“A game is a form of play with goals and structure.”
As a gamer parent I encourage my son to join in my games. I’ll freely admit my enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of me, that I don’t always have realistic expectations, and that – like some parents do with sports, careers, or other interests – I gently force my own expectations on my son against his childlike wishes. Kevin Maroney’s basic definition of a game outlines a balancing act gamer parents face. Kids naturally want to play freely, but are they ready for the structure of a game, especially the more daunting structure of a game their parents enjoy?
I introduced my son, the now-six year-old Little Guy, to games at an early age. He’s always been interested in Daddy’s toys despite the heaps of his own toys spread in the living room and his bedroom. Like most kids his age he enjoys going beyond the bounds with his toys, not simply playing with them as intended but crossing genres and making up his own entertainment unhindered by rules or restrictions. He’s exhibited very imaginative play tendencies, both on his own as an only child and with his parents and friends. He plays out adventures (“movies” or “episodes”) with his Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Wars toys, often mixing them up and substituting other toys for missing characters. With his introduction to more formalized games we started small and worked our way up from kid-level fare like Dino Hunt Dice to more sophisticated fare. We’ve rarely turned to children’s board games like Candyland that rely on random mechanics and severely limit player choice (though the completely random Destroy Death Star game proved – and continues to prove – a delightful diversion despite its total lack of player choices). He’s grown over time as we’ve explored new games, particularly ones that merge mechanics he can grasp with themes he loves.
Given our shared interests in games and some of the more popular media settings I’ve taken the Little Guy to a few gaming conventions recently, most notably some of the great gaming cons in Williamsburg, VA. He loves the spectacle of miniature wargames, even more so when he can play them with Dad. More conventions integrate a kids track of games or programming as geeks mature and have families with who they want to share their favorite pastimes. Miniature wargaming conventions have been slower to do this – unsurprising given the greater level of complexity – but I’ve been impressed with the increasing number of kid-friendly events (and not just the ones I’ve designed and hosted). Conventions pose some specific challenges for gamer parents with young kids. Unless one parent comes along expecting to fully supervise a child, the other can’t really indulge in complicated games lasting more than an hour or two. A lone parent with child often remains restricted by the child’s limitations: lower attention span, need for basic rules, urge to buy everything appealing in the dealers hall, and frequent potty breaks, to name a few. Helping a child enjoy something as overwhelming as a convention often takes a lot of work on the parent’s part, sometimes to the detriment of the adult’s ability to game or shop. Overall, though, the convention experience has generally remained positive for the Little Guy, increasing his interest in gaming and even inspiring him to design his own games (which he wants to run and sell at conventions...).
Kids mature at different rates, hitting periods where their interests change, their attention spans grow or contract, and their interest in games waxes and wanes depending on various conditions. But during childhood play – structured or otherwise – remains their acceptable prerogative. Parents seeking to introduce and foster a love for games with their children gradually move them away from unfettered play toward a more formally organized game. Every time we want to sit down and play games with children we should ask a question: at this particular time and place do kids want a structured game or unstructured play? Sometimes kids just want to play, sometimes they want a more focused experience in a game. How do we as parents distinguish between the two? I consider a few issues in judging whether kids want to play or game:
Establishing Routine: Kids work well with routines, so making games part of a family routine can help establish dedicated game time beyond general play time. Family game night for us sets up an expectation; most every Thursday night – unless preempted by other pressing family obligations – we finish dinner, do reading homework, and then break out a game we can all play. While this seems like a strategy for implementing a chore, it’s a means to reinforce a behavior and spend some time engaged together in a common activity. When kids get into a routine, they know what to expect and how to behave, both key elements in the more structured environment of games.
Short Attention Span: Indulge children’s naturally short attention spans using games with short play times: 30 minutes or less is great, 45-60 minutes is pushing it, more than an hour could be too much. Game time should remain one of the criteria when deciding when any game is appropriate for young kids. Game time often corresponds with game complexity, which, of course, parents have already vetted for suitability with kids.
Expectations: As with many activities, outline your expectations when giving children the choice to play games. Let them know if they choose to play others will expect them to learn and abide by the rules, focus on the game, and be good sports whether they win or lose. This is a form of the social contract we enter when sitting down to play a game, though young kids won’t know what that term means without explanation. This can serve as an effective technique at conventions, outlining what kids can expect both for individual games and the daily schedule of activities.
Signs They’re Not Interested: Watch for telltale signs that kids aren’t interested in games, both when suggesting the activity and during the game itself. Don’t force them into a game they don’t want. Sometimes voicing dislike for a game element is a subtle way of saying they don’t want to play a particular game, especially something new. Maybe the box art really scares them, maybe them saying that simply indicates a general unwillingness to try the game. In-game signs of impatience include fidgeting, wandering off (physically and mentally), wanting to make illogical or comical moves during their turn, and boredom when it isn’t their turn (including fiddling with game components). Once a game’s begun redirecting can prove challenging. Stopping the game entirely – especially if stating it’s because the child’s lack of interest – can prove a negative reinforcement. Wrapping things up quickly in the context of the game works well, giving the illusion that the game’s finished without emphasizing the reason why. This proves more problematic at convention games, where the best solution might simply be to apologize and bow out, though without drawing too much attention to potentially embarrassed kids. Redirecting kids to focus on something else (a meal, a different game, a rest back at the hotel room) can help re-focus their attention on something positive.
Just Let Them Play: Another tactic is to abandon the structured gameplay and just let them play around with the components. This works both when wrapping up an unfocused game session or when initially introducing them to the game components. Set aside your adult urge to press onward with the game and give in to kids’ natural tendencies toward unrestricted play. I intentionally have some 54mm Armies in Plastic historical figures and the similarly scaled Star Wars Command figures around for use both in my own gaming explorations and for the Little Guy to play or game with; sometimes he’s ready for a game, other times he just wants to play with the figures.
Like adults, kids’ tastes and abilities differ and change. Just because they don’t care for or immerse themselves in a game now doesn’t mean they won’t in a few months or a year. I love Forbidden Island, but the game’s complexity level was beyond the Little Guy’s ability (even with the help of participating adults) until very recently...and now he loves it. The cooperative Castle Panic scared him at first – the prospect of orcs, goblins, and trolls relentlessly advancing from all quarters seemed too frightening – but he’s since overcome the fear and now enjoys working together to defend the castle. Listen to kids, capitalize on subjects they like and avoid elements they don’t, especially anything inducing fear or discomfort. The Little Guy loves Godzilla movies, an affinity that fueled his enjoyment of the similarly themed King of Tokyo game. His love for Star Wars encouraged his interest in the X-wing Miniatures Game as well as Star Trek: Attack Wing and Wings of War/Glory (both themes that probably interest his father more). As parents we constantly evaluate whether and when our children are ready for the structure of games. The key point remains sharing one’s adult passion for games with kids in a way that provides a positive experience and fosters an enthusiasm for games.
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