What parents need to know about digital games

There’s this look I get at a party with other adults when I tell them I’m a game designer. They clam up a bit, slant their eyes, and do the ‘fiddling with thumbsticks gesture’. Then they ask:

you mean computer games?

And then, really a lot of the time, before I can answer they tell me a story of their son, or their nephew, or their friend’s child, and how he or she spends all of their time in his room on Runequest or Call of Duty or Minecraft and how they just don’t know what to do.

Then what I usually say is something mealy-mouthed and reassuring about how games aren’t so bad and did you read about this research that says they’re quite good in some ways and that relationships you make playing games can be real and important and hey there are these really interesting worthwhile games *over here* that I’m associated with.

Sometimes I make the point that maybe they should consider engaging more with their child’s hobby. Our parents might not have liked our music, but they mostly listened to and understood music, and had an opinion about it, and we could if absolutely necessary agree that some of the music that the other person liked was in fact ok.

There’s no getting away from the emotional core of these exchanges though:

you do something for a living that I think is not ok.

I’m a parent. And I’m a game designer. That makes my experience of these conversations quite strange. On the one hand I love videogames and will defend them utterly as an equally useful way of frittering away your time as movies, novels, poetry, fairground rides or taxidermy. On the other hand, I know that I do (and will continue to) attempt to exercise a degree of control over the games my children play.

I constantly find myself worrying about my kids spending too much time with screens. And I’m no stranger to the epic battle at the end of a play session where I have to prise the iPad out of my daughter’s hand.

The game I’ve been working on for the last year is called Fabulous Beasts. It is trying to do something different with games and play, and also screens. It’s about blending physical and digital play, making them seamlessly work together, so things you do in the real world are naturally reflected in the digital one. I’ve been making games that do this for a pretty long time now — about ten years.

One reason for this is that I think you cannot pretend that videogames (or in fact, computers) don’t exist. It’s just. not. realistic. to think that your kids are going to ignore them and instead play with this delightful set of hand-tooled wooden blocks you have bought at great expense. The reason kids play videogames are manifold: to express themselves, to have a place in which they can attain a degree of mastery and independence not afforded to them in daily life, to hang out with their friends online, to deal with emotional issues. These are all compelling reasons, not about to go away any time soon.

So instead of fighting computer games, why don’t we embrace them? One way of doing this — my way at least — is to try to fold in all the things they’re great at into experiences I am more comfortable with. We have 50 years of videogames, and 5000 years of games. There’s less between them than you think.

Fabulous Beasts was developed with support from Watershed in Bristol through a scheme called Play Sandbox. Part of their support was that we had some amazing kids — young coaches — working with us as partners, giving us feedback on our ideas and helping us shape the game. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience. Charlie and Mira, two of the young coaches, recently got to play the finished game.

Charlie would most like to play next with his Dad (who doesn’t join in with FIFA as they don’t have enough controllers) and thought his grandparents might give it a go whereas Mira was sure that her much older brother would love it. I am definitely looking forward to playing it with my parents and my son. We agreed that for us, in the on going negotiation about technology that pervades our family lives, playing Fabulous Beasts would not count in our screen time allowance. Bonus points all around.

I think that there’s a particular view of the world that it’s easy to hold if you’re of parenting age. Which is that the world used to be analogue, and somehow a bit safer and more understandable, and now it is digital, and a lot more addictive, distracting and unsettling. I think that this view might be a trick of history — the product of having lived through the very beginning of this shift. I think two important things are happening to undermine it. The first is that our kids don’t draw any distinction between physical and digital, and as a result have a load less angst about it than we do. The second is that designers and technologists are getting better at creating products and experiences that are more in tune with our bodies and desires. The confluence of those trends is a world where we can all relax and enjoy the extraordinary advantages that technology confers.

In the mean time, I hope that we can start to shift perception of game design as a profession — from ‘glinty-eyed exploiters of the lizard brain’ to ‘empathetic explorers of what gives us cognitive pleasure’. At least, that would make it a lot easier for me at parents evening.