PATRICK STAFFORD wants to know: "Who's your daddy?"
Patrick Stafford on parenting and videogames
Walk into any videogame store and you'll probably see this scene, or one very similar: a parent with a furrowed brow, reading the back of a box.
Next to them will stand a young boy or girl, wide-eyed and repeating something like, "pleeeassseee", "I promise to pay half", or the more bold, "Call of Duty isn't that violent, I swear".
Parenting and games share a close relationship. Parents, understandably eager to control the media viewed by their children, have usually kept a close eye on the games in their home – but historically there has only been policing, and little understanding.
But things are changing. The average age of a gamer is 30 years old. Those who grew up on gaming in the 1980s and 90s are having children of their own, and they're much more interested in actually juggling the responsibility of raising children and maintaining their hobby.
This has created a shift in the development world. As the demographics change, more games are being designed for those people who have less time to play. Shorter, more focused titles are becoming much more popular.
Episodic series such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, alongside shorter games like Journey and even the slew of games on handhelds such as the Vita and 3DS are making gaming as a parent easier than ever.
"I don't think anything in this industry happens by accident," says Mark Serrels, gaming journalist, parent and editor of Kotaku Australia.
As it turns out, he might be right. Ron Curry, the chief executive of the Australian Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, suggests more developers are keeping parents in mind – and it’s maturing the industry rapidly.
“The mobility of gaming lends itself to episodic and snappier games... which is great for parents.”
PARENTHOOD CHANGES A THING OR TWO... >> Ah, to be young again. Having days of open-ended possibility for games is an overwhelming feeling. Being able to pound through a 40-hour RPG in a day or two is a privilege which fades in time.
But responsibilities of adulthood creep slowly into existence. First comes the part- time job at 16, then university studies, or maybe a full-time apprenticeship. A proper job comes next. Days of gaming turn into a few hours a night, then weekends, and finally, whenever you can find the time. Having a child completely up-ends this. Writer and developer at Tin Man Games, Leena van Deventer, says her gaming time has been completely transformed after having two kids – and it changes what she chooses to play. "I find myself not playing many games "just because". I definitely commit to a game when I'm pretty sure I'll like it, whereas I used to churn new releases. It comes down to my rule, no gaming when the kids are awake."
"I knew I'd like Skyrim, but also knew I wouldn't have the time to give it, so avoided it completely. I also didn't last long in Fable 3." Ben Kuchera, the editor of the now-defunct Penny Arcade Report and now opinion editor for Polygon.com, has five children, all 12 and under. For him, having children also not only dictates when he plays, but how. "Something like League of Legends is right out – matches can be up to an hour long. That's the "fun" part about having kids – you don't know when someone is going to wake up covered in vomit."
"There are certain games that are just unaccommodating to that."
Mark Serrels is experiencing the joys of watching an infant become a toddler – which carries with it more burdens on time.
"Babies tend to sleep for three or four hours, then wake up – so you can tend to game a lot when they're at that age. But when they're older, that changes." "What that means is you have a few hours to game, and that's a very specific time. You need to choose carefully what you're playing."
THE CHANGING NATURE OF GAMES >> All of this is fairly self-explanatory, and not exclusive to videogames. Plenty of parents lose time for hobbies once their children start aging, and a time-intensive activity like gaming is usually first on the "things to get rid of" list.
But a curious change has been occurring in games over the past several years – more titles are being developed that are, seemingly, much more friendly for adults.
Mobile and casual games are an easy example here. Being able to pick out your phone and hammer out a few minutes of Super Hexagon or even an RPG port like Chrono Trigger is an amazing benefit for time-poor parents, waiting around until the next feed – or trying to grab a few minutes of precious game time on a train. But it's going beyond that, even now. Games such as Telltale's The Walking Dead series are putting serious, focused narrative into an experience which only lasts a few hours at a time. The episodic nature of such a series means the player has a bigger sense of anticipation, waiting for the next installment. The company's next franchise, The Wolf Among Us, is made in the same vein. But accessible gaming hasn't stopped there. Some of the most critically acclaimed games of the past few years are not sprawling epics, but tight, focused experiences.
Thatgamecompany's Journey is merely a few hours long, and titles such as The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, or Dear Esther are contained in short, bite-sized chunks. The trend towards rogue-likes with games such as FTL or Spelunky is an even better way to game without devoting hours to a quest line that doesn't end. (In fact, you're better off playing one of these games as you're bound to die sooner rather than later).
But is this just a coincidence, or are developers actually reacting to the shift in gaming demographics by making more serious, focused and time-conscious games?
WHAT DO THE DEVELOPERS SAY? >> Steve Gaynor, founder of the Fullbright Company which produced the critically acclaimed Gone Home, says while this isn't a conscious concern for him and his team, it's not exactly irrelevant, either.
"I'd have to say that I don't really consider parents as gamers specifically when designing stuff I work on," he says.
"However, I do consider my own preferences and those of the team and our friends - and I think a lot of us, despite very few of us being parents ourselves, do prefer a shorter, more focused game experience that can be enjoyed fully over the course of a few play sessions."
"That self-contained experience with no filler can be particularly satisfying, and I'm glad to see more developers exploring this scope of game in a variety of genres, not as a parent, but as a gamer."
Dean Dodrill, creator of 2012’s Dust: An Elysian Tail, which recently surpassed the one million sales mark, says his own experience as a parent, juggling his hobby and his time, influences his work as a developer.
“I’m learning I really appreciate the short game,” he says. “An experience that may only last for a few hours, or few minutes. As a developer I’m starting to be more conscious and more respectful of [the player’s] time.”
Dodrill’s view is that because so many games can be addictive, developers are responsible to ensure there is a careful balance. This is especially important for parents, who
“It's odd... it seems as designers we should be doing everything in our power to 'keep the player hooked', and basically eat away at their time... get them addicted. And it sort of bothered me, to be honest.
I believe that games can be addictive, and I think developers should take a little responsibility.”
Thomas Grip, creative director of Frictional Games, the creator of Amnesia, has a slightly different take. Although Grip acknowledges his habits as a parent have changed quite a lot, as a developer he still holds the same views he always had – that all types of players should be accommodated for.
“Stuff like no padding and being able to quit and save whenever you like are crucial for me right now as a parent, but it has also been part of our design for several years back.” Recently at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, several Telltale employees told Hyper – off the record – their games are designed with time-poor players in mind – specifically, parents and people looking after young children.
But this isn't just about parents. As the industry has matured, developers have realised they can tell short, focused stories in a few hours without the necessary padding included in so many other games. Brothers, a Tale of Two Sons is barely a few hours long, but was cited by many critics as one of the most emotionally fulfilling titles of 2013. Ben Kuchera says this almost comes down to a matter of respect. Although plenty of players are happy to slog through a 60+ hour session of The Witcher, many more have jobs and responsibilities and want that some narrative impact in the time it takes to watch a movie.
"It almost shows a level of respect for the player, and is really attractive for adult gamers," he says. For a developer and player like van Deventer, this is almost essential. "Due to having less time, I have less patience for games that don't engage me 100%." Ron Curry says this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. It's inevitable as the industry matures, and it's only going to continue. "This is how we're used to engaging with other media like television shows and films, so it's no surprise to see videogames are mimicking that," he says.
Television is an apt comparison. The past 15 years of the so-called "golden age" of television have been extremely kind to parents who may only get an hour of free time at night, or less. Being able to engage in a deep narrative, quickly, is the type of mature interaction parents of young children crave.
"This also allows for different sorts of business models," says Curry. "And that's both on a cost-to-deliver model, and a cost-for-enjoyment basis. Do you need to spend $79 on a game, or can the player instead spend less at a time and do play episodically?"
STAYING IN THE GAME >> It's a type of perfect storm. More parents have had gaming instilled in them from a young age and more games are being made to accommodate for their changing life situations.
But this raises even more questions. How can parents who love gaming make sure they're able to continue their favourite pastime, even when juggling the responsibilities of raising children? And even more important – how can they do so while introducing their own children to gaming in a conscious and appropriate way?
Especially with newborns, when parents are waking several times a night, getting in a quick gaming session during a feed isn't out of the question. On the other hand, several all-night benders through Dark Souls will eat you alive.
These developers recommend setting some ground rules when kids first start popping up. Dean Dodrill says gaming was a big part of his marriage before kids, which made things easy – but it also set the temperature for when kids eventually arrived.
Ben Kuchera and Mark Serrels recommend taking a laser-focused approached to gaming time. When you've only got an hour or two to play, you become a lot more determined to pick something that will have an impact.
"You will never take an hour of uninterrupted gaming time for granted ever again," says Kuchera. "It feels like a treat and a little more meaningful.
I think one of the biggest revaluations you have to make is that, yes, you can still read books and play games, but you just have to change the way you do it – it's more of a planning situation."
This is all well and good. But there's the other aspect of the situation to deal with – how to slowly incorporate gaming into your child's life and entertainment habits as well.
It's increasingly apparent among these developers and aficionados there is a strict approach to gaming when children are around. This is mostly because they're so involved with gaming they have an intimate knowledge of what's involved in each game. This is a big shift from the previous generation, when games were mostly seen as time wasters.
"Most people I know who work in the industry tend to be fairly strict," says Kuchera. "We're fairly strict about it too."
Kuchera suggests waiting until kids are a little older to introduce them to gaming – at least, gaming with a narrative.
"My parents limited my gaming time until I was reading a lot. Games are such a powerful art form they can blot out everything else. If you're below the age of 10 and playing a game, it's just so much better than movies and books."
"I think waiting until they're above the age of 10 to seriously start playing games is probably helpful."
But this isn't just about introducing kids to games in a mature manner. One of the joys of being a parent with gaming knowledge is being able to take part in co-op with your child. Just as running around outside, flying a kite or kicking a football can increase the bond with a child, so can gaming.
"I think in the future we'll see more parents with great game literacy," says van Deventer, "and so we'll have more responsible gaming parents, then happier gaming kids."
"I may not have time to play the massive RPGs I use to enjoy," Dodrill says, "but we actually have coop and competetive Spelunky matches now, so I can't complain!"
THE NEXT GENERATION >> With all the talk of parenthood, and the selfish focus of how parents can get away with playing their favourite hobby, it can be lost just what impact this is having on the next generation of players.
The consensus is that it will lead to good things. "Working in games I don't feel a lot of the anxiety a lot of my friends feel about their kids playing videogames," says van Deventer. "I know my way around, parental controls, the classification system, and that YouTube Let's Plays are a thing. I'm lucky! That games literacy is something I have to remind myself not everyone has." Ron Curry believes the same, or at least, is "certainly hoping" it will leave a lasting, positive impression. "We know that a lot of parents thankfully understand games classification, so they get that, and a lot of, the next stage is that understanding and that application and turning it into action as parental control goes." But for Mark Serrels, this goes beyond the simple notion of good parenting, and extends into something even more positive – the idea that just maybe, games are beginning to mature alongside their players. Just as they've grown up, have jobs and now families of their own, the games they play are beginning to reflect their life situation more accurately.
Pick a door, any door The Stanley Parable
Journey – thankfully not a long one, either
"Let's make this quick. School's just about out."
At just over two hours, Gone Home is perfect for the time-poor adult gamer
"It's okay, love. We'll have time to play Skyrim one day, I promise."