Back in my day (eons before even that prehistoric era when we trudged five miles uphill through the lava to kill Lord Nagafen, after sitting in the server's text chat room so our buff timers wouldn't tick down while the rest of the group was getting prepped), kids wrote letters to keep in touch with long-distance grandparents. We struggled almost as hard to read our elders' spidery, old-fashioned cursive as we did to figure out something relevant to say to these relative strangers. Then once a month, we'd be herded into the kitchen or hall (where most people's phones were back then) for the Dreaded Phone Call of Doom, during which we'd self-consciously mumble responses to people who couldn't remember which grade we were in or which of us kids was the swimmer and which was the ballet dancer. Talk about awkward...
Today, cell phones and email make it much easier to keep a family in touch when its members are separated by miles. Still, it's hard for kids to develop a relationship of any depth with people they meet infrequently at best and with whom they share nothing in common beyond a few genetic jots and tittles.
Until gaming came along.
By now, most of us know somebody or have at least heard of somebody in an extended family that stays close by gaming together. Fact is, we can't really think of a better way to strengthen family ties across the miles. We all know that common interests are the mortar of thriving relationships; we know, too, that kids open up best when the pressure's not on them to conversationally "perform." In gaming, you're enjoying a shared, real-time activity with all the attendant chatter, excitement and companionship that naturally comes along for the ride.
So what do we have to do to convince more grandparents that long-distance gaming with their grandkids is the best thing since sliced bread?
Choose the right game
- Free-to-play games Is grandma hesitant about committing to subscriptions and memberships? She doesn't have to. Free-to-play games allow grandparents to play as little -- or as much -- as they like. An added bonus when birthdays roll around: a treat from the cash shop is bound to elicit squees of delight and most deeply sincere approval.
- Casual games While many a parent and grandparent have been unexpectedly seduced by the siren call of a major MMO, truly casual, family-oriented games may hold more appeal for non-gamers. Just dabbling? Free Realms has an activity for everyone. A sucker for strategy? Try Wizard101.
- Browser-based games Grandma won't have to purchase or even download a single thing to play many of today's popular kid titles -- simply pop open a browser window on any internet connection and play right on the web.
As for the details ... what computer systems will it run on? How much does it cost? What does the game look and feel like? Who's the target audience? We'll help you sort through the options with our Parents Guide to Kids and Family Gaming.
Once Grandma and Junior have decided to embark upon a mutual online adventure, seal their chance for success by covering the basics.
- Talk the talk. There's no reason for old, crotchety fingers or young, just-learning fingers to have to type in game when there are so many free, easy ways to communicate by voice. Set up a traditional gaming voice system like Ventrilo, Mumble or TeamSpeak, or load up Skype for the added bonus of video chat, too.
- Set the ground rules. Make sure that all parties involved are aware of any family rules about screen time, homework and chores, as well as family schedules that need to be planned around.
- Suggest play schedules that benefit everybody. Perhaps Grandma and Junior could plan to hang out online together after dinner while you're trying to cope with the incendiary delights of newborns in the evening. What if your dad could meet your middle-schooler online in that scramble of time between when she walks in from school and you peel into the driveway from work?
Reluctant grandparents may feel entirely different about gaming when you point out the many benefits and advantages they'll be passing on to their progeny.
- Model cooperation. How will kids ever learn to work as a team if they don't play Little League or soccer? Try gaming. Here's your chance to show 'em how it's done.
- Teach good manners. How do you invite other players to a group? Do you thank them for a minigame invitation? It's time to lead by example.
- Instill respect. Show kids that the way you treat other players isn't linked to the number over their head or the ranking of the gear in their inventories.
- Develop self-sufficiency. Be a partner, a safety net and a facilitator, not a tour director who leads all the groups, directs all the quests and trains all the skills. It's fun to do things together, but don't forget to give kids a chance to stretch their wings.
- Promote computer skills. Kids don't type yet? Play MMOs long enough, and they will.
- Build confidence. Scary monsters are -- well, downright scary. Defeating a scary monster or going into a creepy zone by themselves can be a major hurdle for young kids. Don't brush off small achievements that represent real milestones to your child. Some kids need to take things in smaller bites.
- Encourage failure in order to encourage success. Gaming offers an unparalleled opportunity for children to indulge in "safe" risk-taking. Give kids room to mess up spectacularly and completely: get lost and die wandering into an inappropriately high-level area, lose the quest piece on step 7 of 8, waste 50 gold on a bind-on-pickup item they already had. Then give them encouragement, support and finally the space to try again. Passing on wisdom acquired over years doesn't get any better than this.
When it's time to find just the right game for your family, turn to MMO Family's growing Parents Guide to Kids & Family Gaming. Drop me a line with your thoughts, suggestions, family game experiences and questions about gaming and parenting at firstname.lastname@example.org.