Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Classic 8-bit Video Games and Post-Modern Kids

I recently got my wife to assent to letting the kids play some videogames at home - I have a bunch of games for myself, but she wanted to let them get fully proficient at reading first. I tend to agree, but I also want to play games with them! Our 7-year old, the oldest, is reading chapter books on his own, so he's good to go, but the other two are still 5 and 3 and it seems like a long time to wait. I'm waiting for the day when I can use them as an excuse to buy a Wii or a DS.

So the way I got my wife to agree was with two arguments. One, I said I'd only let them play classic, nonviolent games from the mesozoic era, like Pacman and Super Mario Bros. Two, this was during the LA fires and we were stuck inside all day because of the smoke in the air. My foot is firmly in the door now.

The great thing is, the kids love these classic games! I'm sure they'd love any games at all, but I think it's cool for them to get some exposure to the fundamentals - in the games that defined game genres, and experiencing that same kind of pixel-fueled rush that I did.

What I realized after playing "Vigilante 8" a long time ago with my oldest kid (he was sick), was that things that seemed intuitive to me in games were not at all intuitive to him. For example, a power-up: I explained to him that in order to repair his car, he needed to pick up a wrench. He said "pick up?" I said you need to drive through it. (The wrench is floating in the air, rotating slowly.) He didn't understand what I meant at all. I needed to explain that when you drive "through" that particular object, you "pick it up."

That's when I thought to myself, how do I know this stuff? Games have always had power-ups, right? Wrong. Pacman taught me how to pick up a power-up. The big dot makes you big! The little dots give you points.

So how do kids today learn about videogame conventions without playing simple, classic arcade games? I guess they figure it out somehow. But I think my kids will have some fun and gain some appreciation for how awesome games are today by playing the classics of yesteryear. Maybe they'll even prefer them.

(I should mention this as a disclaimer: my dad turned me on to the Marx Bros, WC Fields, old cars, bluegrass music, fishing and countless other things that most kids my age didn't know about. I think this is a good strategy, although it may lead to disappointment in the latest piece of crap from Disney or whatever.)


OpenID stephanology said...

Good show on starting your kids off on old school videogames.
I recently have been playing some modern games for kids with younger cousins, and I find them incomprehensible. I ask simple questions like "What are we doing, what is our goal, how do we know where to go?" and The kids don't seem to have any logical answers. Mostly, they just "know what to do" by spreading around answers in class or reading Nintendo Power magazine.
A five year old can look at the screen in Donkey Kong and say "You have to get to the top, to the big monkey" having never even pushed start.
So much of kids' media seems designed to breakdown their critical thinking and logic skills rather than build them up. Classic books, films, television and even games usually provide an important education in logic, math, and decision making.

June 15, 2009 7:45 AM  
Blogger mudfoot said...

That's an interesting idea - that kids should be encouraged, even forced, to play 'old school' video games because they teach fundamental elements of interactive gameplay, just like "Citizen Kane" teaches fundamental elements of film. I bet a college course on the history of videogames would fill up pretty quickly!

Now the question is, if we want to let kids experience classic arcade games in their original context, do we need to let them purchase cigarettes out of a machine and chain-smoke, leaving the lit cig on the game until it burns the plastic?

June 15, 2009 4:30 PM  

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