Aina Braxton is the Program Coordinator of University of Washington Bothell’s Digital Future Lab, and she is a real-life superhero.
We first met when she began working for the DFL in 2013—now the place would be unrecognizable without her. She helps coordinate students producing multiple digital media projects, all while producing her own projects. The first of these is a collaboration with the University Beyond Bars. Braxton and a student editor curate works of writing from inmates at Monroe State Prison and create digital experiences to display the work.
Issues of technology access are very important to her. On top of all this work, Aina is also an incredible mom who plays video games with her 10-year-old son, Kekoa. I sat down with her to catch up and talk about how she purposefully began playing games to bond with her son—and I learned a lot about her personal history of gaming and how she made M-rated games a family activity.
Pixelkin: What was the first video game you played?
Braxton: I can remember my brother playing Space Invaders on the Atari. I don’t know that I was old enough to play at that point, but I have a very clear picture of that in my mind. But I do remember when he finally got a Nintendo and playing Super Mario Brothers…or not Super Mario Brothers, it was Mario Brothers. They weren’t even Super yet! We played that until the wee hours of the night.
I used to go play Street Fighter at the 50th Street Market down in Green Lake. They had a couple consoles there, and me and my brother would ride our bikes down there to play Street Fighter, for as many quarters as we had.
Pixelkin: Did you play against each other?
Braxton: We would play against each other or we would play together, too. He was so much better than me, and he was a really sweet older brother, and he was more into teaching than like, “I’m just going to whoop on you to make myself feel better!”
But I think Mortal Kombat was my crack in middle school. That, and finally when Super Mario Brothers and all those started to come out, I got super into those. But Mortal Kombat was hours of time. And then Doom? When Doom came out on PC I gave myself nightmares playing that game, because I would just play it and be so scared to leave the computer. So I’d just keep playing.
Pixelkin: Did your dad play with you when you were growing up?
Braxton: A little bit, he did. But he was crazy about it, so he’d be stuck in his cave for hours on end playing real-time strategy games. And he played with my sister sometimes. This has been a family thing. And he’s just super jazzed to retire, get his Xbox, get his new gaming PC. And then just explore. He started when Myst dropped. And I’m like, yes, now look at all these other options.
I was even showing my mom Gone Home. Because she’s technologically terrified, but I said, “Look, this is how it works, this is how you go through,” and she was fascinated, and actually intrigued, and wanted to actually engage. It was so awesome to see that, where someone like her who feels a lot of fear and anxiety around using technology—that the art and the storyline and even the mechanics of gameplay could transcend that, to where she was actually interested in exploring that world.
Pixelkin: That just speaks to the importance of having different kinds of games, because there are so many things you can get out of a game as long as you’re not held back by that boundary of needing to be really good, and move quickly, and shoot accurately.
Braxton: And I showed her on my dad’s iPad too. Because touch is so much better for people that are tech fearful. It’s right there, you can touch it. That’s a whole other conversation around ergonomics, but she finds that so much more inviting and easy to deal with. This idea of, “I touch it, and it responds to me.”
Because I want it to be something that they can do together. Because as he retires, you have to rewrite your story as a couple and what kind of activities you do together. And I feel like that’s one activity that they can actually meet on a little bit. If you do it right. Where it’s not just one person in a game cave by themselves. We’ll see.
Pixelkin: So you have a long, storied history with video games. Would you call yourself a gamer, after all that?
Braxton: I think I have a hard time calling myself that. Only because I feel like I know people who really are gamers, and I don’t see myself as that. I love it, I find it really interesting, really fascinating, I love the chances that I get to sit down and play. But it isn’t something that I will spend so much time engaging in. I love when I can do it, but I don’t portion it out as something to do.
Now that’s increased lately, very intentionally, just because of wanting to connect with my son in gaming, and finding times and ways to intentionally make that part of what I do, to socialize with him and bond with him.
Pixelkin: When did you start playing games with Kekoa, and was there an impetus?
Braxton: I would say getting my job at the Lab was definitely the catalyst for thinking that this was an important thing for me to do. Just hearing your guys’ passion about it and the other side—the wealth of information that you guys had about it, and that it had fed a lot of your interests. I started to take a second guess. Because I had stopped playing games at a certain point, just because of being busy and other stuff. And it just reinvigorated me to say, “Let’s take a look at this, what is this genre, what has it become, how has it transitioned since I played Tony Hawk when it first came out,” you know?
Pixelkin: A lot.
Braxton: Yeah, right? And here’s my son who’s totally into this. What does he like about it, why does he like it so much? What are the games—and I knew the games he was playing, but being conscious of what he was playing is different from being intentional about playing with him, right? And I also saw how much fun his uncle was having playing with him. And I was like, “I wanna do that.” You know? I wanna play video games with him! It’s fun!
Pixelkin: Did you find the answer to the question, “What does he like so much?”
Braxton: Among other things, he’s ADHD. So ADHD kids love video games. They are one of the most therapeutic, amazing, just the one place where they can stop and find complete and total focus. Because it is so stimulating, yet they’re kinesthetically involved by having the game controller. Especially now that the controllers have so many more buttons on them. What you’re doing kinesthetically is way more involved than it used to be, and I think for ADHD kids that’s just key. Being able to relax and zero in on one activity and feel a sense of calm. And that’s clearly a huge part of it. And that’s why I’ve really tried to be intentional with allowing him to have that time to do it, while balancing it with the other stuff that he does, because I feel like that’s a time that he can really just decompress.
And I mean, they’re fun. You know? They’re interesting, you get to get into all these storylines, the art is so beautiful, and it’s challenging. He plays a lot of NBA2K—and those [sports] games, unfortunately, I won’t really play those games with him because I’m not really interested. I feel bad. I tried to play the rugby game with him. It was somewhat interesting. I was trying so hard. I just couldn’t do it.
Pixelkin: I think I remember when you were trying to play Madden with him, and the despair of trying to learn the controls…
Braxton: Yeah, and the rugby was just the same. It was the same. Whereas for some reason I have such an easier time navigating through Mortal Kombat and Mass Effect.
But when he’s playing the sports games, he’s playing his fantasy. All football season he will obsessively play Madden and NCAA, and go to his football practice, and go to his football games. So it’s just this added layer of fantasy and involvement for him.
Pixelkin: Does he do the career mode where he creates real teams?
Braxton: Yeah, and he’ll create these amazing, wonderful characters that he names and who have different skill levels and all kinds of stuff. And then he thinks it’s like a major compliment to be like, “Mom I created a character and I named him after you!” It’s so cute. It’s like a cat leaving a mouse at your doorstep. “I created a character for you!” Great. Thank you? You’re not really sure what to do with it, but you’re glad he thought of you!
Pixelkin: That’s really cute. Do you intentionally try to schedule video games into his homework time to help him focus?
Braxton: I use it as an incentive. The way it works is I’ll be very intentional and say, hey, if you can get all your homework done, all your chores, your room is clean, yada yada yada, and we have a really good week, then on Friday we’ll go and rent these video games and we’ll have a pizza party and it’ll be great. And he knows that that means on Saturday morning he can play by himself, and Sunday morning he can wake up and play by himself. So it isn’t just that he gets to play with me, he gets to have his alone time.
I forgot to mention this. The other reason I wanted to intentionally start gaming with him is that I wanted to push him to play better games. I didn’t want him to just play sports games. I was like, hey, there are better games to play. There are more interesting, more involved games that you can be learning from. Portal is a great example. Mass Effect is a great example. Those games make you think. You actually have to piece together the story and you’re doing different things—and I wanted that. I wanted to help do that for him instead of being like whatever, just play what you want. Play sports games. No. I wanted him to play some of these more challenging games where I knew his mind was being more involved. And that’s the other thing I think parents can benefit from, is when you do the research and find these games that are more involved then you can find ways to trick your kid into doing logic puzzles.
Pixelkin: That’s very true.
Braxton: And they will love it.
Pixelkin: What kind of games do you play together with him?
Braxton: We actually played Mass Effect 2 together. What we would do is play side-by-side, where he would watch me and I’d watch him. Portal was also really fun. He loved Mass Effect 2 though, like—loved.
Pixelkin: Mass Effect has a lot of really intense adult themes, like genocide and galaxy-wide destruction. Did you have conversations with him about that?
Braxton: Yes. I think part of it is that…I think I’ve been building a context for things like that since he was young anyways. Being that I was a Law, Economics and Public Policy major and Human Rights minor, I was being saturated with this information, and it was always bleeding over. And growing up as a person of color—some white people, not all, have the privilege of going through their life until they get to college without ever knowing or deconstructing what those things are. People of color don’t have that option.
You know what those things are because they’re built into your story from a very young age. Of why certain things are happening in your life. And so there was context already for those things. He’s aware of those, and he has the type of mind that is able to understand, “Okay, this is what’s going on.” That type of narrative, where he can play as the person who’s fighting against these things is really exciting for him. And very empowering for him. I think especially because of the background he comes from.
Pixelkin: And he was prepared to think about those themes and talk about them.
Braxton: Yeah. I think that’s something that gets lost a lot in these conversations about video games, where you have a lot of parents that have kind of raised their kid within that bubble. And so then when they see this stuff in games they’re like, “I don’t want my kid to hear about these things!” And they forget why a certain other portion of parents would be like, “It’s not a big deal.” Because a lot of the context has already been provided. For a certain portion of these kids it’s something that they’re already aware of.
Pixelkin: When he was playing Mass Effect, did you make a Black Shepard?
Braxton: Yeah. It was really funny, I kept teasing him because he made his Shepard a lot darker than he is. And I was like, “That’s funny. That guy’s like four shades darker than you, you do realize that?” and he’s like, “Whatever, whatever.” But that’s cool, that’s his prerogative. He gets to see himself, or create whatever projected image of himself that he wants.
And the funniest part is I did the same thing. My Shepard is darker than I am. Obviously we have some internal skin-color issues. And he was teasing me about how much time I spent getting her hair and makeup right.
Pixelkin: That’s a very important part of self-projection!
Braxton: It totally is, right?
Pixelkin: One of the other things I love about Mass Effect is living with the consequences of your decisions, which can sometimes suck. It’s cool to present that idea in a game where maybe you could go back and change what you did, but more often than not you just play through with the decision that you made and deal with that.
Braxton: Yeah, because it presents you with all these different options for how to interact with the world. You can be kind of a dick if you want. Or you can be kind of nice. And it was fun to see him play with that, and the different ways he wanted to see what would happen if he interacted with people in this way.
And they have that kind of built in to NBA2K in the interviews, where as you’re getting drafted you can respond in different ways and that might up your draft capabilities. But that’s a little lower stakes than Mass Effect definitely. So he was already familiar with that as a gameplay mechanic, but it was fun to see him push that envelope in Mass Effect. And he actually wanted to play as the jerk. But you know, you get to, and then you have to deal with the outcome.
Pixelkin: Would you ever play Grand Theft Auto with him?
Braxton: Oof. That’s a little bit harder.
Pixelkin: It’s a loaded question.
Braxton: It is. There’s definitely a need, like if he’s going to play it, I want to be a part of building that context around it. At this point I feel like he’s just way too young to play it and doesn’t need any more first-hand knowledge about the stuff that they’re talking about. But then I’m fully aware that there’s gonna come a point when he’s playing it at somebody’s house, and it’s not like he hasn’t seen it. His uncle plays it at his grandma’s house, but he’s not allowed to play. But he’s allowed to watch. So it’s not like he hasn’t seen some of it. But it’s interesting how aware he is of the negative imagery that comes through in those games.
A lot of times I feel like people don’t give kids enough credit for being able to pick apart stuff, and that if you don’t start talking to them early about these things and really identifying these negative stereotypes and these negative things that people do, you lose a grip on it. You lose the ability to be like, “Yeah, you know, beating up a prostitute is a really bad idea.” Just to say that. Because if you’ve never said that, you’ve never said it. And you hope and assume that your kid would never get that message, but if you never take the time to explicitly say these things, and they’re behind your back playing Grand Theft Auto—
Pixelkin: Or even watching TV.
Braxton: Or watching TV, then you don’t know what message they’re getting.
I also played the new Mortal Kombat with him. And that was the one I had to put the most context around, more than anything. Because it’s just rampant with misogyny and crazy gory violence. However, it’s a really fun game. And it was really fun to play with him. It was really fun to compete with him. We got so into it. And then when we played [Tag] Ladder as a pair; that was even more fun. Where we were working as a team to accomplish this goal, that was just golden. A golden moment. I would tell any parent they should find some game like that that they could play with their kid.
Pixelkin: So do you prefer co-op games as opposed to versus games?
Braxton: You know, it was fun to play versus with him. And then we both decided—because it got pretty intense—that it might be a good idea to play together. And when we started doing that, it was even more fun because it was like, okay, we’ve built up our skill level, we know the characters we’re comfortable with, and now we can work as a team to attack our mutual foe.
Pixelkin: Were there any difficulties getting started gaming with him?
Braxton: Oh yeah. I stopped gaming when there weren’t as many buttons on the controllers. So just getting my hands used to that—I think I told you this. The first time I played Mass Effect I played for four hours straight and my hands were literally aching afterwards. And even mentally it was really hard for me to stay with it. Which is interesting because other people go into a vortex with it. And I mean, four hours is a long time. But in gaming that’s a blink of an eye in a lot of ways.
So that was one of the biggest things. Just getting used to the bumpers, the triggers, the joystick. Split screen? Oh my God. It’s so much. And then what I did was just start moving through games and being, like, what’s interesting? What’s going to work for me? What’s going to make it worth it? And Mortal Kombat was worth it to me.
It was going back to those games. Because those are the games that I liked, so clearly I should start there again. And lo and behold, it worked.
But he gets really frustrated with me, because of my lack of expertise. Screaming at the top of his lungs at me, so frustrated because I’m stuck in a corner and can’t turn my character around. Like, I’m sorry? I’m so sorry, and I just find it hilarious. Because I don’t always take it as seriously as he does. Sometimes I do, but most of the time…no. And he’ll be like, “Just let me do it!” and I’m like, no, no, no, no. So we definitely had to work out how to play together again. Learning how you play with your kid, you know? It’s harder than it looks.
Especially when you’re jumping into something that you’ve left them to do by themselves. And now you’re jumping in.
Pixelkin: Is there anything that you’re better at than he is?
Braxton: I would say in Mortal Kombat we got pretty close, where I was actually whooping on him repeatedly. And then as we played as a team it started to be that I was a little more effectual, the one who would really close the deal. And that—you could totally see his respect for me went up. He was like, “That’s awesome. My mom’s awesome.” However much he might begrudge me for whooping on him!
Part 2 of Aina’s interview will be published Friday!