The Evolution of a Gaming Family

If you have kids, you know it’s going to change your life. You expect to give up some things (OK, maybe a lot of things), and grown up leisure activities are one of the first things most parents let go. You figure you’ll get back to it eventually…after your kids graduate from college or something. It seems like many gaming parents assume that playing games beyond Chutes and Ladders is a thing of the past.

It may seem counterintuitive, but I became a more active gamer after my daughter was born. It probably helps a lot that our game group has always included other couples, but having an infant at the gaming table didn’t end up being a big deal. Everyone quickly learned not to notice a nursing infant, and when my son came along, I wasn’t the only nursing mother at the table. There were always other hands eager to take the babies while Mommy rolled the dice and killed the ogre.

By the time they were a year old, all the kids had their own dice and were allowed to make occasional rolls (my daughter’s first roll ever was a natural 20!). Of course, dice fit securely into the “choking hazard” category, so we developed strategies like using pacifiers that they’d have to spit out before they could shove dice in their mouths—it buys you that critical split second to respond.

Having toddlers at the gaming table is a whole lot harder, so we figured out how to play tag team RPGs—someone else holds onto your character sheet while you’re in the other room with the toddlers. When it’s your turn, you yell out what you want your character to do and your partner makes it happen. It’s not ideal, but it’s a whole lot more fun than sitting out completely. And eventually the kids get old enough that they don’t need constant supervision, and gaming starts to seem a bit more like it was before kids—although with a good bit less swearing until after the kids’ bedtime.

I think my kids learned some really valuable lessons during these early years. They learned that, just like them, Mommy and Daddy get to invite their friends over to play. They learned that playing games is a great activity for adults, too. They watched our game group and learned about etiquette around the gaming table. They met a lot of really great adults who were happy to share a beloved hobby with them. They learned that bedtime comes before the end of the game, and that’s fine; the world doesn’t—and shouldn’t—end when they aren’t part of it. On the other hand, if Mommy and Daddy don’t defeat those evil cultists, that’s a whole other story.

I also learned a lot during those years. Having a group of adults to hang out with when most of my life consisted of being at home with the kids helped me transition into the role of mother without losing myself. Spending a few hours in a world where none of the daily worries of life even existed was a welcome escape. Bashing imaginary monsters can be cathartic when real life gets overwhelming. And as my own kids got older and left my arms, I held other people’s babies and offered those parents a few moments where they could do something without juggling a child. Our game group, though its membership has changed through the years, has always been a bit like family that way. And when I had no time to read or watch movies, games provided engaging stories that captured my imagination and kept it from stagnating in the haze of sleep deprivation.

As our kids got older, we started playing more games with them, and my husband and I also got involved in producing games (he writes and designs, I edit and develop). Now games permeate our house—they’re a lot of what we do for fun, for work, for play, and for vacation. And I think that in many ways our kids—and we—are better off for it.

It’s fantastic when there’s an interest that the whole family can share, and games are particularly well suited for that. There are so many different types of games for different ages, abilities, and interests that you’re bound to find something for almost everyone in the family. Of course I get the wonderful experience of sharing something I love with my kids, but seeing things anew through their eyes also broadens my own perspective and deepens my appreciation of and involvement with something that’s so central to my life.

That doesn’t mean everything is gumdrops and roses because we all game together. One of the big challenges has been trying to explain to our kids that, even though most of the people they know are gamers, it’s actually a fairly niche hobby that not everyone participates in. They want to share their passions, but they’re often met with a blank look from those who have no idea what they’re talking about or, worse yet, a curled lip from those who know just enough to judge my kids and find them weird. It’s a struggle to figure out how to help them learn some contextual sensitivity without making them feel ashamed of an activity we love—but the fact is that most people don’t know or care about gaming conventions or what their characters did in D&D last Friday. Our kids are proud of what their parents do, and I think they’re shocked by how few people outside of our circles are aware of the games we make.

Still, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Here are just a few of the things I love about being a gaming family.

1. Instant game group. It’s great that the kids are now old enough to play roleplaying games with us in addition to board games. This means there are three players and a GM living in our house. When a game catches their attention, they don’t necessarily ask one of us to run it—our 13 year old daughter is reading our copy of Blue Rose with the intention of running it for us someday. She has color coded Post-It notes marking important sections. Even if she doesn’t ever actually get around to it, I’m proud that she’s thinking about it and that it occurs to her that she can run a game. Even more, I think, I’m proud that it doesn’t occur to her that she couldn’t run a game.

2. It makes you a better GM. When you GM for kids, you learn just how much of traditional gaming is learned behavior. A lot of the things we struggle with as adult gamers comes very naturally to kids. It makes sense—roleplaying is just an organized form of “Let’s pretend…” And when a bunch of kids are pretending together, it’s often a freeform and (mostly) cooperative storytelling event. One of the first games my husband ran for the kids was Faerie’s Tale. When their characters got back to the palace and found the queen missing, our daughter just grabbed hold of the story. “It was the goblins! We’ll pretend that the goblins took the queen. So let’s plan how we’re going to get her back.” Of course, GMing kids is a bit like jumping into the deep end to learn how to swim—they have some fantastic ideas that you’ll want to let them run with, but if you give them too much rein you’ll end up with meandering plots and flying alligators in every game. Utterly ridiculous things are hysterical to kids, but often a headache to the GM and other players.

3. Built-in playtesters. The kids have served as playtesters for at least two games now. It’s nice having them available to bounce ideas off of—it makes our games stronger, especially when kids are part of the target audience. Being playtesters and advisors helps them learn that games are things in process—things can be changed, often based on their feedback. Games don’t spring, perfectly formed, onto the shelves of a store. It also helps drive home the fact that games are things created by people, which leads to…

4. Young game designers. The kids make up their own games. I know, most if not all kids do this on some level. My kids’ games go well beyond the Calvin Ball style of making up rules as you go along to make the game silly and hopefully increase your chances of winning. In fact, sometimes the design part seems to be the game. They design rules, they playtest, and they try to create games that make sense, are fair, can be taught, and are enjoyable for all the players. Maybe I’m just mommy-bragging, but I think that growing up in a household that designs games is rubbing off on them.

5. When a game doesn’t work, you can change it. When your dad is a game designer, he can help fix games that should be cool but somehow fall short. When our daughter got a beautiful Narnia board game, we were surprised to realize that it was a player elimination game. Lucy sacrificing Peter to the White Witch so she can get back to the wardrobe first? Ridiculous. Even Edmund eventually figured out that the Pevensie kids have to stick together. Our new rules made the game cooperative—it wasn’t perfect, but at least it became playable in a way that made sense to our Narnia fan. Although our kids tend to be rules lawyers in life, they’re learning to adapt and change rules in games to better suit the goals. This creative approach to rules can also be a useful life skill—as long as you also know which rules you need to follow!

6. Adult games hacked to be kid-friendly make better kid games. As a corollary to fixing broken games, we also hack grown up games to make them more kid friendly. Carcasonne is particularly good for this. Taking the farmers out of the equation is often sufficient for many kids. But you can also make it cooperative, working together for the highest score or the biggest city. Personally, I find simplifying adult games so much more rewarding than playing kid-focused games like Candyland, and it still teaches important skills like taking turns, losing gracefully, handling game pieces correctly, etc. And it ensures that when my kids ask to play a game with me, I don’t internally scream, “Oh, no, anything but that repetitive, insipid, never-ending excuse for a board game!” When they’re ready, we start adding the more complex rules back in—they already have the basics down.

7. You have worlds you share. We try to watch TV and movies with our kids and to read at least some of the same books, so we have a lot of shared worlds. But the thing about the worlds you experience through gaming is that everyone has some control over them. We can each play characters that are or aren’t like us. The game can tackle problems that are similar to issues we’re dealing with in real life, such as working together or dealing with bullies. Having a shared but fictional world lets us talk through things with just a bit of distance—it’s a tool I’ve really appreciated as a parent.

8. Conventions make great family vacations. We still keep a few conventions as grown up time (Metatopia and Gen Con so far), but we’ve taken the whole family to Origins Game Faire a few times, and we added Dex Con this year as well. Conventions give the kids a chance to develop interests beyond what my husband and I are interested in, which means we’re also exposed to new things we may not have discovered otherwise. We meet people who know how to play different games, which helps the whole family expand our gaming horizons. I know that some people have had truly awful experiences at cons, but we’ve been really lucky and our experiences have been wonderful. Overall, we’ve found the community to be very welcoming of geeklings, treating them like gamers of equal value to the adults.

9. Meeting creatives makes you believe you can be one. Kids are always told that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be. Yet a lot of things in their lives seem to happen like magic. But when you see people making games, when you meet the authors of the books, when you watch the creative process happen, “You can be whatever you want to be” becomes more than a platitude. When John Kovalic tweets back to you when your mom mentions how much you love Munchkin, when you play Ascension with one of the developers, when the artists chat with you extensively about their art and your interests, when the people you hang out with have their names on well known games, when your mom is editing the novel you can’t wait to read, then it really does seem like creating things is possible. I remember back when I was just a fan, and then I’d edited some stuff, and then there was the year that I truly felt like a professional, an insider. These hurdles aren’t impossible to cross, and my kids know that. If they want to develop games or write books, they already know that this is something that people like them can do.

10. You’re not so weird. OK, maybe you are kind of weird. But a lot of people think that’s awesome. Going to conventions and meeting people involved in gaming demonstrates that there are a lot of people who share your interests. And that can help you be proud of who you are, even when you’re kind of standing out at school, or your friends have never heard of the game you love. My kids are learning to wear their geekiness like a badge of honor, because they know that in the grand scheme of things, they don’t stand alone. And I think that having gaming be a huge part of what we do as a family helps give them the support to not feel ashamed when other people don’t understand or share their interests. It’s also helped them find other kids who do share their interests—in fact, they have their own kids-only game group.

11. It’s a hobby for a lifetime. So many things from childhood get put away as childish. Many people return to gaming later in life, having felt pressure to stop playing childhood games when they were learning how to be grown ups. Our kids are surrounded by adults who love to play, who value imagination and creativity. They know these are things that can and should stay with you for a lifetime.

12. This is how you change gaming culture. There are a lot of issues with “gaming culture” (yeah, I understand how indefinable that is, but please bear with me). You’ll have no trouble finding tons about that in other places. But gaming with your kids means you can start to change that. You can talk about the artwork in game books and help them see it with a critical eye. You can make sure your daughter has support when she stands up for herself when she’s bothered by teasing around the gaming table. You can be proud that your son stood by her and didn’t join in with his friends. You can help your kids be proud of who they are, even when that doesn’t fit the conventions and stereotypes pressed on them. I have, for the most part, found respect and acceptance as part of the gaming community. And it’s in this gaming culture that we’re raising our kids. Respect for other people is required. Others will stand by you when you speak up about something that bothers you. Girl gamers are just as valid as boy gamers. Even those with different interests deserve acceptance and respect. I hope my kids will be gamers who are accepting and inclusive, because that’s what’s being modeled for them. I hope they will be horrified if they see people being excluded because they don’t fit some preconceived idea of what a “gamer” ought to be. I hope they will speak out against misogyny, racism, and genre bashing because that kind of behavior—even as a joke—has never been acceptable around our gaming table or in our social circles.

Gaming has meant a lot to me in my adult life—I didn’t start gaming until I was in my 20’s, dating the gamer who became my husband. Gaming has given me a lot of fun, amazing stories, most of my friends, an island of sanity in a sea of chaos, and my current career. It may sound like hyperbole or a bad commercial, but sharing gaming with my husband and kids makes us stronger as individuals and as a family.

Written by Amanda Valentine

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