I can still feel the anticipation in my chest. February 1990: Waiting restlessly in the parking lot in the dark while my dad went inside to purchase the prize keeping me from sitting still.
My precious sister had just been born, and life had become exciting and busy for the grown-ups. Exciting, but a little less busy and entertaining for a 4.5 year old boy. With all of our energy focused at home, my parents decided we (mostly me) needed something to help pass the time. So we came to Target in the cold and dark to bring home a Nintendo Entertainment System. 8-bit glory. The true Holy Grail of fun for kids since its introduction in 1985.
It was the bundled edition that came with Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros, and I remember shortly after we got Super Mario Bros 3. I was immediately hooked. It was the greatest gift I had ever been given. We were not destitute, but I know it was a huge sacrifice for my parents. I know my dad enjoyed it too, but I don’t think he got near as much “stick” time as I got.
It wasn’t just that I could sit and play by myself. I have countless vivid memories of staying up late on weekends playing Super Mario Bros 3 with my dad. He would make rules so we could stay up ’til we got a million points or until we had gone through 50 lives. I remember all of the times they let me play on the only TV in the house. Even on evenings when they were tired, they would just sit and watch. They would pull out the sleeper sofa in the living room, dad would play with me, and then I’d fall asleep. They would clean up around me and let me stay there all night. It was glorious.
27 years later I am still gaming. It relieves stress. It challenges me. The games tell engaging stories that I get wrapped up in. My kids see me playing games. And as my kids grow up and ask to play, I realize even more how much a gift my parents gave me. Now my oldest is the same age I was when we got the NES, and she watches me play with fascination. I have taught her to play a few simple games by herself, games that require just one joystick and 1 or 2 buttons. But she lights up and shines most when I play a two-player game with her.
Our current favorite is The Lego Movie Game. She sits next to me and diligently follows and tries to work out what we are doing and where we are going. We talk. She asks questions. She gets frustrated. She feels triumphant and gleeful when she succeeds. It is a true connection between the two of us.
Game design has changed tremendously in 27 years. Games for the most part have gotten easier in terms of game play, even as their scope and size grows exponentially. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are still very challenging for a 4.5 year old learning how to navigate an XBOX controller. I want Cora to learn and figure out how to solve problems, so we sit, we play, we struggle, and we discover together.
I know that gaming is a habit just like anything else, and it should be enjoyed in moderation. So we do not play all of the time – really just once or twice a week. But when we do, it provides a wealth of experiences not only for her but also for me in parenting and in life skills.
We talk about how to deal with frustrations. How to deal with solving a difficult, seemingly impossible problem. She is finding the balance of when to ask for help or when to try again because she almost has it. We get to rejoice when she figures it out all by herself or when she just needs a little hint and is able to complete the task herself. We have even had to talk about when to turn it off and set it aside because we have gotten so angry it isn’t fun anymore (her not me…I promise!).
We share joy in the secret of handing her younger brother a non-functioning controller so he can “join us” on adventures. She picked up on that deception much too quickly, but it prevents a big fight, so I’ll try not to worry about that too much for now.
Being a dad can sometimes look like a daunting amount of sacrifices. But when Cora and I are sharing a life and she is squealing with joy about the coins we collected in game – I realize they aren’t all sacrifices, a lot of them are better than what I had planned. I won’t say I don’t enjoy my solo gaming time after the kids have gone to bed. I still enjoy blasting demons in DOOM, fighting pilots in Titanfall 2, starting a new character in Skyrim for the 200th time, and scouring the wasteland in Fallout 4. But I have come to look forward to our gaming sessions, and I can’t wait to introduce my kids to more and more.
Gaming has shaped and continues to shape my worldview. It has also permanently left a mark on the way I parent and hope to continue to parent. My folks probably didn’t think about it in those terms, but I will be forever grateful for the awesome sister I got in the winter of 1990 and the NES we got just a few days later.