“Daddy, why don’t you play with me?”
I looked down; my daughter, then 4 years old, had walked up to my computer desk from her coloring table because she knew it would be the only way to get my attention. It took a moment to register her question. It cut deep. I looked back to the game I was playing and felt a pang of guilt.
Had I really fallen this far? Was my love for games getting in the way of what—and who—was important?
The Dark Side of Video Games
In the months leading up to this point, my wife often said I was addicted to video games. Like any addict in denial, I constantly responded with “I can quit anytime.” Yet I had proven that I couldn’t. I couldn’t handle coming home and not sitting down in front of my PC or Xbox. I couldn’t avoid losing myself in the escapades of my Lord of the Rings Online character. I reveled in conquering a neighboring clan in Total War: Shogun 2. I constantly told myself while playing: “One more turn and then I’ll get off for the night.”
But one more turn just melded into the next turn. One clan would fall, but another would pose a new threat. I’d level my Elven Hunter and instantly start researching the next traits I would invest in. All the while my daughter only knew her father from the briefest of moments we would spend during stretch breaks.
That’s not to say we didn’t spend any time together. However, once we’d return home I’d sit in front of my computer and instantly start ignoring the ones I love. My daughter would fall into her pattern of watching TV in silence while coloring, all alone.
Even as she asked her question, I could see her pain in her eyes. All she wanted to do was spend more time with her dad. And all I wanted to do was continue my exclusionary entertainment, oblivious to the pain I was inflicting.
After a long, tearful hug, I asked my daughter what she would like to do.
“Play Xbox with you.”
The Light Side of Video Games
Initially, I was skeptical. I didn’t have very many Xbox games that we could play, and her hands were a little small for the normal Xbox 360 controller. Still, I was determined to make this happen, even as I struggled to reconcile her wish with my awareness that these very games had stolen away my time with her. I realized, however, that she simply wanted to do something I liked to do. We’d done things like this before when we’d watched old ’90s cartoons I enjoyed at her age. So she saw playing games with me as yet another way to connect.
She obviously didn’t say that in exactly those words, but the gist was there.
She grew excited when we loaded up Kinect Disneyland Adventures. Actually, “excited” doesn’t do it justice. Ecstatic is more apt, though glassware-breaking joy is possibly most accurate. Unfortunately, we soon found ourselves battling with the limitations of the original Kinect, as it would only pick up my image and not hers. Happily, we used this to our advantage. We created a character that looked exactly like her. In the off chance that the Kinect did pick her up, another character would populate the screen, but if it only saw me, she was always in the park.
We jumped. We flew. We kicked. We laughed. We clashed swords with Captain Hook. The most important thing was we did it together. It was the first true experience where I was able to enjoy something I loved and have her actively participate in it with me. It was an experience that to this day is still one of my most cherished memories of our time together.
Fast forward a couple of years, and we’ve moved on to games using a controller. She’s 6 now, and since she doesn’t struggle as much with holding a controller, we’ve started to play Chariot on the Xbox One. Chariot is a physics-based, co-op game where you and a friend control a Princess and her fiancé. These two are trying to get her father’s casket (with his snarky ghost still lingering) to its final resting place. It’s a humorous and fun ride, made even better by playing with a friend.
Or, as I’ve found, a daughter who is simply enjoying the game and the time spent with her dad.
My daughter and I can sit and play this for hours, all the while swapping high-fives and laughing. As she successfully pulls the chariot up a ledge, she is forced to confront the next challenge. She’s never alone, however, and she knows I’m right there with her, helping her both in real life and on the screen.
Make Time For Who (and What) You Love
Playing games with my daughter allows us to bond in a way that movies, TV, or even toys don’t. We learn to work together, she learns to rely on my problem solving, and I learn to trust her and challenge her with each session. Each time we play Chariot she gets better. Each time we play, we enjoy it more than the last.
Make time for those you love. I didn’t at first, and I’ll never get that time back. I can’t say I’m perfect, even now that I recognize the pain I caused. Some days I still find myself sitting in front my computer, too engrossed in what I’m doing and not paying enough attention to those around me. But we are learning, together, what it means to truly enjoy each other as a family. It’s not always video games, and that’s good. More often than not, however, I’ll get an expected, though not unwelcome, response when I ask her what she wants to do:
“Let’s play some Xbox.”