When my dad drove my older brother John and me home from purchasing the Nintendo Entertainment System,1 I felt like the king of the neighborhood for a day. In the false memory I’ve created for myself, eight-year-old me holds up the box to the car window as we pass the kids riding bikes on the cul-de-sac. They follow us home cheering our praises and then we all huddle around the box in awe. Even if it didn’t happen exactly like that, the Nintendo became a central part of my childhood life. Sleepovers focused around the games we played. Hours were spent in each other’s basements watching my neighbor Bryan2 try to beat Ninja Gaiden or entering in the Konami code to get extra lives in Contra.
As I grew into early adulthood, video games – whether played on a dedicated device like the NES or installed on my Mac – continued to be a core way I both spent time by myself and with my peers. My college dorm experience was dominated by StarCraft and Diablo II, and later, off-campus parties with friends always had a game of Super Smash Bros. Melee going. I knew my then-girlfriend-now-wife Kat was the one for me when she spent an entire weekend at my apartment playing Civilization III. When we moved to the upper Midwest to start our post-college life together, online games like World of Warcraft helped me keep in touch with friends who were now far away.
Arlo was born in 2007 and video gaming took a back seat to changing diapers and sleeping, though we did dress them in a onesie that said “Future Horde.”3 And when Lorelai came along three years later, video game time all but disappeared. As the kids got a little older though, Kat and I saw video games as something the family could do together.
Games with cooperative modes were a great start: Super Mario Galaxy had a mode where player two could do simple things to help out player one, which was perfect for a small kid who was learning hand-eye coordination; Super Mario Bros. Wii allowed any player to quickly escape into a protective bubble; and LEGO Star Wars was so forgiving that I could do all the work as Qui-Gon Jinn while Arlo or Lorelai as Obiwan Kenobi could repeatedly jump into pits without consequence.
But the core of our family gaming experience has always been Mario Kart – first on the Nintendo Wii with its giant motion-controlled wheels, then on the Nintendo Switch. This is how we learned to be playfully competitive with each other. The Mario Kart series is a racing game where up to four players in the same room race go karts around more and more complicated tracks all while dodging banana peels and other hazards the players throw at each other. It’s a game that welcomes all skill levels, with modes that help novice players with things like accelerating and steering. It’s also brutally egalitarian in that those players in last place get much, much better items than players who are in the lead. At any time a player in last place could get an item that literally rockets them to the front or a player with a big lead could be taken down a peg with the powerful blue shell.
Because bad things in the game were just as likely to happen to Kat and me as the kids, it was a great way for us to model how to express our very real frustrations without rage-quitting. It sucks very much when you’re about to win and someone hits you with a lightning bolt or you’re having a bad race and stuck in the back of the pack. It’s important to both express that frustration and not take it too personally. Playful trash talk is also allowed in our household during Mario Kart. But there are rules: 1) assume everyone’s being playful and not trying to hurt each other’s feelings and 2) if your feelings are hurt, you have to say something about it.
It used to be that Kat or I won most of the time and the kids would win occasionally. With the kids both now teenagers, it’s the opposite. Arlo has been on their high school e-sports team playing competitive Mario Kart and it shows. Lorelai also trounces us adults with relative ease.
Video games are a thing we can do alone together or in smaller groups. It’s quite common for one person to be playing a solo game of Zelda while others watch, for Arlo and Lorelai to go off together and design a house in The Sims 4, or for all of us to each be playing a different handheld game quietly in the same room with each other. It’s a culture of things we mutually enjoy whether it’s simultaneous gaming or just asking each other for gaming hints around the dinner table. It’s also great to be able to justify buying the new game I want for myself by saying it’s “for the family.”
I’ve seen my kids mature physically and emotionally through our family’s shared love of video games. From being able to barely hold a controller, to driving a virtual go kart, to constructing elaborate narratives in Minecraft, to learning how to lose when it happens, and how to defeat their dad with just the right balance of grace and trash talk.
I hope that when they’re off making their own way in the world, we can still find time to run a race or two together.
1 For the record, John purchased the Nintendo Entertainment System with his saved money and the device was his, but it became de facto ours. He would dispute this.
2 Bryan was the best video game player of all of kids in the neighborhood. If he couldn’t beat a game, it was impossible.
3 The Horde is one of the two main rival factions in World of Warcraft.