Playing With My Son

An experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting

There’s a classic Steve Martin bit from A Wild and Crazy Guy…

“I got a great dirty trick you can play on a three-year-old kid… Whenever you’re around him, talk wrong. So now it’s like his first day in school and he raises his hand, ‘May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?’”

I’m not sure if it’s a great idea to take parenting advice from 1970s standup albums, but this always made sense to me.

If you have a kid, why not run experiments on them? It’s like running experiments on a little clone of yourself! And almost always probably legal.

It’s disappointing how many people have children and miss this golden opportunity, usually waiting until they’re in their teens to start playing mindgames with them.

Before my son was born in 2004, I was prepared. I’d brainstormed a long list of sociological and psychological experiments with friends and coworkers, ready to unleash my inner Milgram on my unborn offspring.

My original plan was to raise him thinking he was living in a computer simulation, but sadly, my wife vetoed it. And any other potentially harmful, but funny, life-altering scenarios.

But I managed to sneak one in anyway.

I was born in 1977 — the same year the Atari 2600 was released and a year before Space Invaders. I was lucky enough to be born into the golden age of arcade gaming, and played through each subsequent generation as I grew up.

My son Eliot was born in 2004 — the year of Half-Life 2, Doom 3, and the launch of the Nintendo DS. By the time he was born, video games were a $26B industry.

I love games, and I genuinely wanted Eliot to love and appreciate them too. So, here was my experiment:

What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order?

Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming.

Would that child better appreciate modern independent games that don’t have the budgets of AAA monstrosities like Destiny and Call of Duty? Would they appreciate the retro aesthetic, or just think it looks crappy?

Or would they just grow up thinking that video game technology moved at a breakneck speed when they were kids, and slammed to a halt as soon as they hit adolescence?

On Eliot’s fourth birthday, I started him with a Pac-Man plug-and-play TV game loaded with arcade classics — Galaxian (1979), Rally-X (1980), Bosconian (1981), Dig Dug (1982), and of course, Pac-Man (1980) and three sequels, Super Pac-Man (1982), Pac-Man Plus (1982), and Pac & Pal (1983).

Until the moment he picked up the joystick, part of me secretly dreaded he’d have no interest in it.

In the days leading up to his birth, I’d jolt awake in a cold sweat from nightmares of raising a six-year-old athlete, begging me to go outside to play football or baseball or some other dreaded physical activity.

Crisis averted.

He got better quickly. Six weeks later, he was beating my high scores in Dig Dug and regularly getting to higher stages of Pac-Man and its sequels.

I picked up another plug-and-play TV game — Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Mappy, Pole Position, and Xevious — and we played through the games together.

When we got bored of those, we hooked up my old Atari 2600, and we played through my collection of lo-fi gems like Asteroids, Kaboom!, Adventure, Combat, and (yes) E.T., but most didn’t hold up well.

It was time to move on to the next generation.

Four months into the experiment, with Eliot not even 4 1/2 years old, we’d jumped to the 8-bit era.

I loaded up an emulator and we started working our way through the NES canon.

At first, he sat on my lap and we took turns playing. Usually, he’d take the controls, but I’d step in for the tricky parts.

By age 5, he could beat some parts of moderately-difficult platformers like Super Mario 3.

By age 6, he was beating entire games on his own. He finished The Legend of Zelda on his own, and then finished the very difficult second quest with some mapping assistance.

We’d finished Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Mega Man 1–6, Castlevania 1–3, Rygar, Contra, and Duck Tales.

It was time to level up again.

I never owned a Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64 — I’d moved on to PC gaming by then — so many of these games were new to me.

We played through Link to the Past and Super Mario World, and discovered some lesser-known gems together that became all-time favorites.

By the beginning of 2011, we’d moved on to the N64. The beginning of the 3D era on consoles didn’t age well in my eyes, but Eliot didn’t seem to mind. We beat the brilliant Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and fell in love with the criminally underrated Rocket: Robot on Wheels.

By the time he turned seven, Eliot had collected every star in Super Mario 64.

After that, we skipped straight to the 2000s. On the PlayStation 2, we played through ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and the original Katamari Damacy, released the year he was born.

The experiment was complete.

This approach to widely surveying classic games clearly had an impact on him, and influenced the games that he likes now.

Like seemingly every kid his age, he loves Minecraft. No surprises there.

But he also loves brutally difficult games that challenge gamers 2–3 times his age, and he’s frighteningly good at them. His favorites usually borrow characteristics from roguelikes: procedurally-generated levels, permanent death, no save points.

One of his favorite games is Spelunky, easily one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played. Paste Magazine called it “a game with ‘hard’ carved into its very being.” I’ve never beaten it. I will probably never beat it.

A month after his eighth birthday, he beat Spelunky on his own.

But Spelunky isn’t like other games. Eliot may have beaten the game, but there’s a second, much harder ending — by going to Hell.

Tom Francis explains:

“To complete Spelunky, you just have to survive 15 randomly generated levels and then trick the final boss into killing itself. To get to hell, though, you have to perform a series of specific rituals in a specific order, using unique objects that crop up in different places each time, and then defeat the boss in a particularly audacious way to use his death as a stepping stone to the underworld.”

It’s one of the most difficult feats in gaming. I only know a couple people who have done it. For Tom Francis, it was “the hardest thing I’ve ever managed in a video game… It only took 41 minutes, but it took me hundreds of hours of play — and about 3,000 deaths — to learn how to do those 41 minutes.”

Three months ago, Eliot beat Spelunky the hard way. The game’s creator, Derek Yu, thinks he may be the youngest person to have done it.

After beating Spelunky, Eliot was ready for a new challenge. He asked me to buy him a new game he found through YouTube — Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer’s action roguelike-like known for its relentless difficulty. A week later:

Nuclear Throne, like many indie games developed by a tiny team, has a very old-school aesthetic:

And this, for me, is the most interesting impact of the experiment.

Eliot’s early exposure to games with limited graphics inoculated him from the flashy, hyper-realistic graphics found in today’s AAA games. He can appreciate retro graphics on its own terms, and focus on the gameplay.

The lo-fi graphics in games like VVVVVV, FTL, or Cave Story might turn off other kids his age, but like me, he’s drawn to them.

My hope is that this experiment instilled a life-long appreciation for smaller, weirder, more intimate games in him.

So I gave my son a crash course in video game history, compressing 25 years of gaming history into about four years.

At this point, you’re probably either thinking I’m a monster or a pretty awesome dad. Maybe a little of both.

That’s okay with me. My son is amazing, he loves video games, and more than anything, he loves playing them with me.

Ready, player two?

It’s about ethics in video game parenting.