The Unapologetic “Gaming Dad”

By Alcy Leyva

In the mid 90’s, I grew up an avid gamer. In the age of the arcade game, I would scour my usual haunts for opponents to “play for quarters” (a double-down investment where your opponent uses a quarter to play and pays you a quarter if you win). Before the rise of the internet and the subsequent explosion of multiplayer games, I sat home mastering the single-player button mashes and game codes that will forever be attached to my childhood.

This is where I should write, “That all changed when I became an adult.”

Instead, in my 20’s, my taste for games changed to the online arenas. I became a collector of games and found myself as a beta tester for the early Playstation. By the time I was twenty-six, I had completed over 500 games and reached over 100k completionist Gamerscore on my Xbox 360. I still gamed into the wee hours of the morning. I still stood outside on ridiculous lines during midnight releases.

One would figure that having a son would finally change all of that.

For the most part, it did. Gone were my midnight release parties and marathon-like gaming sessions. My whole attraction to games even changed. I found myself seeking deeper experiences through gaming. I looked for dynamic characters and engaging plotlines-- the kinds only found in books and fine literature (and yes, those kinds of games exist). While I recognized that my days as a hardcore gamer were over, I knew the value of video games in a boy’s life. To me, there were amazing moments both alone and just while bonding with my brothers. So by the time my wife and I united our families-- housing my two sons and the two of hers under one roof-- my oldest had already inherited my old Xbox 360. It’s in terrible condition-- a first edition console that looks like it was recently unearthed during an archeological dig and that sounds like a plane is taking off when you press the power button. In many ways, it’s my little black box that holds a record of my childhood in its beat-up frame. And with four boys (ages 4 to 9) who share the same room, it serves as a sanity break from time to time.

Of the twenty or so games and demos saved on the harddrive, my boys instantly took to Minecraft. While I am technically retired from gaming (I'm more of a recreational gamer, when time allows), they love it when I join in. A friend of mine once asked me about the game and whether it was good enough to allow his son to play. Minecraft had just exploded on the scene and he wanted to carefully monitor what his son was exposed to. Truthfully, if there is any game you should allow your son or daughter to try, it should be Minecraft. There are quite a few family oriented and age appropriate games out there, butMinecraft is something different altogether. It’s been a godsend in my home and a revolutionary game in the grand scheme of things.

Before I get into my points, let me first say that I completely understand why detractors will quickly defend their practices of keeping children as far away from video games as possible. Online games have slowly become hotbeds for trolls, bullies, and other “unsavories.” After my experiences in the online world, I fall right in with the crowd that believes that online shooters should have an age requirement in place. I can't tell you how many times I've been verbally assaulted by a high pitched pipsqueak spouting racist/sexist/homophobic nonsense through my headset. As a father (and teacher), I can't even describe the feeling I get when I overhear a kid, right around my son’s age, talk about playing games like Grand Theft Auto. You get I.D.’d buying that game. This kid could barely apply for a library card.

Minecraft isn't anything like this. There are online aspects, but my boys don't play online. They just boot up their four controllers and play locally. Minecraft is, in many ways, a huge sandbox of digital legos. Players don't so much follow a narrative but carry their own stories. For casual players, they can spend the time harvesting resources such as wood and iron just to use them into craft mining material. This then allows them to mine to get stronger materials for stronger items and more priceless material like gold and diamonds. And yes-- this sounds terminally boring, but it’s a tight loop of preparation and exploration that kids just feed into. They build houses and bridges and go on mini-adventures in the dark caves below the surface. For those wanting more of a challenge, the game offers “Survival Mode” where you have a health bar, you must eat to keep your stamina up, and monsters come out at night. Minecraft is a game where you start with nothing but your empty hand and can eventually end up with gold plated armor and a tree house empire.

I only know this because that’s exactly my character now. My sons built houses around me in the world we’ve created and come visit my little treetop getaway when they are bored. One time, my seven year old built a colosseum where we all competed in Olympic style games. My nine year old created a castle with secret passages and deadly traps. Of course my creations, like my “Chicken Launcher 2000,” are a bit more superfluous but my boys love them and really enjoy when I take some time out to play with them, even for a few minutes.

Like any household with four boys, there have been disagreements due to Minecraft. I have been called into their room to mediate over claims of So-and-so stole my horse or Yada-Yada was mad at me so he set up six crates of TNT in my living room and then blew up my whole house. I find that these are perfect times to pause and impart onto them lessons about their brotherly bonds.

No, it's not okay to steal.

Yes, it’s okay to be mad at your brother but in this house, we use our words, not terrorism.

Before the obligatory “You should take your sons out into the real world” comment drops, just know that they do. Swim lessons once a week. Soccer practice on Saturdays. My boys are active bundles of armpits, sugar, and fart noises. I make sure that video games don't explicitly dictate their lives by keeping an ear out for what is new and popular in the gaming spectrum. Being so ingrained in gaming culture, I feel capable of ensuring that video games remain a hobby and not an obsession. Sometimes, they ask to come watch me play my games. They actually enjoy sitting and asking me questions. By having these spaces, I’m modeling healthy relationships to forms of entertainment and ensuring that they feed that same experience and energy they wrestle with in real life into the various contraptions and landscapes we create with our controllers.

What’s also great is that Minecraft teaches them very light classes on engineering. Switches, conduction, fulcrums, basic architecture: my sons are able to apply these in the virtual world. I can go into this more, but thankfully Fatherly has already done an article on the advantages of Minecraft on kids. There are Youtube channels dedicated to builders all around the world, and even some that feature some of the most amazing virtual recreations of famous cities and locations you will ever see.

Of course, being a father who is a gamer has a practical benefit as well. Parents can't close the generational gap when it comes to popular culture, but we can help protect our children by being informed. Educate yourself. If you can't tell the difference between an FPS and a RTS, then how can you ensure that your children are safe in your own home? Even if you have two left thumbs, sit with your child and watch them. Have them talk to you about what is happening onscreen and why they like to play. The moment you start attaching “I did not know” or “I don't understand” to your child's’ interests is a moment bred for conflict.

For now, they keep an extra controller in their room just in case I stop by. Nowadays, even my wife pops in to play her favorite game, Guitar Hero, from time to time. Gaming is now an activity that we all share in; a staple that has become as important as movie night, board game night, and lasagna night.  I’ve come a long way from scouring for quarters in comic dives in the Bronx. I am unabashedly a “Gaming Dad” and I feel my family is better off for it.