For my birthday recently, I got a copy of King of Tokyo with was unexpected but very nice. What was rather more unexpected was that my six-year old daughter took to it like Godzilla took to smashing up urban Japan. She wanted to play, and play and play to the point where she was even beginning to wear out my enthusiasm for the game, especially two-player which is fun and fast but not where the game really shines. She “got” the whole thing, dice strategy, card effects and all with minimal coaching from me, and had an absolute blast.
The reason this came as such a surprise is that we’ve always had a slightly uneasy relationship when it comes to my games. On the one hand she clearly finds them absolutely fascinating. On the other hand I’m extremely wary of being pushy when it comes to my favourite hobby, and also of trying to avoid introducing her to material that’s too complex for her age which is, let’s face it, most of my games. As a result she and I haven’t spent as much time gaming together as you might imagine, and the times we did it hasn’t been as successful as you might imagine. So so far, she’s been pretty ambivalent about games.
Some of you may think it’s remiss of me not to encourage her interest further. The reasons I have not done so are complex. Partly it’s down to me wanting to let her make her own choices in life. Partly I want her to be able to explore and enjoy standard children’s games while she’s still a child and not want to push her into some faux-academic “improvement” exercise involving maths and strategy. Partly it’s a selfish desire to want to actually *play* a game properly rather than mentoring a youngster in the art. But mainly it’s because I find the spectacle of obsessive gamers rabidly goading their young children into playing complex strategy games absolutely repellent.
Let me be clear here. Some gamers do that mentoring thing I alluded to very well. They sit down with their friends and spouse for a game of Agricola or whatever, sit their kid on their knee and let them play a position while the whole time gently reminding them of rules and suggesting good moves for them, allowing them the participation and attention they crave while making sure they’re not overwhelmed by the mechanics. That’s fine. It’s difficult to do without patronising the child, and I’m a little dubious about the value of it since you could still have family time playing an actual family game but that’s not a big deal. Done properly, everyone still has a good time. I struggle to do this properly, and that’s my loss.
No, what gets my goat is gamers so frenzied over the possibility that “one day” they might get to play Caylus or whatever with their newborn that they seem ready to shoehorn the delicate sensibilities of their growing offspring into that iron maiden of a game just to find out “if they’re ready”. No matter that the rules are too complex. No matter that the strategy is completely beyond them. No matter that spreadsheet games of that nature are probably worse than TV for sucking the playfulness and imagination out of childhood. It’s like the nerd version of the ultra-competitive sports dad.
Just as bad is the excuse offered with older kids that playing demanding games should somehow have to be an educational experience. It’s closely linked with the relatively common mindset that adults can justify maintaining a gaming hobby because modern games are strategy exercises like Go or Chess. The whole thing is a nonsense. While some modern titles can conceivably rival those ancient classics in terms of depth, most cannot. More importantly, nor should they. Gaming is about having fun. Pointing out, correctly, that fun is subjective cuts both ways: some gamers have fun when their brains are engaged in a close intellectual battle, others have fun tossing down beers, rolling dice and making spaceship noises. Society smiles kindly on a variety of activities that involve both variants of fun and everything in between. It smiles less kindly on grown men and women playing board games because it’s viewed as a children’s activity. That’s the problematic point, and whatever solution we come up with needs to challenge that attitude, not to try and bypass it with feeble excuses about intellectual validation. Similarly, when most kids sit down to play games they usually want to enjoy those games in the childish manner that’s suitable and appropriate for them.
Because I feel so strongly about these things, I’ve always felt it was better to sit back and let my daughter come to me with a desire to play games when she wanted to. When she was very small she wanted to do so frequently but of course her idea of play was very different to mine. She would get the pieces out of the box and make up her own make-believe stories with them. I went along with this as best I could in my straight-laced, adult, imagination-free world and learned a lot from doing so. And I figured I was doing the best I could to encourage her at that tender age.
But as she grew older, problems started to develop. When she began to play simple mass-market games and learn the structures of turn-taking and rules, she wanted to try and do the same with my grown-up games. Knowing she wasn’t capable, and wary of the issues I’ve outliIned above, I simply refused in most cases, which caused resentment. Even when I relented, as I did with games like Pitchcar and Carcassonne (if you leave the farmers out, small children are perfectly able to get to grips with it) it became clear that she was still too young to cope properly with winning and losing, and adult games are generally harder to throw than children’s ones. My one attempt at acting like a true gamer parent, getting her a copy of Gulo Gulo, backfired as she didn’t like it but clearly felt compelled to play because it was a present. Gradually, her desire to play declined. I figured that my gentle encouragements had fallen on deaf ears and she just wasn’t wired the way I was with games. That was cool: we played some of her mass market games, and had plenty of other fun things to share together, and I figured it’d be no bad thing if she grew up to be less of a nerd than me.
Then, after a long hiatus when we didn’t play that much at all, she discovered Castle Ravenloft. It happened when I took the game away on holiday last year and her curiosity about all those cool miniatures overcame not only her vague disinterest in games but the active revulsion she felt toward the scary box art. We played that together on holiday and had an absolutely fantastic time. The key was the fact that it was a simple, co-operative game. The co-operative nature obviously overcame issues she had with winning and losing and, more importantly, made me feel that I could help and mentor her with the rules and strategies without feeling like I was being patronising or taking over her game. She still took obvious pleasure and excitement in rolling the dice and drawing the cards: so much tension and terror in fact that she ended up making me drawing all the monster cards because they were too scary! Also the rich narrative that the game presented allowed us to talk it over afterwards and share our experience of play.
In retrospect it seems a bit crazy that I didn't try her with a co-operative game earlier. In reality, my distaste for the genre meant I owned very few of them, and the only one that generates proper story - Arkham Horror - is obviously too long and complex for a young child. So we needed Castle Ravenloft to fill that gap. Of course from there were went on to playing Wrath of Ashardalon and Legend of Drizzt too. And we had such fun playing them that for a year we didn't really play any competitive games aside from her toy shop ones. Until, that was, I got King of Tokyo.
The first time we played it I took it easy on her as I wasn't sure how well she'd cope, especially with the card effects. We played an open-style game where I explaned all the rules and the decisions I was making but she seemed to pick it up really quickly and enjoy it so right away we decided to play a proper competitive game. I went first, and got into Tokyo. And then it was her turn: she picked up the dice and rolled three twos, an energy bar, a heart and a claw. Now if you don't know King of Tokyo, claws damage other players and numbers, if you get three of them, score you the equivalent amount of victory points. When she saw the results, without hesitation she set the claw asisde and went to scoop up the rest to re-roll them. I stopped her.
"Wait a moment" I said. "Don't forget that set of twos will score you points, and points are one way to win the game."
She looked at me, full of innocent sweetness and light. And she said: "I know Daddy. But I want more claws so I can kill you."
I was a very proud Dad in that moment, And I began to believe that perhaps I had not schooled her so badly in the art of gaming after all.