games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: The Introduction

September 16, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Ninja Gaiden

I don’t quite remember my first video game.

I know it was an arcade cabinet, because I’m that old. It was either Joust or Moon Patrol. For you whipper-snappers out there who’ve only seen arcades in Stranger Things, Joust was a game where you flew around on an ostrich among a bunch of platforms that all existed on a single screen, trying to land on other ostrich-jockeys and then scooping up the eggs that the jockeys turned into. If you’re tilting your head like a dog at that description, sorry, I can’t make it make sense for you. It was the 80’s, cocaine was everywhere, everything seemed like a good idea, I guess. Moon Patrol is a run-and-gun, but if you drove the Mako from Mass Effect, redesigned to look like The Grimace’s bowel movement. This happened on an orange moon with green geological formations in the background. Again, cocaine. It doesn’t matter which one was first, really. Either way, I was addicted from the first quarter. The money I pumped into those and other arcade cabinets could’ve paid tuition at a mid-level college. I should probably have some regrets about that, but I don’t.

My parents saw my love of video games and decided that encouraging this addiction was the responsible course of action, and bought me my first console. It was the Mattel Intellivision, or, the answer to the question “what if the Atari 2600 had a store-brand knock-off”.

“Press 1 for an explanation on how to use this thing. Press 2 to hear our sincerest apologies.”

Around 1983, they decided I needed an upgrade and got me the Atari 5200. I can’t help but laugh now knowing that, within a year of the industry collapsing like a singularity, I got two of early gaming’s more ignominious failures back to back. But hey, how would my parents have known they bought me two lame duck consoles? Not like they grew up with an extensive knowledge of video games. Their frame of reference was “he seems to like it” and “it builds hand-eye coordination!”. As if I was gonna be an eye surgeon because I had the high score in Jungle Hunt.

As I grew older and new systems came out, I, who grew up without siblings, got my parents to buy them for me when an upgrade was justified in my mind. I got the NES for Christmas in ’86, and had a library of over sixty games by Easter of ’90. That’s when I convinced them I had to have the Sega Genesis. I can’t imagine the mental breakdown my parents had when I sold my NES and all the games at a garage sale for probably 10% of what they paid for it, all so they could start the process of buying me a new game library. Jack Bauer has nothing on the torture we kids can put an adult through. I didn’t care. The NES was thrift store garbage now! It only had eight measly bits, while Sega had sixteen! SO MANY MORE BITS. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the hell a bit was. None of us did! But every bit mattered! Bigger is better! Sure, now you can cue up one of the ninety-four different ways Sega has made Genesis library available and get an inguinal hernia from laughing at Altered Beast when Zeus proclaims “WIZE FWOM YO GWAVE”. Back then, though, that was a technological achievement on par with splitting the atom. There was TALKING in the game! Bigger sprites! Parallax scrolling! Blast Processing!

This is now available on dishwashers.

My parents would get me two more video game systems because I insisted they were as necessary as oxygen: Sega’s CD add-on and the Saturn console. Not my best choices. I also tried to get them to buy me a Turbo Express, but they drew a line at a $300 portable system that ate batteries like Godzilla ate small buildings and played around zero of the games I had. I didn’t even bother to ask about my holy grail: a Neo Geo. If they balked at the cost of a Turbo Express, they’d stroke out over a single Neo Geo game’s price tag, let alone the console. Being an only child is not, as it turned out, an endless wellspring of decadence.

I stubbornly held onto the Saturn until 1997, when I could no longer deny its status as a zombie. My local Babbage’s had one wall dedicated to Saturn games, and there was maybe four games per shelf; the competition had so many games, they qualified as load-bearing walls for the mall. Considering I was now 20, and had a job of my own, it was time to man up and buy my own replacement. I saved up money from my job, traded in the Saturn, and bought the PlayStation. With that, the intersecting paths of my parents and me being a gamer parted ways, never again to cross.

I’m building to a point, honest. Just bear with me.

Generation-X, my generation, is the reason video games are what they are today. I don’t say that boastfully, or in a you-owe-me way. It’s just how history worked out. We were there to turn the 2600 and the NES into devices as ubiquitous as the TV it played on, and we were there to turn the 3DO into a console whose legacy is “it happened?”. We said things like SUSHI-X IN EGM GAVE SONIC & KNUCKLES A NINE OUT OF TEN DO YOU KNOW HOW OFTEN HE DOES THAT LIKE NEVER, as if that carried weight with anybody. We saved up our allowance for months so we could buy Super Mario Bros. 2, take it home, and say “… why am I throwing vegetables at a grumpy frog?”. We were there for the blood code and knowing that one kid whose cousin’s friend’s neighbor’s step-brother-in-law that lives in Canada TOTALLY knew the real “Nude Raider” code. We all knew the one kid in school who had the Turbografx-16, who had to sit on the sidelines and listen to playground debates over Mario versus Sonic.

No, Timmy, Neutopia is not as good as Phantasy Star II or Super Mario RPG. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen.

Kids today have gamer parents. We are those gamer parents. But we didn’t have that. We had our parents, and we had our video games. The idea of those two things actually interacting was as awkward as that poor kid with the Turbografx. And when our parents DID try to dip their toes in our pool … it was weird.

My memories of my father and video games consist of him watching sometimes (he was really fascinated with the Lunar games, for reasons I’ll never know), and very occasionally play, but only certain video games. Mainly, games with or associated with martial arts. Kung Fu, Ninja Gaiden, Legend Of Kage, Kid Niki, Budokan, Karate Champ … if it had kicking or ninja stars or a dojo in it, he was all over it. He couldn’t play them worth a damn. You know that thing non-gamers do where they move the controller itself in the direction they want something to happen? If they want someone to jump to the right, they not only press right, they make the controller “jump” in the air by physically moving it to the right in a quick, jerking manner. My dad did that a lot when he’d try to make Ryu Hayabusa jump. I’d try to tell him to just press the buttons, you don’t need to perform semaphore to get Mario over that first goomba. To this day, I’m convinced the Wii’s motion controls partially exists because Shigeru Miyamoto saw Boomer parents do this.

Compared to my mother, though, my dad was practically Dr. Disrespect. She played one game, just one: Tetris, on that old monochrome migraine-factory, the Game Boy. I think I got to enjoy my Game Boy for a month, maybe six weeks, before she saw Tetris and spent several months worth of mortgage payments on AA batteries. And once her interest waned, it was right back to figuring out 22-down in the TV Guide crossword puzzle.

That brings us, finally, to this column and its purpose. Much of parenting comes from what you witness and experience as a child. You emulate what your parents did because it seems like a good idea. Sometimes, you do the exact opposite, for much the same reason. But sometimes, things happen that are outside a parent’s experiential knowledge. Our parents didn’t have experience with video games because, duh, they didn’t exist. Some indulged their kids, some clamped down, but they all had to make up the rules as they went along, with no frame of reference. We experienced their uneducated fumbling in real time. The moment I heard about the Google Stadia, I knew that thing had Ouya 2 written all over it. But my parents? Forget knowing which of the Intellivision, Colecovision or Atari 2600 was the most stable platform; they didn’t even understand these machines didn’t play the same cartridges. After all, the cartridges were the same size, they should be interchangeable! They even called them TAPES, as if I was listening to Peter Frampton coming alive on an 8-track.

Now, we’re the adults, and we’re trying to navigate parenthood, which is a foreign land unto itself, and we’re trying to see how gaming fits into the framework. Because video games were something our parents kept at arms length, our experiential road-map is all fumbling and guesswork. We now share this experience with our kids instead of seeing it from a distance, but we don’t know how to do that, because our parents didn’t. We have to strike a delicate balance as both someone who enjoys gaming and monitoring the lives of our gamer children, and we have to do it on the cruddy foundation our parents gave us. And the shifting landscape of gaming is no help. When we were kids, “multiplayer” meant “wait until your brother’s done, then it’s your as palate-swap Mario”. Now, you get a 12 year old in France calling you things that would make a longshoreman blush. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Content and age restrictions, DLC and season passes, micro-transactions, annualized releases, the problems with pre-ordering. And the issues aren’t just limited to our kids playing. We’re still gamers, after all. Being a parent and a gamer is a whole different set of problems. Trying to conquer super-hard games, games with significant time commitments, sharing a console with your gamer spouse, collecting, the “I want a new system” discussion with your spouse …

“Buy another video game box thingy, and you won’t be going up-up-down-down on MY controller.”

Being a gamer and a parent is a delicate balance on an invisible scale. My oldest boys are fourteen, and my youngest is eight, and it’s still awkward as hell. Sometimes, I feel lost and wouldn’t mind a sane voice in the wilderness. What I’ve noticed looking at gaming media, though, is that there is a dearth of knowledge and resources for gamer parents that is, you know, actually useful and not alarmist nonsense. Gaming media has a narrow focus as is, and that focus is on a demographic I stopped belonging to three Presidents ago. Finding something that speaks to people in my position is borderline impossible, unless I want to go into parenting magazines, and that idea keeps me up at night. I’m on Twitter, I see enough insanity from that before seven in the morning. Those parenting magazines are run by psychotic pearl-clutchers who think Mass Effect was made by Brazzers. Gamer parents need perspective from, gasp, other gamer parents, not the journalistic equivalent of the homeless doomsayer on the street corner, proclaiming the “X” in X-Box means it’s a Roku for porn.

There is no one-liner I could write that will be better than the image on its own.

So that’s what this column will be: me, attempting to be that guy. Not in any official, expert status, heavens no, but as what the internet does best: a self-appointed know-it-all with a keyboard! One gamer parent speaking to the rest of you gamer parents about being those two things, with a few stupid jokes tossed in to keep it from getting preachy or boring. We’ll work out the bugs along the way, which puts me one step ahead of Bethesda. And don’t think you can’t read this if you’re not a parent. Maybe you’ll see something from a different perspective you never thought of before. Maybe you’ll find my awful jokes actually amusing, which would be miraculous. Maybe one of these columns will contain something useful that you squirrel away for the day when you end up with kids of your own, and you’re confronted with a situation similar to these. Or, you can point and laugh and tear me to shreds in the comments section because I used the wrong form of “its” and my spellchecker didn’t catch it. This is the internet, not an Algonquin round table. I have reasonable expectations.

So, that’s what this is going to be about from here on out. A gamer dad, publicly trying to figure out how to handle the overlap of this weird Venn diagram, in the hopes that doing so might help others.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, while the wife’s giving our littlest a bath, I think I can play Tetris Effect for a couple minutes. Come steal this version, Mom!

And in closing …

If you haven’t donated to the GoFundMe for Larry Csonka’s wife and daughters, please check it out here. Larry was a hell of a guy. Some of you may remember me as Mathew Sforcina’s successor for Ask411. Larry hand-picked me after I’d done a couple guest spots during Sforcina’s rare vacations. I was very flattered by the invite, and I was heart-broken when real life circumstances forced me to step away after only three months. Csonka was nothing but understanding, and there was a standing invite to return to the site anytime under any auspice. I was trying to get in contact with him about a podcast project I had cooking the week before he passed. Alas, we never connected. But for the short time I knew him, he was nothing but class and professionalism. Godspeed, Larry.

While I have a war chest of ideas for columns already, there’s always room for more. If you have anything you’d like to see me ramble on about, leave a comments below, email me at [email protected], or hit me up on Twitter here. Essay-style subjects, listicles, a Q&A edition, whatever you got. I’m game. Yeah, I made a dad joke. I am a dad. Get used to it. And if you don’t have ideas, but you’d like to send some feedback, the aforementioned options still apply. Writing is about connecting, and that means hearing from you, so, drop a line. I’d love to hear from ya.