud pit, the speed in which kids obtain and release games has created a new crop of problems: vetting overload, flighty attention, and lessons missed.

There isn’t enough time to research games thoroughly before download.  I work a full time job, and I can’t keep up with the game request research.  We have fairly strict rules about violence in games since I know the twins will end up in our bedroom with their nightmares.  Of course every child is different, and what rolls off one child’s vinegary brain like a blob of oil will emulsify in another child’s imagination.  So we can’t always go with popularity or another parent’s vetting of a game since every child is different.  There are plenty of times when I have to say no not because there is anything wrong with the game, but because I don’t have the time to explore the reviews and look at screenshots.  By the time I can get around to looking at the game, that game is already on its way out with the elementary school set.  If you want to keep up with the video game talk, you need to pretty much download and start playing instantly.

Rapidly downloading and discarding games means that kids — at least the ChickieNob and Wolvog — aren’t deeply exploring a single world, immersing themselves so deeply into a game that they start imagining themselves an actual owner of a farm or a jetpack.  Back when my sister and I played epic games of Utopia, I would feel actual joy when the rain clouds watered my crops, imagining my villagers excited by the bounty of invisible food.  I cared about Pitfall Harry, constructing a backstory for him that explained why he would brave quicksand and rattlesnakes to collect diamond rings.  We stayed so long with one game that we ended up knowing every single screen.

The twins don’t even remember some games when I bring them up months later, trying to figure out if it’s okay to delete them from my iTunes account.  With the exception of a few games that have sticking power, most games are barely explored and quickly forgotten.  I can still remember every single game we owned on both of our gaming systems as well as any computer game my parents purchased for us during a twenty-year span.  Will my kids be able to recall video games when they’re older to annoy their kids with how life used to be back when graphics were merely three-dimensional or allowed the gamer to place themselves squarely into the action (which was back when we all lived above ground before the zombie apocalypse)?

And lastly, there are the lessons missed that video game playing afforded us in my youth.  We stuck with a game until we solved it (and then we photographed the television screen with a Polaroid camera to prove it to friends at school the next day).  We stuck with it no matter how frustrated we got because it was our only game option.  We couldn’t cajole our parents into buying us two games in quick succession, so we stayed with a single game of Super Mario Brothers until we found every single portal and collected every single coin.  Playing games that way made me feel as if I accomplished something after all those hours in front of the screen.  I felt as if I had used my brain, solved a problem, seen a story unfold in front of my eyes.

Right now, with games so plentiful and easily (and cheaply) obtainable, they don’t stick with a game very long once it gets frustrating.  If they can’t figure it out after a few tries, they delete it and move onto the next game.  I realized that I was starting to do it too; download dozens of hidden object games, play them for a few minutes, and then delete them when they ask me to make a purchase or connect to Facebook.  Maybe this new tendency of game creators to push us into playing socially in order to build their word-of-mouth non-organically is what makes me turn away from games in a hurry, but certainly my twins aren’t thinking about how annoying it is to be manipulated into giving game makers access to your friend’s eyes in exchange for a few minutes of entertainment.  The ChickieNob and Wolvog are deleting because easy come, easy go.  They got the game easily, the game turned out to be a challenge, and they deleted it in favour of the next set of shiny graphics coupled with catchy song.

This problem isn’t solved by forcing my kids to buy their own games; after all, when a game is free or 99 cents, what I need them to learn can’t be learned without a foot coming down to make a few rules.

New games need to be played for a few weeks before they can be rotated off the device, so choose wisely, kids, since you won’t be able to download another one this month.  Before a game can be replaced with a new game, they need to explain why they’re removing it.  Too many “it’s too hard”s on games that I know are playable will result in me meanly telling them to keep at it until they’ve figured out three more boards.  Games that only allow them to progress if they make in-app purchases or connect to a social media account may be deleted immediately considering in-app purchases are blocked on every device in this house and my children aren’t old enough for social media accounts.  And lastly, they also need to choose a game and play it with me, slowly solving it together and talking about it incessantly to build their imagination.  Infocom games are particularly good for this torture.

Hopefully this will ensure that we stop having conversations such as the one that occurred a few weeks ago.  The Wolvog’s iPod was recharging and I offered him use of my phone since he had just started his screen time for the day.  He turned down the offer, informing me that my phone was boring:

It always has the same games.


1 Keiko { 09.18.13 at 8:05 am }

I can’t remember exactly how old your twins are, but they should be old enough for both Little Big Planet (1 and 2) and *maybe* The Sims (might be a stretch at their age). Also, Disney Infinity. These are all available for the PS3 (not sure if you have a console beyond your iPads). I suggest these games b/c they’re largely world immersion games, or have no set/finite “ending” per se. This allows for hours and hours of infinite gameplay, until they get bored. (Comparable adult versions: Skyrim/The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3, World of Warcraft, other MMORPGs).

Little Big Planet is an ENORMOUSLY fun game. Yes, it has levels (and they get HARD) but there’s a ton of collect XYZ stickers/achievements/costumes that will have you going back to replay old levels to get more cool stuff. There’s also open world building where you can play user created levels. It’s a pretty spectacular game with minimal violence and otherwise insanely creative and fun.

The Sims is basically: make people, make houses, make cities. Play G-d. It’s fun stuff. Sims also makes SimCity (don’t go with the just -released SimCity – it’s a trainwreck). Another title to consider, but is definitely advanced is Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution. Turn based strategy game for the PS3 that might be a bit advanced for the twins, but worth a look.

Disney Infinity, from what I understand, is a giant world-building/exploring game, featuring all things Disney.

Just some console game options from your resident nerdy gamer.

2 loribeth { 09.18.13 at 9:13 am }

Mel, I don’t have kids but I understand where you are coming from. I can’t get over how much STUFF kids have today, and how expensive it is, and how casually it is discarded when the next big thing comes along.

Case inpoint: StepMIL’s 5-year-old grandson was there when we visited on Saturday night. He has this game setup that works with the iPad — I can’t remember the name but I’m sure someone here will know what I mean. He collects figurines that you set onto this little circular stand/platform, & it connects to the iPad & your figurine becomes an action hero in the game onscreen, each one with its own special powers, etc.

The kid has more than FIFTY of these figurines. Did I mention that he is FIVE years old?? Each figurine, depending on the size, etc., can cost anywhere from $12 to $30 — x 50+ figurines = he has well over $1,500 invested in game figurines (not to mention the actual game setup itself, which I am sure cost something on top of that — plus the iPad itself, of course). And this is a family that is struggling to get by financially. His mother is unemployed and back at school and his dad works as a handyman. His aunt works at Costco & sometimes gets them for him cheap.

I just wonder how long these are going to hold his attention…

3 Catwoman73 { 09.18.13 at 10:48 am }

LOVED Pitfall!!! 🙂

I am about to purge a great deal of my daughter’s ‘stuff’- including iPad games, downloaded cartoons, things we have saved for her on the DVR. She, too, tends to forget about things shortly after obtaining them. I want to start providing her with more experiences, instead of more ‘stuff’. Hopefully that will change the sense of entitlement that seems to already be setting in.

4 a { 09.18.13 at 10:55 am }

We don’t buy any games online. My daughter always asks, but we refuse. I recognize that some things are good to try before you commit, so if they’re free apps, I’m willing to let them come and go a bit. But I’m very cautious about stuff for the kid – I can’t justify spending large amounts of money on things that will likely be discarded in short order.

I’m actually having a hard time with this because her birthday is coming up. I don’t know what to do for it – I don’t really want to have a party because the kids in her school just don’t attend and I don’t want her to be disappointed. But I want it to be fun for her. So, I’m tempted to spend the outrageous amounts of money for the American Girl doll she wants – it would still be cheaper than a party. I just can’t justify it (and she would be happy with the Target brand knock-off anyway). Oh well, I guess we’ll figure out some kind of experience for her to enjoy.

5 Turia { 09.18.13 at 1:03 pm }

So the defining computer games of my childhood were Police Quest, Commander Keen, and Heroes of Might and Magic. I can still remember sitting with both of my sisters, all of us bouncing in sync on our chairs and then leaning to the right as I pushed the button that would launch the intrepid Commander Keen into the air, all three of us willing him to safely reach the next landing point, as if our bodies’ movements could help him. And I have lasting memories of Heroes of Might and Magic as well- the collecting of resources, the painstaking building of your castle, the battles.

This post terrified me. Q. and I are real Luddites- we don’t own smartphones, we don’t have any tablets, we don’t play computer games ourselves (Q. because he can’t see the point; me because they make me motion sick and I know I’ll get addicted to anything like World of Warcraft if I start). I have no idea how we will navigate all of this when E. is in school.

I really do find it crazy though how quickly some electronics seem to have become ‘essential’. Case in point: my university students all sport the latest smartphone, tablet, etc., yet I know they are all struggling to pay their tuition. I really hope we can find a balance- I don’t want E. to become a social pariah.

I like your rules. I think they are good ones.

6 Alexicographer { 09.18.13 at 2:09 pm }

Oh, Space Invaders, where are you now?

(A parenting problem of another era: my young brother thinking it was OK for him to pick up the quarters left on the tables as parts of tips at the local Pizza Hut so that he could go play another round of Space Invaders. Back when we all lived above ground and all. Oh, wait …).

We’re with, or close to, Turia: our 2-adult household does now own 1 smartphone, and I have a Nexus 7. But I don’t play games or have any on the Nexus (do I?) and I’ve insisted that the smartphone not be used for them either. Which is good in that DS can only play Supermario or ToeJam and Earl (the 2 Wii games we own) and only when we are home, permission is granted, etc. Not to say that hasn’t involved some (serious) obsessing on his part.

But, right — so much to navigate lies ahead. A growing (but not receding) mud pit, one might say.

7 Persnickety { 09.18.13 at 6:45 pm }

Oh I feel old. Sigh. Maxis ( the people who made the Sims) also made a game called SimEarth back in the day. When I feel like impressing my husband with m,y meager geek cred, I mention that I owned it. That’s like saying I owned a t Rex.
Have your kids discovered mine craft? Free on pc, also a game on iPad. I know lots of kids play it ( had one try to explain how awesome it is) but all it does for me is make me feel old and out of touch. It’s very blocky, and is basically a world where things are built.
Also, abc in Australia ( like PBS, but more money, or like BBC but less money) has a very good game program for kids called good game spawn point. You may not be able to watch the clips, but they do have a lot of accessible material http://www.abc.net.au/abc3/goodgamesp/
Spawn point focuses on games that are age/content appropriate for kids. And they are very into minecraft. They are also pretty honest in their reviews, if the game sucks, or is a bad freemium, they will say so.

8 Battynurse { 09.19.13 at 12:42 pm }

I tend to avoid games off FB. All the ads etc annoy me. I love hidden object/puzzle games but buy them from a game site which can get spendy at 6.99 per game and I usually play once or maybe twice. Upside is that these games can take me anywhere from 5-14 hours to get all the way through. No idea about kids games but it does seem like there’s more pressure for kids to have more of everything.

9 evilcyber { 09.19.13 at 2:02 pm }

Have you played Plants vs. Zombies? I loved that game and in my opinion it’s fun for adults and children.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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