games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Time Management

August 27, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer

Before we begin …

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide Podcast! If you haven’t been keeping up, there’s no time like now to get caught up. This week’s guest is none other than Wrestlecrap’s RD Reynolds! We discuss growing up in the age of arcades, kids missing out on the experience, the crazy explosion in classic console prices, and much more.

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This week’s business.

We recently watched The Karate Kid Part II. It was the first time in probably 35 years that I’d seen it, and I hadn’t liked it much as a kid. Far too talky and slow and philosophical. Not enough ass-kicking karate action for my 9-year-old heart. I liked it far more as an adult. I’d dare say it’s better than the original, in fact. I also think the prequel trilogy is better than the sequel trilogy, so I’m full of alienating HAWT TAEKS, and we’re not even out of the first paragraph.

There’s a scene in the movie that was one of those “we’re telegraphing a moment later, and we’re doing it with the subtlety of a lighthouse spotlight operated by a toddler with ADHD” moments. Miyagi is trying to smooth things over a 30 year grudge held by his former friend, Sato. When they were young and training together in karate, there was a large piece of wood, probably six inches square, like a railroad tie without all the tar. Sato had been chopping it with his hand for decades now to toughen up his hand, and in doing so, created an depression in it. His goal was to one day split the piece of wood, and he would do it one chop at a time, if that’s what it took. It’s a great metaphor for Sato’s stubbornness and refusal to listen to reason, something men know all about.

Duct tape will not fix everything, starting with our marriage.

It’s also a great metaphor for a certain breed of games that have become a genre unto themselves. Some old timers like me use the term “NES Hard” in reference (and deference) to the 8 and 16-bit eras having games being built with a quarter-munching, arcade-style difficulty, despite being on a home console. Games like Mega Man, Battletoads, and Castlevania terrorized our childhoods with fiendish design that required pixel-perfect movement and pattern memorization that threatened to push useful information out of our brains, like multiplication tables and when to feed the dog. Making these games even more insidious was the lack of save states, resulting in a hilarious imbalance of being a god at the first two or three levels, and fumbling through the rest of the game like you have no thumbs.

These days, the idea of games being rigidly, almost punishingly, difficult by design goes by another name: Soulsborne, a portmanteau derived from two games that made difficulty you could throw a controller over an art form. Games like Nioh, Star War: Jedi Fallen Order, and Sekiro all carry on with the idea of brutal, but never unfair, difficulty. These games prize item management, monitoring weapon durability, and careful study of battle tactics in order to progress. These games have exploded in popularity over the past decade, largely in part due to the efforts of From Software and their games, which break down the gamer and build them back up, like psychology or military training.

Or other examples.

I recently was playing Jedi Fallen Order, a game which is probably a Soulsborne-lite, and I got stuck on the first encounter with the Second Sister. I tried a dozen times, and could never score more than a hit or two on her. The game was fairly designed, but my skills just weren’t getting better. I set the game aside, came back to a couple weeks later, and met with the same fate. I avoided the game for a month, so frustrated was I at my inability to progress. So I committed that most hated of sins among the “git gud” community (since when did gamers start talking like a lobotomized Larry The Cable Guy?), the ultimate commandment broken.

I lowered the difficulty.

I know, a pox upon my family, may my crops wither and die, and so on and so forth. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard it this week. It’s not like I put it on cinematic mode and skipped combat. I just lowered the bar.

Suddenly, I was able to make progress. It was still a fight, but I managed. But a funny thing happened as I continued to play, or, more appropriately didn’t happen: my skills didn’t improve. Mastering the timing of dodging, countering, and parrying came as natural to me as expecting a professional cellist to play with a broomstick. As long as it was the rank and file Stormtroopers, I did well enough. But the Purge Troopers, the big frog-like monsters with the long tongues, the rancor-like beasts on Dathomir, those damned bounty hunter/droid combos … anything I couldn’t just run at screaming and swinging my lightsaber like a windmill, I never got any better. It would take me multiple tries, every stimpak that I had, and often a bit of luck.

Hey, Nightsister Merrin, if you’re not busy, a hailstorm of those green hadoukens would be really handy right now.

Finally, after pounding my head against the wall for what seemed like forever, I reached a breaking point. I was pushing ahead with this well-designed game (well, maybe not “well”-designed … watch Merrin’s hair do dances across her face once you recruit her, and you’ll see what I mean), but I wasn’t having any fun. I was going from point A to point B, completing the tasks, because that’s how a single-player game works, but I was getting no joy from it. I was doing it because that’s what you do with video games. While I’m sure I would’ve gotten a sense of accomplishment from beating it and hearing the familiar chime of a “you beat it!” trophy, I wasn’t enjoying GETTING THERE.

And I still had Bloodborne and Nioh in my backlog. They were taunting me with their crazy-high review scores and commercial success, reminding me that to not persevere through their learning curve would mean being on the outside every time these games came up in discussion. It a siren’s song from some horrible hybrid Pennywise and Regina George; come be with the cool kids, Jed, we’re cool down here, it said.

In that moment, I broke. I may have been 80% of the way done with Jedi Fallen Order, but I didn’t care. Finishing the game was no longer catching the carrot at the end of the stick, and playing the game was getting whipped with the stick. The moment I admitted it, I felt okay. Happy. Relieved. I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this game, and I wasn’t going to, and there was no shame in recognizing that I’d fallen into the trap of sunk cost fallacy. I took those games to GameStop, got significantly less than I paid for them, and went home with Spider-Man: Miles Morales under my arm. I haven’t stopped playing since. The free-flowing combat, the swinging – OH GOD I LOVE THE SWINGING – the story, it’s just so rewarding. It’s everything I wanted.

Almost everything. This is an unjust world.

When you become a parent, time takes on some new properties. Your kids become living calendars; as they age, YOU age. And a lot of that time is spent in service to them. Little league, dance practice, flute lessons, glass blowing, whittling, sail-boat lessons, court dates, drug rehab; you’re constantly on the go. The reason this column is a week late is, in part, because I got bogged down with two little league games and two karate lessons, on four consecutive nights. Now add in other things, like, you know, spending time with your kids or spouse. Maybe you play belong to a bowling league or a book club, or you do volunteer work. And there’s that thing you have to do forty hours a week that keeps your address at a fixed location. And chores! Dishes, laundry, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow; it never ends. Adulting. Never. Ends.

It’s hard to find where in there gaming fits sometimes. Most weeks, I’m lucky if I get a couple hours on Saturday and Sunday morning, before the youngest wakes up and takes over the TV by watching the same episodes of Bunk’d he’s been watching for six months. I have a better chance of Hayley up there TARDIS’ing to my front door than I do playing during the week. And there’s so many other things competing for leisure time attention. I almost never read anymore, but I keep buying books, because … I don’t know, I don’t want my book shelf to feel neglected? And I have so many queues and watchlists on streaming services, I could be up 24/7 for a week straight and probably not get through more than 30% of it.

If a life is lived without watching Maniac Cop 3, has a person really lived?

And before the Soulsborne fanatics rush to pitchforks, let me say they aren’t the only kind of game that can be difficult for a gamer parent to squeeze into life. Have you noticed the size of open world games anymore? Bethesda games have maps that qualify as congressional districts. The Witcher 3 has so much content, if you try to exhaust all it has to offer, you get a doctorate degree for your efforts. The next expansion to The Binding Of Isaac is expected to expand the game’s completionist time to something rivaling the amount of time Phil Conners spent in the time loop. We aren’t even talking games with no logical endpoints, such as online games like PUBG and Rocket League, sports games, sim games, and sandbox creative games like Subnautica and Minecraft.

“So, what’s your point?”, I hear you asking. “Should we just give up gaming once the stick turns blue? Do I have to get rid of it like my bass guitar and my sweet IROC-Z?”

No, not at all. Well, okay, maybe the IROC-Z; it’s more primer than paint at this point, and the stereo won’t eject the Molly Hatchet cassette. Finding the time to game when you’re a gamer parent is a true challenge, but it can be done. It’s, possibly, the hardest needle a gamer parent will face threading, but it can be done.

But your gaming time is precious, too, and mustn’t be wasted on endeavors from which you’re not getting value. Everybody experiences FOMO about something. You don’t wanna be the one on the outside of a pop culture bubble. For the longest time, I was annoyed that seemingly the whole world was gaga for Game Of Thrones. Everybody around me wouldn’t stop talking about it, and here I was, wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t appreciate a show with more blood and tits than a Friday The 13th marathon.

I think the direction of envy has reversed since then.

But that’s precisely what you have to fight. Nobody’s gonna revoke your gamer credentials because you’re not interested in Grand Theft Auto V. You’re not gonna burn in a fiery lake of fire with all the sinners, blasphemers, and Nickelback fans if you don’t think Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and Final Fantasy VII are the greatest games ever. I don’t think they are, and let me tell you, I’ve yet to see one lake of fire. Possibly because the gaming elite gouged out my eyes, but that could be a coincidence. I’d feel the heat, right?

I know it seems silly to dedicate an entire column to the idea of time management and FOMO, but I think a lot of us gamer parents need to hear it. We’re bombarded by both the triple-A developers and the gaming media with “PLAY THIS NOW!” and “GAME OF THE YEAR EDITION” and “WON SIX AWARDS IN AN OBSCURE EASTERN EUROPEAN COUNTRY”, all beckoning us to drop more coin on more games, and we can’t possibly have time for them all. We need to be reminded that we’re not on the playground anymore, where if you didn’t play the latest and greatest game, you might as well throw yourself in front of a school bus. John in Accounting has no skin in whether or not you place on the leaderboards of League Of Legends, and the PTA will not turn into a lynch mob if you declare you didn’t finish Final Fantasy XV. It’s okay to say skip out on a game because the time investment doesn’t fit into your life anymore. I’ve guested on a few podcasts lately where part of the discussion is always “what are you playing lately”. A lot of the younger hosts – those without kids – are playing something new every two or three weeks, or sinking 100 hours into Returnal. Meanwhile, it takes me a month and a half to beat Uncharted 4. But I will tell you, hand to God, I enjoyed every moment I spent with that game, because the game respected my time. There was an engaging story, good gameplay, and it was just the right length. There weren’t 100 side quests, and another 100 unlisted favors, and 4 different kinds of collectibles totaling 650 individual items, plus an item crafting mechanic, a town management mechanic, mech piloting, six book reports, a bar exam, and a year’s worth of guitar lessons.

There aren’t this many desirable destinations ON EARTH, but Ubisoft here wants you to find something interesting every eleven footsteps in ancient Greece.

You’re an adult now. More, you’re a parent. It’s natural that your schedule got filled up with dozens of events you didn’t expect. But let me clue you in on a secret – the kids are only there for so long. You’ll only have so many soccer practices and dance recitals. Enjoy them while they last, before they start pushing you away for friends and Tik Tok. I still have a PS2 in the basement with some unfinished games. I picked up the original Monster Rancher for PS1, because I never beat it when it first came out, and that was years before I met the wife and had kids. One day, I will get that S rank.

Video games will always be there. You don’t need to force a game into your schedule, especially if you’re playing it because of FOMO. Enjoy the games you want. If you’re not enjoying them, or you’re only playing them so you don’t get left out of the conversation, don’t waste your time. There’s more games out there then you’ve got minutes. Spend both wisely.

I’M RIGHT HERE. Does my vag need a start button for you to be interested?

And in closing …

Sorry for the delay in getting this out. Last week was a nightmare of activity and I couldn’t get the column finished. Plus, I ended up switching topics, because the one I planned wasn’t coming out right.

Keep an eye on the social medias. I got guest spots on two podcasts coming out shortly. Plus, you know, my own podcast, a link to which is right up above.

See you in a few. I ain’t promising two again.