Parental guidance: why gaming with kids is bad for your health

Parental guidance

Parents be warned: letting your kids play LEGO Marvel Super Heroes might prompt a real-life Hulk smash to the kneecaps.

When the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched in symbiotic style at the end of 2013, many a gamer capable of recalling the transition to a whopping 56 simultaneous onscreen colours and Mode 7 wizardry, when Sega and Nintendo doubled their bit counts, could be forgiven for wondering when the console wars became so beige.

Sure enough, Microsoft and Sony had (metaphorically) fired their share of (rhetorical) shots over the (proverbial) parapets in the run up to each company’s new hardware hitting shelves – but where were the once-bold battle lines? Where were the playground divisions, the office debates? Didn’t we once display our allegiances with a “Mario Sucks” pin badge?

I did, for a bit (it might’ve come with an issue of Sega Pro). But as time’s trickled, so it’s become increasing evident to the maturing follower of digital culture that one man’s donkey is another’s ass – ergo, what one shiny new console offers, the other pretty much matches. Unless you upgraded to a Wii U recently, in which case: there’s always Mario (and, really, he doesn’t suck at all).

And yet, it’s to Sony’s console that I find myself turning – and not because its launch roster is markedly better than Microsoft’s. My attention was piqued, primarily, because of marketing. I know, I’m terrifically shallow – but I’m not talking about how the PS4’s share function was sold, or Resogun’s frenetic action, or even Knack’s particle effects. I was hooked by their identifying of one kind of modern gamer, the kind I could relate best to.

Sony cannily included games-playing dads in its PS4 marketing campaign, and it worked. Image credit.

“This is for the 3AM fathers.” The words were up there on a huge Underground poster, every morning when I sat waiting for my Bakerloo Line connection. And they stuck, as that’s what I have become. Not due to an obsessive relationship with my favourite games, which keeps me up regardless of whether it’s a school night. Not because I set my living room clocks to match those on the mantelpieces of Dhaka. But because of what makes me that f-word – the two small humans who share my home with me.

Playing games with kids isn’t as easy as it seems it’s going to be when you first bring them home. And they sleep. They sleep a lot. And when they’re sleeping, you’re playing – exactly how often can depend on the sympathies of your partner, but you’re playing nonetheless. Two hours, three perhaps – that’s easily achievable on any given day. But children change. They get bigger. They get interested in things. They sleep less. They ask questions. They get interested in your things.

And when your things are games, this can lead to problems. The two or three daylight hours that were yours become shared. Shared at the park, at the beach, at a stay-and-play where you’re the only dad in attendance and that’s not at all awkward. When the sun’s shining, great, because children love burning off all that energy on swings and slides and other structures that you’re sure never used to sit atop this strange, spongy stuff (as your scars attest to). But this is Britain, and in Britain it rains.

So eventually you fire up the 360, because it’s wretched outside and there are only so many times son number one can scatter your games across the lounge without rewarding his curiosity. LEGO Batman’s a hit – such a hit that some time later son number one might well clobber dad from behind, declaring himself to be Batman, and dad the notorious criminal Clayface. Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures carries a clear parental guidance warning, so we leave that well alone. Besides, it seems superheroes are the in thing for kids barely out of Bumbo seats.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes’ potent mix of, well, LEGO and superheroes makes it a potent draw for younger players.

2013’s LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is brilliant. And any child who loves LEGO (check) and superheroes (check) will confirm its appeal with a Hulk Smash to the kneecaps, or a Thor’s hammer to the temple. True enough there’s a PEGI 7 rating on the packaging, but this isn’t Grand Theft Auto, right? Except, and this is a lesson only learned the hard way: children are hugely impressionable, and videogames connect with their fledgling senses like you can’t imagine before it happens. Before it’s too late.

Requests to play “Sackboy” – that is, watch dad play LittleBigPlanet – are subsequently met with hesitance, because that’s another apparently child-friendly affair that, evidentially, isn’t without its flashes of do-as-seen violence. The running with scissors of Puppeteer? Forget about it. Rayman Legends seems to produce only low-level imitation, but then the chances of satisfyingly recreating the scene of a limbless… something rampaging through a medieval castle to the rollicking riffs of Ram Jam’s Black Betty are remote, even for the wildest imagination.

As uncertainty grows over what can and can’t be shared with a three-year-old, only one answer really presents itself: don’t play games in front of your kids. Because if seeing Link lamp a few bokoblins in The Wind Waker can result in a bop over the bonce with a roll of wrapping paper, perhaps it’s best to just keep the power off at the wall. Interestingly, said Zelda title was upgraded from an ELSPA 3+ rating on GameCube to a PEGI 7 when it made the HD move to Wii U. How times have changed – or, rather, how and when we play our games has changed. Dads, we’re not alone.

The only way to achieve the audience of one necessary to see everything a game like GTAV or Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag has to offer – because of both their mature content and, more pertinently, their length – is to embrace the role Sony’s assigned for us: the 3AM father. Up late, up alone, and the morning is just something that’ll have to be dealt with. The Bakerloo Line won’t think less of you for the bags under your eyes. Your workmates might – but at least they’re not laughing behind your back for buying a Mega CD.