A while ago I had the chance to catch up with my friend Brenda Winter Hansen about her awesome family of four’s gaming habits. Every family has their own policies about screentime and gaming, and it was really interesting to hear her perspective on board vs. video games, time regulation, and more.
Courtney: Do you play games with your kids?
Brenda: Yes. Mina’s almost 12 and Keagen’s 15, so at this point I’m the one who wants to play games with them more than they do, a lot of times. Keagen would rather play video games with me, like Tony Hawk skateboarding, and Mina has gotten into this game, it’s not really a board game, it’s a card game called Dominion.
Courtney: Oh, I love Dominion!
Brenda: We just learned to play it last fall at GeekGirlCon, introduced by fellow geek girl and her daughter—they taught us how. I’ve gotten [my husband] John hooked on it too. He plays it online by himself so that when we play with other families he can really butcher them, or whatever. We’re trying to get Keagen into it, too.
If I could choose what to do with my life at all times it would probably mostly be split between reading and playing games, but I’m the only one in my family who’s begging people to play Bananagrams with me.
Courtney: Bananagrams is awesome.
Brenda: Yeah, totally love it.
Courtney: So what do you see as the big differences between board games and video games?
Brenda: I think it’s a difference in sensibility. The younger generation is kind of hard-wired to be technophiles. They are born into this world that is highly visual and less tactile, whereas I have an emotional response to having cards in my hand. To my son, even though we are very restrictive about video games, and he has only really gotten to know them in the last few years, he’s always been the technophile in the house. He intuitively understands what’s going on, what the latest app is, and what we need to update. He’s our in-house IT person, you know?
Courtney: It’s useful to have one of those.
Brenda: It’s great, and I think it’s a wonderful generational thing, because it makes him feel like a useful component of the household.
Courtney: That’s something that we really love about family video game nights, because there are so many families where the teenagers and the parents have a hard time communicating. Game nights can introduce the concept that it’s okay to let teens teach you how to do something, instead of the other way around.
Brenda: That’s exactly what happens when I play Tony Hawk skateboarding with Keagen. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I don’t even know what this move is called, but then he’s like, okay this is how you do it, and it really puts him in a position of power, which I think is exactly what he needs in this relationship. Keagen doesn’t want to be called a boy anymore. He’s not quite a man, he’s in that weird in-between place, so he’s got power issues. And I’ve got power issues too, as I realize I have less and less control over him, so to have a playful setting where he can be the one teaching me I think is really a great learning experience for both of us.
I feel like that’s helped me relax my restrictiveness about video games. I grew up in a house where movies and TV and video games were very much restricted and controlled, and I think that was good in a lot of ways, but possibly harmful in others. I have very little connection with my parents in a playful environment.
Gaming is totally different with Mina. She’s very much a visual artist and loves tactile things, so to her a physical game is the way she likes to interact with us in a play environment. She likes video games, too, mostly online games, but for her that’s mostly a solo thing. When she plays games with us it’s more likely to be a card game or a board game, something tactile.
Courtney: Do you think that the difference between your son and daughter has more to do with their age or their differing personalities?
Brenda: Hm. I think it’s more personality difference than age or gender. I really think it has to do with their aesthetic sensibilities.
Courtney: Do you let your kids pick their own games, or do you go out and find them?
Brenda: We usually pick and scout out the games, usually informed by reviews from other families or parents. It’s kind of hit or miss. The kids haven’t been very proactive, it’s not often they say, “Hey I found this game I want it.” Sometimes Mina’s done that for an iPhone app. She’ll say “So-And-So has this can I have it? It’s free!” Keagen, who has his own iPhone, will just do whatever he wants to, as long as it’s for free. I don’t think he has an account as far as I know. I’d better check the Visa.
Courtney: When I found out how to turn off the microtransactions on my iPhone I went and did it for myself because I was afraid I might buy something accidentally. It’s not always very clear if a game is asking for in-game money or real-world money.
Brenda: We haven’t even really entered that world. I feel like we’re still at the Neanderthal level of gamers.
Courtney: So do you wish you knew more about it?
Brenda: Yes I do. I feel like I grew up in the wrong family to be very informed, and wasn’t very driven once I moved out of my family to become more of a gamer, and now I really wish I had. I would totally be a LARPer if I knew anything about it before the age of 30. It’s exactly what I want to show Mina, kind of this world. She went to this summer camp, Trackers Camp outside of Portland, but one of their themes for a week-long sleep away camp was Realms of Cascadia, and you come to the camp dressed up in full character if you want. You get to pick which race you belong to, halfling or dwarf or human, you know what I mean? You get to pick.
Courtney: I want to go to that camp!
Brenda: Me too! We used to live on the same block as a house that was squatted by a bunch of anarchists, and it was so fun to see all the LARPing equipment sitting around, see them going down to the park with big foam broadswords, and I would think someday my kids might do that!
Courtney: Have there ever been times that you’ve tried to play a game with your kids that they hated, or that they tried to play a game with you that you hated?
Brenda: Yes. They seem very unsympathetic to the idea of old fashioned card games, and I really want to hook them on to this, gratification of having just a deck of cards with them all the time and being able to play like two or three games from memory. Like, they know how to play this game and they have all the tools to do it, and all they need is themselves and another person and they can have fun.
Courtney: I like that idea
Brenda: It’s the same thing as having a Swiss army knife in your bag at all times, to me. We can have fun, right now, in five minutes.
Courtney: Is there anything about the game industry today that disappoints you or that you’re unhappy about?
Brenda: I don’t think I know enough about it to really make a judgement call, and I have to say that going to GeekGirlCon really opened my eyes to lots of games that I hadn’t seen or heard about or known about before, so I think the onus is on me. I really believe that there are games out there that I would just love, or that my kids would just love, and I haven’t really explored them enough or asked around enough.
Courtney: I love when Pixelkin can bridge the gap between games and parents. I love matching up great games with their perfect audience.
Brenda: Why aren’t game creators at schools? They should be promoting an after-school club for their games. Video games are so often educational in sort of surreptitious ways. They’re not being, “This is a math game!” No, it’s not, it’s that and more, and it’s a game that’s about relationships and thinking ahead about strategy or thinking about self-preservation or attack! They engage your brain in such a myriad of ways that I think it would really be in our school’s best interest to have clubs like these after school or even during lunch to engage children in another way.
If I were more of a gamer mama, I would love to set up a club like that and just charge a small fee and basically babysitting a room of kids playing games.
Courtney: Do you ever have trouble talking to other parents who don’t get that video games can be good?
Brenda: This is horrible, but I am so busy that I don’t have that many conversations with other parents right now, and the parents I connect with are most often already connected to the gaming world. And there are varying degrees of parents who are into video gaming as opposed to board gaming, and I know the spectrum. We have game nights with another family in the neighborhood, and it’s never video games. It’s board games or card games and we all have a good time. And we’re both families of four, and there are different games if the kids want to play that, or if they want to join in with the adults, and it’s a great time.
Courtney: How often do you guys play together?
Brenda: Not very regularly, once every few months or more often if we can squeeze it in. Sometimes it’s a pot luck and then sometimes we all just eat at home and only meet up for the games.
Courtney: Do you think you like gaming better in a big group like that? Or do you prefer one-on-one gaming?
Brenda: I like the big group situation; it’s a lot of fun. It takes off pressure. We’re here to have fun! Let’s have a few tables, we have a stack of board games to pick from. What do you want to play? Bust out a few beers. It’s great.
Courtney: I like the lowering-the-pressure aspect of it, that’s a good way to describe that.
Brenda: That same family, the mom is a board game fanatic, and it seems like she always has a new one to introduce us to, which is great. I love learning a new game, it’s a very fun experience if you can learn it quickly. That’s the greatest thing about a lot of new games, you can learn them in 10 minutes! That immediate gratification is kind of simplified now. Dominion took a while to learn, but the payoff is really big. You realize that it’s got legs. And it doesn’t have to last forever. I always like the idea of Risk, but I have never played Risk because it just seems like it lasts too long.
I grew up playing Monopoly, and I never enjoyed it. My brother always won. It’s just boring to me. The Game of Life is just stupid, it’s stereotypical crap, but I played it because it was a game to play. Games weren’t very cool when we were growing up but we played them. I love it that games have evolved so far past that.
Courtney: Do you ever play video games by yourself?
Brenda: Rarely. On my iPhone I have a couple that are mostly there for my kids but I will play. I used to play Plants vs. Zombies. But I’d rather read. There are a few games I play because the noises and visuals are appealing to my aesthetic. And it’s a worthy challenge that I can try in a short period of time, and then I can shut it off and not care about it. I don’t want something to get its claws into me. I’m very addiction-averse, and that always seems like the scary trap of video games. I grew up with this paranoia that it’ll suck your brain dry, and I see that happening with smartphones and stuff. It’s too…
Courtney: Easy to forget the rest of the world?
Brenda: Absolutely. A book does the same thing in a way, but I feel like it’s nobler? A video game just seems vacuous.
Courtney: That was one of the barriers I had to overcome myself. I had this kind of guilty feeling when I was gaming that just wasn’t there when I was reading. But there’s a lot of awesome things that happen in games that don’t happen in books, and visa versa.
Brenda: I had to get over the feeling of being lazy when reading. I just grew up in this household where if you weren’t scrubbing the floor on your knees you were lazy! You know? But my mom was a writer and a reader too, so mixed messages all over.
Courtney: Have you found any sort of challenge in avoiding mixed messages when you’re talking to your kids about this stuff?
Brenda: Yes! What I try to do with my children, especially when it comes to video games, is set the parameters for its use, like, they don’t get to play video games without my permission. My policy is business before pleasure. Get your homework done, do your house chores, and then I’ll give you some time. Not unlimited time, I’m setting the timer. I try to do it within these parameters instead of saying, “It’s evil, you can’t do this!” We all like to have a little fun. But you have to learn to take care of work, and then you don’t have to stress about it later. They don’t love that idea but they understand it.
Courtney: How much time do you usually allot? Everyone’s got their own screentime policies.
Brenda: Ours is kind of loose. I think Mina gets between half an hour and two hours in a day of total screentime on the computer or watching Netflix, Futurama or something. They don’t have permission to even turn on the television. We’ve been really good about it and they just don’t. Or they ask, can I watch an episode of Futurama?
Nobody in the house just watches TV straight up, except John who watches some sports stuff. Keagen has gotten much more challenging, at 15 he’s got his own iPhone, technically he’s got screentime all day long until he has to turn in his phone at 10 o’clock. And this is a constant discussion in the house. I think it’s a problem, and John doesn’t feel quite the same way. I think it was a mistake to get him an iPhone. It was free with our plan upgrade, we fell into the trap.
Courtney: So he turns it in at 10 p.m.?
Brenda: Yeah, that’s what he’s supposed to do. Sometimes it’s 10:20. Sometimes it’s kind of hard. For a while we let him see how he could control it himself, and he was sleeping with it! It was awful. It was really disturbing. So we’re trying to move back from that. All screentime is limited after 10 o’clock, otherwise he won’t do his homework until 10 p.m. and then he’s up until 1 a.m. just surfing. So we just recently started enforcing—OK, 10 o’clock, no computer, no phone. He has to figure out how to control his time.
Courtney: He is definitely at the right age to start embracing that. It can be quite tricky. What kind of stuff would you look for in the ideal game for your family?
Brenda: I think the hardest thing for a game to do is straddle the age gap, not between adults and children but between, like the 12- and the 15-year-old gap. And also the gender gap, too. I think that’s a difficult thing. But for us as parents the ideal thing is to find a game that we all want to play. And I think once we get Keagen to try Dominion that he will like it. And John said, “Let’s introduce to him on the computer first, and then show him the card game,” and I think that it could work for him really well so we just need to give it a go.
What are your family’s rules for gaming? How do you balance fun and work? Let us know in the comments!