The impact video games can have over their short history has been constantly misunderstood by those quick to dismiss them. Throughout my childhood and even into my adult life, I’ve dealt with naysayers who claim that, "Games can’t teach you anything!" or that they are just "mindless entertainment." However, those of us who look at games as more than a mere hobby know differently.
Games can definitely teach you things about yourself. Many people learned they possess great leadership qualities after heading their first major raid in World of Warcraft. Some games can teach history, as I can attest after playing hours of Shogun: Total War. I became increasingly interested in the Sengoku Era of Japan as a result and to this day can recount some of the great battles of feudal Japan, thanks to Creative Assembly’s grand strategy game.
Most importantly, however, games can open the door for some meaningful conversations to take place. As my daughter has grown up and become more interested in the games I play, the idea of games as a conversation starter has taken on a whole new meaning to me. Playing games with my daughter has become a crucial part of our bonding. We laugh and we exchange high-fives when we accomplish something great. She learns not to be upset with herself we when fail, as we can always try again.
But most importantly: we talk.
While booting up Fallout 4, I asked my daughter to come over and help me with the character creation. Now, Fallout 4 isn’t a game I would normally let her watch. The violence and language are two things my six-year old isn’t going to be exposed to - at least not yet. However, I wanted to just let her imagination run wild and flow as she created a character she envisioned. Naturally she wanted to customize the female character, so we began to do so.
As we progressed, I noticed she was making her character look an awful lot like her mother: dirty blonde hair, stunning hazel-green eyes, and a wide smile. As she finished guiding me through how she wanted her character to look (we already decided we were going to play her), I switched to her male counterpart. I changed a few features: the nose a little longer, added a stylish moustache (it is Movember, after all) and altered the skin color. We went ahead and started to play the character my daughter made and everything seemed normal. As she moved around the house, infatuated with the baby in his crib, I knew when things got messy thanks to my countless hours on the PC version. I was prepared to cut her game time short, but then she spoke:
"Daddy," she said, "they can’t be married. Their skin is different."
I was taken completely aback. We’ve always raised her to embrace differences. She’s grown up in an incredibly diverse environment, with family and friends hailing from different backgrounds and cultures. Yet it turns out that simply being in the environment doesn’t help when she’s being told by trusted people outside my influence that interracial marriage is wrong. It never occurred to me that we needed to have this conversation: there were examples of this on display all around her, most notably her godparents. I, albeit naively it seems, assumed she understood that there is nothing wrong here and it was archaic to think otherwise. Yet, she was being told otherwise by people she trusted, and since I never had the conversation she took their word as gospel.
We often think of the wider ways games can influence our kids - my unwillingness to expose her to the nuclear fallout brought to the utopia of Sanctuary Hills moments later is a clear example. As a result, we can often overlook the little things. The simple act of my changing the skin color of my character was enough to spark a conversation that will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on the woman she will become.
And that’s where we often see people sell video games short compared with other mediums. Yes, movies, literature and traditional art can provide talking points, but the interactivity of a game can draw you in moreso than other mediums. My daughter identifies more with the Princess in the game Chariot than Anna or Elsa in Frozen (though her snowman-building game is strong), simply because she has direct control over what her Chariot character can do. When she sees something on screen she is controlling go against what she thinks, it sticks out more to her than it would in a movie or poem.
"Does it matter what their differences are if they love each other?" I asked her.
"No," she concluded.
"So who are we to say they cannot be married?"
I firmly believe this is a conversation we would not have had for a while had Fallout 4 not flung the door wide open. This topic would have gone untouched until she was older, but thanks to the opening provided, we were able to discuss what she was being told on the outside. And in the end, she was able to come to the conclusion herself that indeed there is nothing wrong about two people in love being married, regardless of what differences the world may see.
As I watched her explore the immaculately decorated house before the bombs fell, a smile came over our faces. She was having a blast interacting with the baby in his crib, while I was simply happy over the bond this game was able to strengthen. Games can not only provide us with hours of escapism, they can also become the catalysts to allow meaningful conversations to occur, if we’re willing to seize those opportunities when they arrive.