Request Rejected: No, You’re Not Getting That Video Game

Screenshot of Jetpack Joyride

Screenshot of Jetpack Joyride

Our children 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.

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 my kids 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 my kids — 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.

My kids 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 Bros 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. My twins 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 favor 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. My son’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.

How often does your child ask for a new game, and have you found their play habits differ from the ones you held as a child?

About Melissa Ford

Melissa Ford writes women's fiction, but she does it while wearing a Superman shirt. A geek to the core, she is also the author of the award-winning site, Stirrup Queens which the Wall Street Journal named one of the top ten motherhood blogs. You can find her in all sorts of places around the web including Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Google+, and Amazon. She completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins.

About Melissa Ford

Melissa Ford writes women's fiction, but she does it while wearing a Superman shirt. A geek to the core, she is also the author of the award-winning site, Stirrup Queens which the Wall Street Journal named one of the top ten motherhood blogs. You can find her in all sorts of places around the web including Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Google+, and Amazon. She completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins.

14 thoughts on “Request Rejected: No, You’re Not Getting That Video Game

  1. Timely. My 6 year old is constantly asking for new apps for me to put on my iPad or phone, and he hears about these from other kids at school. I’d never heard of Candy Crush until recently, but apparently it’s a worldwide sensation. These aren’t “my kind of games” so I tend to gloss over them when I see them mentioned online, but not my son… he wants to play any game and every kind of game. I’m a bit happy about that… and a bit apprehensive. I’m like you — I simply do NOT have time to investigate every game he asks about, and I’ve gotten to where I’m implemented a “New App Friday” where he and I test out a few new game apps together to figure out which one survives. (He also knows that bad behavior and not doing some basic chores will force NAF to be bumped to the following week.)

    It’s worked so far. The Room, for example, is his current favorite (and they just released the add-on box for it to get players ready for The Room 2). He plays it a lot, and has now gotten to where he can solve it completely on his own. I cannot count how many times we’ve played it, but every minute was absolutely worth it because of the problem-solving skills the game teaches. Now he’s bouncing off the wall since I told him The Room 2 is coming out before the end of the year.

    I’m also quite thankful that he’s developed a love of boardgames at an early age. We are currently playing Dragon Roll and the kid beats me solid just about every game. He’s also quite good at Forbidden Island and Castle Panic.

    BTW — I’ve tried my hardest to sit down and play old Atari games with him — I have a 2600 that works great and dozens of cartridges I’ve bought for pennies over the years. The games just don’t hold his attention. I find this sad… but also completely understandable. These were my games… not his.

    I’ll continue to push for games (apps and boardgames) that hold his interest but also keep the violence low and the problem-solving/strategy high.

    Great post, Melissa.

  2. Oooh, I really like this and I’m going to borrow it: “New App Friday.” If it’s a day of the week, I can schedule in the research and download at the same time.

    I have to admit that I am an avid Candy Crush player (I’m almost at level 200). We’re also a family that Candy Crushes together.

    • And trust me, they will NOT let you forget about it on Friday! After I pick my son up from school, he’s already asking me on the ride home if I’ve found any interesting apps for him to try.

      What I’m really enjoying is that, more and more, he’s asking to play boardgames in lieu of video games. That just makes me smile.

      Melissa, if you’ve not yet discovered The Room, you’ve gotta get it. It is an amazing game, and the puzzles are tough but totally solvable. It’s sort of the text-based games upgraded with graphics. Turn this, tap that, inspect this item, place that item… the designers are geniuses. Play it WITH your children and you’ll hear the gears in their heads turning.

  3. I also find this to be a timely post. I actively dissuade my son from gaming on his iPod or phone because this is exactly how he seems to operate.

    Perhaps because of the social interaction he engages in, as opposed to being more isolated on the iPod/phone, the experience online is different. My son games online with a group of school friends and about once a week there will be a new game that one will be pushing for the rest to play. Typically, if the game in question is purchased, it is played a few times at most and then simply forgotten as the group moves back to playing the handful of games they devote most of their time to (Minecraft and Terraria). Because the friendships my son has and continues to develop through his online social group extend into his school life and overall have been very positive, I would not mind this nearly as much if the games were free or $.99, but typically the games run from $4.99 to $14.99. Because of the cost, more often than not, I will have him wait a week or so prior to opening up getting a game for discussion and see if it is still something the group is giving its attention to. This works out as because the kids all use Skype, they can still interact with one another despite playing their own games.

    And while my son would probably burn through new games on a daily basis if I let him, he definitely invests a lot of time in games/worlds he likes. When it comes to console gaming, he has tried to play and beat every Mario and Sonic game and is currently trying to make his way through all the older Capcom games he can get his hands on, including all the Mega Man games. He becomes totally immersed in the history of the games also. I’ve learned more about video games history in the past 3-4 years than I had otherwise my entire life. When he wants me to buy a NES/SNES cart that he could just as easily play on an emulator or as part of a collection released on a modern console, I find that I am not really all that opposed to buying the cart. I know more likely than not I will be more frustrated with the time he spends on the game than the time he doesn’t!

    On the PC, he overwhelming spends his time in Minecraft, be it creating or administering the server he runs for himself and friends. And he still finds time to devote to trying to create his own games. This past weekend he worked for hours on a Mega Man game in Multimedia Fusion, opting to do that over playing online games with his friends. But, while doing their own things, the group is still all interacting via Skype, which I thinks gives them more space to not always all jump on the latest game of the day.

    • We have a very similar situation where the kids push each other to get games so they can play together via Gamecenter. Which, as you say above, they get excited about, play for a few days, and move on.

      When we got Minecraft for the computer, I made my son give me something for collateral. If he actually stuck with the game, he could get his item back. If he dropped it after a few days, I kept it. I wanted to make sure that he really really wanted it due to the cost. Was he willing to risk losing something he liked to get it? Turns out that he’s still playing it on and off.

  4. My boys have slowly started weighing the value of their screen time and allowances. For the most part, they’ve decided that gaming is best in order of value on the computer, Xbox360, and finally tablet. With very little in the way of hints and prodding, they are now spending the ‘fun’ percentage of their allowance on more complex, challenging, and expensive computer games rather than $1 games that are entertaining for a couple of hours on a tablet.

    They still game on tablets, but this is becoming more and more a stopgap or the go-to activity for trips. It seems the tablets are being used primarily for consuming media in the form of email, browsing, youtube, and books.

    • That’s really interesting. I will say that Minecraft on the computer has gotten a lot more play than most of the iPod games. Though my son loves racing games on the iPod since he can tilt the device.

  5. I call bull. :-)

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with everything you’re saying about the modern world in terms of lots of games available and kids bop from game to game and a week after they begged you for it they forgot it. My kids are 16 and 12, have their own iphones, PCs, and can use an iPad any time they like. Fricking gamapalooza in our house.

    But as different as it seems, this is how it’s always been.

    In my day, (I’m in my mid-40’s btw), my Dad thought the same thing as he brought home to me dozens of (pirated) games for my TRS-80, my brother on his TI-994a got similar from school and friends, and my friend (then girlfriend, now wife of 20+ years) was doing the same on her C-64. Do you know how many games were loaded once and never again? A LOT!

    We all bought a lot of games too. Before that I was swapping cartridges on the Atari 2600 with friends, and you couldn’t copy that floppy.

    And before that some parent tried to tell their kids to read every book they checked out from the library, even if it sucked, because when they were kids the library was 20 miles away and they had to walk.

    And before that some neanderthal parent moaned about how easy kids have it now because they have a river only half an hour away and they can practically have a drink anytime!

    But aside from the implication that this is a completely new phenomenon, I would like to disagree with the idea that quitting is bad.

    Persistently sticking with something you do not like (book, tv show, video game, whatever) is dumb. Life’s short, there’s great things out there and how better to find them than trying lots of new things? This isn’t fine literature, or advanced math, that they might enjoy but even if they don’t it is good for them. A lot of these games really are crap. There’s a reason they’re $0.99 or less.

    Your kids, and mine, are accessing an INSANE diversity of games and when we’re not complaining about them bopping from game to game we’re complaining about them being overly obsessed and not trying new things. Had a fun conversation when my eldest played Minecraft exclusively for a few months. He didn’t get over it, he still plays it, and a ton of other things. I got over it.

    I make sure I read reviews and prevent them from playing games too adult for them (my eldest wasn’t allowed to try any M game until 16 and most of them are still not allowed), but otherwise they can play what they like and I just try to keep up. Minecraft is wonderful btw, I love it and mock my kids relentlessly that the graphics remind me of the C-64. Win-win! I try to not let them become overly obsessed, and they forgave me when I played nothing but Skyrim for 2 months straight.

    But for heavens sake, let them run away from crap when they can.

    They’re going to get suckered (E.T. for the atari leaps to mind) but if my parents had forced me to play it, that would not have made me a better person. Maybe I missed out on some great games because I wasn’t persistent enough, but looking back and going over “greatest games of the Amiga” lists as I get all nostalgic tells me I didn’t do too badly.

    Let them browse, let them find their own stupid games that we don’t understand but they love, and then abandon in a month. And let them pick up a book, read 15 pages, go “this sucks!” and go on to something else, but don’t force them to finish crap.

    The world is not that different from when we were kids, it just feels like it. Now go eat your broccoli! And get off my lawn! I’m an old man now, I can say stuff like that.

    • “In my day, (I’m in my mid-40′s btw), my Dad thought the same thing as he brought home to me dozens of (pirated) games for my TRS-80, my brother on his TI-994a got similar from school and friends, and my friend (then girlfriend, now wife of 20+ years) was doing the same on her C-64. Do you know how many games were loaded once and never again? A LOT!”

      Funny, as when I told my son about this post and he asked me about how it was when I was a kid, I found myself telling him about getting more free (pirated) C64 games than I could count. He saw this as opportunity to both judge me for pirating (he really does not like pirating) and for telling me that he should be able to make his own calls regarding how much time he devotes to particular games…

      • That is another thing: zero pirated games in our house (either then or now). So… since we pay for everything I think we do come at it from a different mentality of worth.

    • How sad that the first thing I’ll respond to is… that I loved that ET game. A friend had it, and I remember playing it.

      That said, we got our games one at a time and stuck with them for a long time. Things we invested money in became something we cherished and made it worth the money spent. Which is very different from library books that weren’t always finished. But if I bought the book, you better believe I was finishing it. Hence why I now usually download a sample before I download the whole book, or at least pick it up at the store and flip through a page or two to be certain that I like the voice. I can only think of one book that I purchased that I didn’t finish. Library books on the other hand…

      The world really WILL be different for the next generation since… you know… zombie apocalypse and they’ll actually get to complain to their kids and have it mean something.

  6. Both my kids are iAdept with the iPad 2, mostly since age 2 and a half. They play the toddler games, some learning games toca boca style…

    I think it’s mostly our fault when we caved to our once youthful great “patience” to wait for that game, then open that game and play over and over and over, with all the good and bad that comes with it. When we caved, we decided at some point, we want the best for our kids, and give them _choices_. Because there are now plenty of said _choices_, at least more than in the 80’s and 90’s, _choices_ you never had to begin with, you owe yourself to give the best to your kids meaning finding yourself in your limited time quickly reviewing 3-4 downloaded apps to see if they are good for your kids and provide decent amounts of instructional, entertaining and _sedating_ values (sedating as in calming them down).
    The backfire is, you condition them to received new _treats_ in the form of small bitesized gaming takes.

    In one sentence: it’s like those 10+ toys they received last birthday/x-mas and played with once.

    On the other hand, games are now shorter experiences overall, but that is a whole chapter of discussion in itself. I look back at my early computer moments and remember Sierra and LucasArts and their long, beautifully designed, clever, and unforgiving adventure games (English is not my native language). I look back at early Broderbund, Simtex and Microprose with their deep Civilization and Master of Orion/Magic games and the countless times the galaxy was destroyed… Interplay and Alone in the Dark, then the Wolf3D, Doom, Quake, Team Fortress era came (I also played a lot of TF), the dusk of computer gaming for came in the year of Counterstrike. Today, I play Super Monsters Ate My Condo while waiting at the Post Office, or Angry Birds… and that’s it.

    My kids, they will go through these games, and maybe will hardly experience the good old adventure games

    There is just one rule enforced so far (as they are young, they can’t buy new games or download free games/apps), we *try* to limit screen time to 1 hour per day.

    My 2 cents,