Like a lot of kids in the 80’s, my notion of fun was eclectic. I liked playing with toys. I loved illustration. I liked playing outside with my friends. We liked making up games, telling each other stories, and talking about our favorite after school television shows. And I loved sleepovers, for the late nights, the hijinks, the gossip, and the sense of independence from our parents.
All that changed around 1987. I was visiting a casual friend’s house and he was doing what young boys do. Showing me all of his toys, his trophies from sports, and his other objects of pride. But he’d clearly been saving his most dear device for last.
“Have you heard of Nintendo?”
He turned it on, and the now classic Super Mario Bros. screen booted up. He started the game, I watched Mario run and bound and smash his head in to bricks. It was absolutely mesmerized by its interactivity.
“Do you want to try it?”
“Okay, you have to let me punch you.”
“I’m in karate. I need to practice my gut punch.”
I was a very mature 7 years old, but I’d never faced such a difficult choice. I didn’t like being punched—it had happened enough in school that I was sure of that—but this device and this strange red and brown jumping man, was something I’d never seen. It was television, but I was in control. I needed to know more, and if being punched in the gut was the only way how, so be it.
I braced myself. He put on his karate belt. He pulled back with his best form, then put all of his might into my abdomen.
I wasn’t really prepared for how hard it would be to breathe afterwards. I fell backwards, held back my tears as any good eighties boy would do, and waited to regain my ability breathe and stand.
“Thanks! Here, this is called a controller. Use this to move Mario, and this button to make him jump…”
It wasn’t long after I left his house that I knew that I needed a Nintendo and that fun would never be the same. I saved my allowance for months. I got a Nintendo. I became hooked on Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Punch-Out!!, Battletoads. I played Tetris on my Game Boy everywhere I went. My friends and I went from playing outside to having all night Tetris Attack and Street Fighter competitions. Unlike a lot of the rhetoric at the time, which presumed that games were drawing young boys in with a promise of violence and power, I was attracted to the endless discovery of new game mechanics, of laughter with my friends, and the joy of exploring 8 and 16-bit virtual worlds.
The other kinds of fun were still part of my life, but they were just so much harder. I stilled played outside with my friends, but when the Pacific Northwest drizzle started, it was so much easier to go inside boot up the Super Nintendo than to shiver and shoot hoops in the rain. I still illustrated, but rather than imagining my own worlds, I rendered the worlds that others had imagined for me. My friends and I still told each other stories, but rather than talking about our own lives, we talked about our lives in the game.
Throughout high school, this wasn’t really a problem. I balanced it with school. My fascination with video games led to a deep motivation to learn to code and create my own games. And games continued to be a persistent bond between me and my childhood friends, even as our interests shifted to romance, school, or our futures.
All this changed when I went to college. For myriad reasons, I viewed college as a path to independence. I needed to excel on every dimension so that I could find financial security and make a family of my own. I put all of my attention into learning, leading, networking, and planning. My future was my work, and I wasn’t going to let play get in the way.
But I still played. I remember one winter break coming home with a singular goal: take a break from the college grind by getting a Nintendo 64, then starting and completing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. My generous mother had gotten me both for Christmas, and so from December 25th until the start of Winter quarter, I binged this classic game and ignored my family, soaking up everything I’d loved about games, escaping all of the stress of school and home, and storing it up 23 credits of math, physics, computer science, English, and writing. It was beautiful, glorious, riveting, and masterful, but also isolating. Games were no longer a social context, they were an escape.
And I used them as an escape throughout college. I hid in my dorm room, engulfed by Half-Life on weekends. When I finished my CS assignments, I built elaborate strategies for missions in older strategy games like X-Com and Tie Fighter. I was hungry for puzzles that would take my mind off of my self and my life, and school and video games were happy to provide.
Only three years later, I was a new father of a wonderful baby girl. Finishing college, planning for grad school, and caring for a wife and newborn didn’t leave much time for video games, let alone other kinds of play. And grad school was no different. I remember telling my peers in my Ph.D. program: if life is about work, family, and friends, and being a parent means picking two out of three, and I picked work and family. That was wrong for a lot of reasons, but at the time, it meant that at 5:30 pm, while everyone was gathering to play Halo, I was going home to dinner. And while everyone gathered on weekends for Call of Duty, or shared their Sims stories online, I was going to pumpkin patches, getting groceries, or visiting family in Chicago.
But parenting is a moving target. By the time my daughter had turned 5, I’d realized that being a parent of pre-K kid was about discovery. It was my job to show her the world and everything in it! We explored nature, we created things, we took apart laptops, we learned musical instruments. I loved being the one to curate her experiences and watch her absorb everything about them.
Eventually, it came time to decide whether video games should be part of those experiences. The Nintendo Wii was coming out, and Wii Sports seemed like a nice compromise. It was active, it was social, and it was simple. Maybe this was a way to play that wouldn’t be consuming? And it was! In our endless bowling competitions, she learned to be persistent, I learned to be encouraging. Video games were no longer play, and they were no longer an escape: they were just part of a tapestry of ways that my daughter and I connected and learned together.
Eventually, my pre-teen daughter ended up where I was at 13: fully absorbed in virtual worlds. But video games had changed. They were no longer about four friends gathering around a screen in front of bowl of Doritos. They were about sitting alone, connected through chat, communicating through code and emoticons. They were about resisting the temptation of explicitly addictive game mechanics. They were about guilt for letting your Tamagochi die.
I remember reassuring my daughter that her Nintendog wouldn’t die if she left it at home over vacation. I remember first teaching her what addiction was when she couldn’t sleep because she knew there was so much to do in her virtual worlds. I remember just a few years ago having to listen to her disclose with shame that she’d spend hundreds of dollars on in-app purchases to advance the storyline of a narrative. For my adolescent, games were an addiction, and for me, they were a parenting crisis.
My ex and I eventually found ways of regulating her play, and we eventually found ways to teach her to regulate her own play. But this required me thinking of games not as something to be played, but as something to be studied. I needed to know what games were on the market, analyze their mechanics, understand their social features and their addictive features, so that I could properly protect and educate my child about how to use them safely.
Now that my daughter has control over her own relationship to video games, in way I’ve returned to video games in all the ways I have in the past. Sometimes they’re a social context, like they were at our friends’ house playing party games. Sometimes they’re an escape, when I just need a break from life by adventuring in Hyrule on my Switch. Sometimes they’re an object of study, as my Ph.D. students have begun to extract lessons from open world games and apply them to our research on coding tutorials. And sometimes, as with Zelda: Breath of the Wild, they are art to be appreciated, experienced, and celebrated. Much like games have gone from being a niche curiosity in society to a fundamentally integrated and ubiquitous part of modern life, games are no longer my singular interest, but just one dimension of many in my life.
I worry though, that the childhood I had, and the balanced adulthood I have now, are no longer possible. My childhood was a simple but varied experience of many kinds of play. Today, however, childhood seems to be complex, global, amplified, and singularly focused on social media over all other forms of interaction. And I’m not sure adulthood is any different. We’re all surrounded by the noise and chatter of the internet, rarely unplugged, and rarely present. Even as I write this, I wonder whether I’m writing this because I want to write, or because I’m stuck in a positive reinforcement loop of reads, likes, and favorites.
I think one compelling way forward is for society to begin to recognize that, just like anything else in life, video games are something that be a source of great joy, but also a destructive force. Handing a child (or an adult) a new app without understanding its risks and benefits, is like giving someone a pill and saying “trust me, it’s fun.” I’d love to see something like a nutrition facts for videos. How long will they take to play? What are the addictive elements in them? Are they about challenge and persistence? Or narrative and puzzle? There is a kind of literacy about games that most game players know tacitly. But it’s about time that everyone, especially parents, start knowing explicitly, so that we can help youth make informed choices about which experience they choose to engage in and when.