Kids aren’t born knowing how to use a Nintendo; they have to learn. There isn’t a curriculum to follow to teach your children basic gaming skills so I’ve had to create my own as I go.
Video games were a big part of my life growing up in the late 1980s. My days were filled with talking, reading about, or playing video games with my friends.1 I want to my kids to enjoy video games, too…but they are just so bad at them.
My first memory of video games is the Pole Position arcade cabinet2 at Chesapeake Bay Seafood House in Herndon, Virginia. When my brother and I grew restless after our meal of fried baby shrimp, we would ask permission to go to the video games. The kids in the restaurant would gather there, taking turns pretending3 to steer the race car around the track.
Things changed dramatically when I was seven. My older brother saved up his own money to purchase a Nintendo Entertainment System Control Deck. The system didn’t come with any games, but my dad graciously agreed to buy one. We4 chose Spy Hunter as our first game.5
Spy Hunter was BRUTAL. A counter on the screen counted down from 999. During that grace period you could die as many times as you liked and keep playing. After the timer ran down: one life, no continues. If you went too fast you crashed and died. Enemy cars would try and knock you off the road. A helicopter would fire missiles at you. The game was hard; if you made it to the part where your car turns into a boat, you were a god.
But, that grace period let us play. For a couple minutes, we could figure the game out by messing around, without consequences. When the grace period was up and we quickly died, it was the other person’s turn. We were really bad at it. But through repetition (and it being the only game we had) we were teaching ourselves to play video games
I’ve struggled to find the right games to teach my children how to play video games. Kids aren’t born knowing how to use a Nintendo; they have to learn. Modern games have gotten more complex as the core gamers are playing them with 25 years of experience. Also, my girls don’t have just one game; they have every game I’ve ever owned because I don’t throw anything away. There isn’t a curriculum to follow to teach your children basic gaming skills so I’ve had to create my own as I go:6
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1. Basic Sprite Manipulation on Screen
Kids need to learn that their actions with the controller affect the action on the screen. Mario Kart Wii has been best for this. With the Wii Wheel, they have two real actions: press 2 to go and turn the wheel to turn. Even if they spend most of their time driving backwards, the kids are learning basic control concepts.
2. Basic D-Pad Mechanics
This one is a tougher leap. Instead of turning a physical object in space to move the character on screen, the girls had to figure out how using the d-pad relates to moving their avatar in the game. The minigames in Wii Party have done the most for teaching them up, down, left, and right.
3. Using the D-Pad with one hand and pressing a button with the other (sometimes both at the same time)
This is where my girls are now. I have a copy of the Gameboy Advance port of the original Super Mario Bros. I set the game in two-player mode, say they have to take turns, and leave the room. They take turns getting killed by the first Goomba and falling into pits. While they have yet to complete World 1-1, they are getting better through brute repetition. They are now able to use the d-pad at the same time as jumping, allowing them to get past pipes.
4. Running and jumping at the same time
My girls aren’t here yet. Think about how much has to take place mechanically to make Mario run and jump at the same time. You have to manipulate the d-pad with your left hand, hold down the B button with your right thumb, and then press the A button with that same thumb while still holding down the B button. Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 doesn’t require a running jump, but World 1-2 does. Once the girls have mastered World 1-1, they will hit a wall that requires a new skill. I hope they keep at it.
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It took having kids to remind me just how much of my formative video game years were spent not really playing the game, but learning how to play games. I’m finding it best to not overwhelm my girls with options, give them a couple of games to choose from, and leave them alone to figure it out for themselves.
- We played outside too, often (but not always) acting out scenes set in The Legend of Zelda universe. ↩
- There was a Frogger cabinet too, but that didn’t have a wheel. ↩
- No one ever had a quarter and actually played the game. Pretending was enough. ↩
- By “we” I mean whatever my brother wanted, who then convinced me that I wanted it, too. ↩
- This was not the Deluxe version that came with Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt and the light zapper that most of you got. It was just the Control Deck, two controllers, and The Official Nintendo Players’ Guide. ↩
- Not all games are like old NES games. First-person shooters, 3D games like Mario 64 or LEGO Star Wars, or touch games on the iPad all require slightly different metaphors, but I’m in charge so I can do whatever I want and make my kids learn platformers first. ↩