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?

Get the GeekDad Books for the Holidays!

   

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.