My 5-year-old has learned more from playing video games than from watching ‘Sesame Street’

My 5-year-old has learned more from playing video games than from watching ‘Sesame Street’
My son and daughter playing 'The Magic School Bus' in 2014 Amanda Farough
My son and daughter playing 'The Magic School Bus' in 2014 Amanda Farough
opinion
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I’m sitting in a cafe, writing about my son and his love of video games, and I’m crying. (Of course I’m crying. I’m always crying.) But it’s almost his sixth birthday, so I’m allowed a little meltdown. Writing about him and how he’s grown as a person through gaming is always going to be an emotional experience.

The first time my son grabbed for a controller, he must have been a little more than 6 months old. He had no idea that he had a PlayStation 4 Dualshock controller in his hands or what he’d accomplish with it four years later. To him, it was a very convenient gadget to drool all over.

Still, I loved bouncing him on my lap while I played games. Sometimes he’d poke at the buttons on the controller while we played Bastion. Other times he’d bang on the keyboard during Skyrim playtime. When he got a little older, and I discovered Destiny, he’d shout “bang bang” every time I took down an enemy. (Thank goodness there’s no blood in Destiny.)

I wonder if his first memories echo my own: of sitting in front of a game and soaking up the shared experience before I knew what a game was.

Whatever he remembers from those early moments of his life, I know that he’s got “gamer” in his blood.

Those tentative first moments were quickly replaced by confident interactions

“Here you go, little dude,” I told him, putting the controller in his preschooler-sized hands. “Give it a shot. Hold down that button there to go forward. Try to go forward first.”

He pressed forward on the left stick. His avatar’s blue motorcycle went forward.

“Mama! Mama, did you see? I did it!”

That’s how we started: small and tentative moments in Trials HD for PlayStation 4. Go forward, first. OK, now go up that little hill without losing balance on your bike. Tip your bike back. That’s right, now go over that jump without crashing. No, you need to try it by yourself first. If you get frustrated, we’ll take a break.

My son and husband gaming in 2015
My son and husband gaming in 2015 Amanda Farough

We, my husband and I, reminded him that the purpose was to learn and to have fun. “No one becomes a great gamer in one afternoon, kiddo,” I’d say to him when he got frustrated. “Practice, practice, practice.”

As he clocked more time in the game, the more confident he became. Once he was able to finish tracks on his own, he insisted that his younger sister join him and learn to play, too. (But she didn’t like playing games... yet.) Those tentative first rides become bold, confident time trials. And he took those learned motor skills into LittleBigPlanet 3, which he beat by the time he was four and a half, Overcooked, TowerFall, and most recently, Thimbleweed Park.

Thimbleweed Park stole my son’s heart and refuses to let go

If my husband and I could go back in time to tell our younger selves that our son would embrace Ron Gilbert’s smart, stylish adventure games as wholeheartedly as we had when we were young... our younger selves would probably have laughed themselves silly.

“Wait, I’m going to be a parent one day?” Insert raucous laughter here.

But that’s what’s happened: our almost-6-year-old has now played Thimbleweed Park all the way through a staggering 15 times. While Trials, Overcooked, LittleBigPlanet 3 and TowerFall trained up his motor skills, Thimbleweed Park is actively teaching him to use logical problem-solving through reading, interaction and puzzles.

The kids playing ‘Thimbleweed Park’ in 2017
The kids playing ‘Thimbleweed Park’ in 2017 Amanda Farough

There was something about the game’s charming puzzles and characters that made my son want to take a second (and 14th) look. He can’t seem to get enough of the story and atmosphere. During a recent trip to a hotel, he exclaimed, “Mama! This hotel looks a lot like the one in Thimbleweed Park!” His exploration of a low-fidelity digital world has made its connections in reality, much to my delight.

Television was never his thing — he’s chosen his learning paths

This is a kid who loves school as much as I used to, lamenting the long summer months for being too boring. He’s eager to devour the world, one byte at a time; that appetite for learning is never sated for long. In school, he’s a math whiz, keen to soak up whatever numerical problems he can get his hands on.

From what I see among his friends, he’s a leader. Overcooked gave him his first crack at leadership, allowing him to coordinate his kitchen of animal chefs as we chopped and cooked our way to many victories. He taught his sister from that deep well of patience he inherited from his father. Even I learned a thing or two under his tutelage.

My son figured out those dual analog sticks in 2016.
My son figured out those dual analog sticks in 2016. Amanda Farough

Navigating the tricky social waters of kindergarten and daycare has been interesting for him. His memory is incredible, thanks in part to practicing the sometimes gruelling platforming levels in LittleBigPlanet 3. He takes care to remember their birthdays and favorite colors. He’s compassionate and patient — the best of both of us — so he’s often the one his classmates go to for support during the day. (He has about 20 best friends.)

He couldn’t tell you much about Sesame Street, but he does love The Magic School Bus and Teen Titans Go!, among his plethora of Thomas the Tank Engine track-building YouTube videos. But if I ask him what he’d rather do, he’d say he’d play video games with his family.

I didn’t always want to be a mother. I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at it. (Hell, I’m still not sure I’m any good at it.) But I am so, so, so fucking glad that these kids are mine and that I get to be their mom.

And I couldn’t be prouder of my little gamer.

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