I Play Video Games With My 4-Year-Old, and That’s OK
When I was 7 years old,my best friend was a kid named Rob. I can’t recall most of the particulars of Rob’s life, but he seemed to be the luckiest kid at our school. His lunches were always packed with sugar, and his room was filled with toys. This, of course, built up quite a bit of resentment among his classmates and, most likely, all the parents whose austerity was measured against Rob’s seemingly endless bounty. When Rob got a Nintendo for Christmas, a collective fit of jealousy ran through the entire school and each of us began demanding one, too.
The consensus, at least in our town in the late ’80s, seemed to be that video games were drugs and that the Nintendo Entertainment System was a new form that would turn all of us kids into violent zombies. The only defense I can recall was that video games improved hand-eye coordination, which was probably true, but for the alarmed parents in our class, this was like saying heroin promoted relaxation and helped children manage chronic pain.
Rob, for his part, suffered greatly from his good fortune. The other kids started calling him “Nintendo freak,” and because he was nice and wanted to be liked by everyone, he didn’t point out their obvious jealousy. When my mother would drop me off at Rob’s house, she would always warn me not to play more than a half-hour of Nintendo, which she had determined was the maximum amount of time that a young child could be exposed to video games before their brain chemicals began to congeal into something sinister — or, at the very least, that they would make me lazy.
These fears didn’t materialize out of nowhere. In 1982, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop warned against video game addiction and said that while he had no scientific evidence for the harm video games inflicted on children, he thought that it would eventually emerge. Koop wasn’t alone in his skepticism about this new form of entertainment: The ’80s brought what writer Michael Z. Newman called a “media panic” about video games. It popped up again after the 1999 Columbine shootings because the two killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, had played violent video games. Then, in 2005, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and others introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, along with some moralizing about cannibalism that was apparently part of one game. The proposed legislation mandated video game ratings but didn’t get anywhere.
Similarly, the parents in my second-grade classroom might have derided Rob’s early Nintendo adoption and their children may have called him Nintendo freak, but by the time we reached the third grade, most of us had our own video game systems. In this country, we seem to have settled on an attitude of: Hey, these things are bad, but what are you gonna do?
I bring all this upbecause I have been playing video games with my 4-year-old daughter, Frankie, since the start of the pandemic. At first I felt a bit tortured about it, because I can still feel the vestiges of the video-game-shaming of my childhood. Plus, I play a lot of video games myself, and I can’t really tell you a good thing that has come out of it.
I have spent 507 hours on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, one of those very violent video games in which you try to kill everyone before they kill you. I am terrible at it, which only adds to my embarrassment. There are various trainings one can do to get better at these shooting games, but I have ignored them all because I suppose improvement is beside the point. For me, it’s more about mindlessly passing time with a mild form of stimulation, like a lab rat hitting a lever for more sugar water or whatever.
I would have liked to protect Frankie from the pointless, repetitive and ultimately unskilled way that I play video games. But the pandemic made us realize that all this time together meant that we could no longer keep our children from our own worst impulses. They would get to know what we were like when they were away. My wife and I succumbed, like most parents, to the need for screens to occupy our child while we worked, and to the general stress and exhaustion of those early Covid months when it felt like all our life’s plans had been waylaid for good.
And so I began playing Super Mario Odyssey with Frankie on the Nintendo Switch. She mostly ran around the expansive worlds in circles, ignored the quests for power moons and screamed in fear and threw the controller in my direction whenever a big bad guy would appear. Like a good concerned parent, I googled “best educational games Nintendo Switch” and downloaded a handful of puzzle and number games. My daughter immediately dismissed these as “boring” because they reminded her of the reading games she slogs through on her iPad.
For her, a “video game” already meant something different that had nothing to do with learning anything of obvious use. I mostly agreed, and so we just played Super Mario Odyssey over and over until she could reliably run and jump and understand that Mario needed to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. Over time, she learned that Mario had a brother named Luigi and Bowser had a son named Bowser Jr.
Her interest in the broader Mario universe led to her demanding that we buy a Super Mario chess set she saw in Target. Now she can skillfully move Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad and Yoshi around the board, which I suppose means that a video game — or at the very least video game branding — has offered up an educational opportunity.
I do not believe in the supremacy of some games over others, really. Chess might be seen as a more healthy activity than saving Princess Peach from Bowser, but I’ve known far more degenerate chess players in my life than video game addicts. What was exciting wasn’t so much that my daughter was learning a more intellectual game but that she had developed a taste for games, period.
Throughout the pandemic, we have played and completed Luigi’s Mansion 3, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Bowser’s Fury, Yoshi’s Crafted World and Snipperclips. The only game we’ve played that I’ve disliked is Alba, which involves a kid who tries to save animals in danger on a Mediterranean island. I’ve found, like my daughter, that the intrusion of a purportedly important message ruins the experience.
When we play these games, she is fully engaged and asks questions about the stories, which I admit are stupid, but most kids’ stories are stupid. When she solves a puzzle in a game or defeats a boss, her face lights up with the same satisfaction and confidence she displayed when she learned to ride a bike without training wheels or when she figured out how to go across the monkey bars. These moments are digitally inspired, yes, but I’m not sure why that means they’re worth less.
But more important, video games have become a thing we do together. We now play them a few nights a week. For Halloween this year, my wife and I dressed up as Princess Peach and Bowser and our daughter went as Mario. She has become what the kids in my second-grade class might have called a Nintendo freak, although I imagine the kids in her generation are all Nintendo freaks.
My experience with video games, of course, is just my experience. There may be kids who fall into addictive patterns — several years ago, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” as a behavioral addiction to its list of diseases — and my own listless way of playing games certainly shouldn’t be the model for anyone’s life. But we have now been through nearly 50 years of alarm over video games and the evidence has never quite justified it, contrary to Koop’s prediction. Some scholarship has even highlighted the cognitive and social benefits of many video games.
Much of the more recent research is more nuanced than panic-inducing. Studies haven’t shown a link between video games and violent acts, though they do say video games can make kids behave more aggressively. Which all seems reasonable enough: We probably do underestimate the ways in which ubiquitous shooting games have changed society.
The greatest fear I have for my daughter is that she will end up isolated and addicted to a screen, much like her father and pretty much everyone he knows. I do not really know a way to stop this from happening, and I’m skeptical that any amount of screen-time policing will be able to save her from being very online.
I’ve also noticed that just as I know when Frankie isn’t enjoying a game, she can tell when I’m going through the motions. But when we play, say, Yoshi’s Crafted World or Mario Kart, we’re both present in a way that’s difficult to find in other parts of our very structured lives. And so my hope is that by playing video games with me at a young age, she will at least get used to the idea of a virtual life that still involves her old man.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”