Playing catch in the backyard with Dad is so 20th century. What do a baseball and mitt have on reenacting Harry Potter's epic battles in 3-D, chasing Elmo through an enchanted forest, or coordinating a 20-man raid with an international cabal of one's peers? The scrawny Nintendo generation that was picked last for dodge ball is now grown up with children of their own, and they want to bond with their little Marios and Zeldas on their old digital stomping grounds.
The multi-billion-dollar video game industry has thrown its considerable weight into the emerging parent video game market, with stalwart brands like Sesame Street leading the way. "Here's an opportunity for us to provide content for families to actually play together," says an optimistic Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, Vice President of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.
Not everyone is ecstatic about video game parenting, such as the noted social media critic, MIT's Sherry Turkle, who worries that video game recreation suffocates conversation between parents and children. But, for better or worse, entertainment powerhouses like Microsoft and Disney are bulldozing a new road to 21st-century parenting.
Elmo Teaches Us To Love
Among the parent gaming industry's most promising titles is Warner Brothers' Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, staged in a magical forest, filled with a familiar brand of fluffy, not-so-scary creatures. Unlike traditional educational games, which are often just water-colored attempts at masking classroom-style math and reading tasks, Once Upon A Monster aims at social and emotional development. "Our education is empathy, compassion, overcoming shyness, [and] being brave," said Nathan Martz, the game's project lead. "Our Sesame characters model that behavior [and] players have a chance to teach the monsters in the storybook world how to do that."
In the level we demoed recently at E3, a shadow-dwelling, body-image-conscious monster has disguised himself as a friendlier animal to appear more palatable to the forest creatures. This inspires the idea in Elmo that the monster's proclivity for lurking in the dark is the true source of his ostensible scariness. To remedy the unfortunate situation, players grasp fireflies with outstretched, two-handed movements, until they've gathered enough light to reveal a not-so-ugly monster.
Now, Xbox's enormous 10-million-strong Kinect presence aims to bring these digital social scaffolds into the mainstream.
"On the menu of things to do with your kid, it's not the best choice," says MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, whose popular critique of the screen-mesmerized digital age, Together Alone, blasted technology for stripping away the deep emotional connections between otherwise physically close individuals.
Turkle tells Fast Company she's foremost concerned that the hyper-focused tasks of video games leaves little room for storytelling, teachable moments, and the candid conversations that bubble up during old-timey bonding activities, such as cooking and board games. When reading a book to a child, for instance, "you have pauses, and questions, and conversation" she says. "Video games don't have those."
Video games, no matter how educationally oriented, cannot replace the unique insights of an experienced parent, or replace the lessons that will echo in their minds throughout the child's life.
But, for Dr. Truglio, criticisms of video games are 1960s deja vu, when TV was prematurely damned as educationally vacuous. "It's the content that matters," argues Truglio. Once Upon A Monster, is a "platform" that serves up conversation pieces for difficult-to-stumble-upon situations. "Sometimes parents don't know where to start," argues Truglio, and "playing a game like this could provide a springboard for discussion."
Like children's books, Kinect serves up common scenarios, such as a disappointing birthday party, with age-appropriate emotional labels to facilitate the kinds of teachable moments that might otherwise pass by.
And, unlike a book, Truglio says, video games "empower" children to solve the situations themselves, through what is an adorably entertaining world.
Turkle's comments relate primarily to adrenaline-powered adult games, and while she praised puzzle-oriented games like the city-building simulator, Civilization, ultimately, even those "are simulated worlds."
"In a complex game of 10-year-olds playing cowboys and indians, you can get honor, love, revenge, hate, retribution," she exclaims, "You can get a tremendous amount going." In other words, the debates over rules that children have during pretend play are essential to their moral development, providing cushioned territory to work through the frustrating democratic process of what will eventually become workplace and social negotiations.
Truglio was quick to say that Sesame Workshop's endorsement of a video game was not a prescription to "play for hours at a time." But, as families work more and more hours, and children get less physical exercise, gesture-based video games are a convenient escape for not just getting families together, but moving together—unlike Scrabble.
Beyond Sesame Street, multi-player games might provide ample opportunities to teach sportsmanship, says, Nintendo of America's Senior Direct of Communication, Charlie Scibetta. Recalling the times he plays with his own young children, he says that cooperative play sparks a moment "not to throw-down your controller." As Scibetta notes: "When you win, you don't want to rub it in the other person's face."
"Everyone's a gamer now," says Martin Rae, President of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, who's witnessed video games mature from a niche obsession of males to a new American past-time. But, he admits, golf, bookclubs, and backyard BBQ's "aren't going way."
No, the real dinosaur in the room is television, which will increasingly become edged out by its interactive counterpart, thanks to the novice-friendly innovation of gesture-based controllers and Facebook games, "It's a much healthier form of entertainment," he argues.
In a sense, video games represent one of the only cross-generational activities left: Sports are typically peer-only activities, boardgames have the stigma of being coerced family-time entertainment, and even shopping gets nudged out by self-consciousness teens who don't want public cameos with their parents. But, the private, exhilarating world of video games?—that's fun for the whole family.