Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.
“Look, Daddy, I made a Portal level!”
My four-year-old son excitedly pulled me into his playroom to show off his handiwork. Strewn on the floor was a mish-mash of Legos, blocks, and marbles. To an outside observer, it would simply look like the result of an afternoon at play, but to us it was obviously a puzzle inspired by Portal 2, the sublime videogame from Valve Software.
“Look, Daddy, there’s the box, the button, and the door!”
My wife walked over and smiled. “He’s his father’s son, all right.”
Becoming a Dad is a wonderful, terrifying and life-altering experience. It forces you examine everything, make tough choices and sacrifice. While it’s well down on the list of items of importance, the issue of how, when, and even if video games should be a part of that equation is a polarizing issue. More than a few people have let me know they think games should have no part in a young child’s life.
But I’m a gamer; I have been since I can remember. What’s more, I love sports, and sports videogames have been the center of my entertainment world from their earliest incarnation. Now they even help pay the bills. I didn’t plan out how my son would be introduced to games, but I knew it would happen one way or another.
“It’s kind of by default,” says ESPN’s Gus Ramsey, a father of three boys whose background – a passion for sports and games – is similar to mine. “I’d play, and they’d see me, then they’d hop on the chair and say, ‘What’s this?’ First they watch, then sooner or later, they want a shot at it.”
Ramsey’s sons have all grown to love games. A lifelong baseball devotee, Ramsey has been particularly struck by the influence two specific video games have had on his middle son’s passion for the sport.
“He liked baseball – at five or six, we played wiffle ball and went to Mets games at Shea Stadium – but what the videogames did for him is increase his understanding of the game,” Ramsey said. “Backyard Baseball is great for kids because it’s simple, but the rules of the game still apply. You learn about force outs and tagging up, things like that. With MLB The Show, he learned about the teams and the players. I remember my father visiting when he was 6, and asking him to name all the teams; he was rattling them all off because of the game.
“We go in the backyard to play wiffle ball, and I can’t just pick up the ball to pitch,” Ramsey said. “Every player had to be announced and have a walk-up song because that was in the game. He would not have gotten that from just sitting there and watching the Mets. I think there’s great value in that.”
MLB The Show is a beautiful, immersive game, but it’s also incredibly difficult. I asked Mr. Ramsey about that – and it shined a light on yet another lesson that the game teaches.
“I put everything on rookie level, and the biggest thing I try to tell him is, don’t throw a fastball down the middle every pitch,” he said. “So he learned that, too. You have to go up and down, in and out, slider and curve, just like they do in the big leagues.”
All those lessons translate onto the real-life diamond as well.
“He plays baseball in the summer and fall, and for his age group every year there’s always a handful of kids who get it more than others,” Mr. Ramsey recounted. “I talk to other dads, and they’ve told me the same thing: kids learn the game from playing the videogames. There’s a runner on first, they pick up the grounder, they look to throw it to second, because they know. Meanwhile, other kids are just staring at the clouds.”
Over time, videogames have become a centralizing mechanism of collaboration and competition for his busy family – a common ground where he and his 12-, nine- and almost-four-year-old boys all have a blast. Wrestling games in particular get the Ramsey clan in a boisterous mood.
“I always kid them that there’s no videogame I can’t master,” he laughs. “Someday they’ll be able to beat me in, say, basketball, but I’ll always be able to beat them in video games. We got WWE All-Stars, and they’re down there for hours practicing the moves, then say ‘Dad, come on, let’s play!’ I’m trying to figure it out, and they’re drop-kicking me and smashing me into turnbuckles. My three-year old holds the controller, thinking he’s playing, then walks around the house singing all the guys’ entrance music.”
Around the Grisham household, my son and I have a weeknight routine. Every night before bed, we’ll hang out for half an hour in our “man cave” (my upstairs office). Because of what I do, I’ll usually be playing a sports game, but occasionally I venture into other genres. Earlier this year, I was goofing around with Portal 2, and my son instantly loved the characters. He’d go everywhere talking like Wheatley and the sing-song turrets he called “lasers.” He begged me every day to play more. Naturally, I had to be very careful around these lethal, bullet-slinging robots, because I’m not trying to expose him to heavy machine guns just yet. He’s got his whole life to absorb violence in media.
Over the course of the next few months, his life was seemingly centered around his idea of what Portal was. He’d build Portal levels with his Legos, any stick he grabbed was a “thing that makes holes”, and he loved to have me grab a marble and speak in a Wheatley-inspired English accent. His Halloween costume was a handmade Atlas (because they don’t exactly sell Portal costumes in stores). Thanks to the great people at ThinkGeek.com, we were even able to buy him a Turret and Wheatley for Christmas. These will be a massive hit.
Portal isn’t a sports game, but the fact that we’ve bonded over it thrills me. Life is magical for my boy right now, and we’re absolutely best buddies. Things change over time, though, and he’ll be a teenager one day; we’ll inevitably butt heads over things like school and driving and the other trials life will throw at us. My hope is that no matter what else might be going on, we’ll always be able to sit down and play a game together, having fun in spite of any difficulties – and I’m pretty sure Gus Ramsey feels the same way. Anything that brings fathers and sons together is a good thing in my book, and no one can degrade that.
Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.