The family that games together – can even do so in the virtual space. GamerDad looks at how Gamer Parents virtually game with children!
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Gaming (MMORPG), that most social of videogame genres, has been characterized by the image of a solitary gamer sitting in a darkened room. But is this truly the case?
“One of the biggest surprises I found (when interviewing over 35,000 MMORPG players over the past few years) is how many couples and families are out there playing together,” says Nick Yee, a PhD candidate currently working at Stanford University. He hesitates at estimating percentages himself, but believes it’s higher than most people think. Yee’s Daedalus Project website is the most complete study of the genre available. It’s a psychological profile of what’s really going on in virtual worlds everywhere. It seems like more families and couples are playing together than ever before and it probably has something to do with cheap computers and widespread adoption of broadband. Now every home can build a small network and the entire family can adventure together if they like. Even families where daddy happens to be a famous game designer.
Brian Reynolds, the CEO of PC game maker Big Huge Games, makes in depth strategy games like Rise of Nations for a living, but off the clock, he’s an Undead Priest traveling the wilds of World of Warcraft with his sons. “Ro (9) usually wants to be a wizard of some sort (because of Harry Potter), so he’s currently playing a level 40 Troll Mage. Tay (7) is a level 41 Tauren Warrior.” But what happens when dad levels beyond the kids? “For the first 30 levels or so we mostly only played together and leveled at about the same rate; later on as Dad’s addiction to the game outpaced the boys’ game-playing allowance, I ended up leveling past them.” This isn’t a problem, says Reynolds, because now his level 60 Undead Priest can intervene, “Gandalf versus the Balrog style,” making the stories the family shares more epic and memorable.
Clay Thompson, father of three, went through a few games before picking the right one. “We started with Neverwinter Nights. My son and I played a father/son dwarf team.” But Thompson really likes fly, adding that, “City of Heroes–my son and I loved this–comic books are the kids window to an alternate universe.”
Mary Simmons recommends ToonTown Online, the only MMORPG aimed directly at children, “I’m a single mom and I’m always looking for ways to bond with my boys (7 and 10). I hate videogames, but my two boys love ﾑem and one of the dads in my playgroup recommended ToonTown. It’s expensive, paying for three accounts every month, but worth it.” Simmons claims the game influences their lives outside of the game. “We tell stories based on our characters. They’re as real to my boys as Spongebob is!”
What about the negatives? For example, many people believe that these games are addictive, but Nick Yee’s psychological training makes him uncomfortable with that term. “I prefer not to use the word ﾑaddiction.’ The word has gained a lot of baggage. It’s flung around by sensationalist media to portray MMORPGS in a particular light. But it’s also used casually by gamers as a way of saying how good a game is.”
Maybe “addiction” isn’t the right word but kids generally lack skills like moderation. They can play a game, especially an open-ended game like an MMORPG, too much. Parental supervision is necessary. “I worry about some of the people my kids meet online. I mean, who is that guy behind this character or that character? You don’t know. It’s scary, like a chatroom,” says Simmons. “That’s why I stick to a kiddie game like ToonTown for now.” But Yee notes that in his 35,000 online surveys he hasn’t found anecdotes relating to sexual predators or pedophiles. In fact, most of his data is positive. Still, parents shouldn’t let their guard down. “When they’re online, I’m online with them, whether it’s in a game or not!” says Simmons.
To counter the “addiction,” Reynolds sets a one-hour per day limit for all games in his house. “I also control the boy’s accounts. They don’t know the passwords. So they need me to personally log them in each time they want to play.”
What about the positive effects? Of course, anything a family does together can be considered beneficial but Yee believes that the benefits are tangible and considerable. “Families get to do something together that is far more interactive, engaging, and memorable than watching TV. Children get to learn teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Experiment and play with different roles and identities.”
“The online experience in particular has also been a great teaching tool for certain ﾑeconomic’ lessons,” says Reynolds. “When I first saw World of Warcraft’s Auction House I figured it would be completely over the boys heads, but as soon as the boys sensed me steering them away they were like “WHAT’S THAT!” and were playing with it themselves anyway. Then, one morning my youngest comes in and says ﾑDaddy, will you teach me how to buy low and sell high?’”
Another hidden benefit to online games is that families spread over several states can keep in touch and play online together. Thompson agrees, “I never foresaw how important the games online would become, but I did actually get a line added into my divorce decree that guaranteed me three days a week that I could get on the computer with my kids, via web cam. So I could communicate and see them. At the time, I wasn’t a huge MMORPG player, so I didn’t envision the role it would play.” Clay Thompson’s three kids live a few states away. These virtual experiences allow him to stay-in-touch and forge memories of adventures past he wouldn’t be able to experience without online gaming. “My son loves it when I make him invulnerable and spawn dragon after dragon in Neverwinter Nights. My daughters and I hit the shopping block in ToonTown and then go back to their virtual home to try them on together. It was the most fun I’ve ever had online, just hearing them giggle.”
Online role-playing games are more than just games or replacements for real adventure and social interaction. Kids can learn, experience, and best of all, do, all kinds of things they can’t in the real world. “My sons think I’m totally cool,” says Simmons. “They tell their friends: ﾑI can’t play tonight because I’m going on the computer with Mom.’”
Thompson adds, “My son and I have become much closer through gaming… It offers quality time I wouldn’t get otherwise. I’m taking care of my kids online like I would if I was there.”
Maybe this year, instead of hitting the Grand Canyon or the local beach, your family should explore the far reaches Norrath, fight the Cogs in ToonTown Online, or delve deeply into the forests of Azeroth. Heck, the whole family could wear matching armor!
This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine’s August ’05 issue. It has been reprinted (with permission) expanded and updated as of late 2006. Re-published in 2008, without update.