Growing Up Gamer: Destigmatizing Video Games for My Son

By Mark Delaney, 9 months ago
I can't quite recall which video game was the first I ever played, but at 28 years old I can say confidently it was sometime roughly 22 years ago, give or take. I grew up in a Sega Genesis household, which is why to this day I still have no deep affection for the Nintendo staples like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and so many others. What I do know for sure is that from that early age video games fascinated me. I recall beating Crash Bandicoot Warped on PlayStation as the first time I ever completed a game's story mode on my own. I remember vividly falling for countless games and series over the past two decades. Things like Splinter Cell, WWE (WWF back then), Grand Theft Auto, even lesser known titles like Wonder Dog and Jersey Devil made up a great deal of my favorite gaming memories as a child in the nineties.

I was lucky to have an older brother for whom, for a while, games mattered. When I was too young to afford new games on my own, he often brought them home or got them as gifts from family. Having console games in our home from my young age is, of course, my origin story. Eventually he outgrew them, but that realignment in hobbying never arrived for me. I've spent these last two decades forever adoring the medium. Their importance in my life has never wavered, which is sadly notable because growing up as an avid gamer, I had to hear it often from people that video games are worthless brain-rotting time wasters and I was wrong to enjoy them. Now, at twenty eight years old and with a son of my own, I feel it's of utmost importance that I never allow him to feel shunned or stupid for loving games the way I did, the way I do, and the way he already does too.

 Video games can be uniquely artful in ways other media can't touch. Video games can be uniquely artful in ways other media can't touch.

The stigma surrounding the medium has long instructed people who have never even picked up a controller to chastise anyone who happens to enjoy spending free time playing video games. Talking heads on TV, in print or online, and for me and surely many others who grew up like me even family members, have scoffed at the notion of video games as being in possession of any desirable traits. The debate surrounding video games and violence has only deepened the divide between those who love playing and those who believe there's nothing of worth that may come from doing so. That stigma was a dark cloud cast over me for much of my upbringing. I often felt guilty for playing because family members found games to be so dumb.

The failure of their criticisms comes from the fact that, in my experience, these people had never played a game at all or last played them in an arcade a decade or more before they spoke from such an uninformed place. These same people, mind you, would often commit many hours to daytime soap operas, reality television, or tabloid magazines. Where these people found the moral high ground to criticize a hobby with which they had very little or no experience is unknown to me. Suffice it to say the arguments against video games got old quickly and remained that way over the years.

My son, Nathan, is four years old. He's been reading at a kindergarten level — maybe even slightly above — for about six months now and he won't be in kindergarten until September of next year. His vocabulary is more expansive than most of his peers' and even more impressive than that of some adults I know. He is an excellent problem solver, is extremely tech-savvy, and is curious of the world beyond his years. He can talk to you for many minutes about topics such as Elon Musk's Hyperloop or green energy solutions, and has taught me everything I know about automobiles. Pardon the part of this editorial where I do the stereotypical parental thing and gush over how great my kid is, but it's important to the crux of my argument. Nathan is intelligent, strong, and caring. He knows the difference between right and wrong.

At nearly five years old now, he's also been playing video games for the past two years, and to the surprise of ignorant adults the world over, they haven't made him any worse off as a child. He excels at Rocket League, we play games like Cars 3, Roblox, and Forza often. I know they don't hurt his prospects as an intelligent and mature child because I see it every day how advanced he is. Video games are a part of our life together, and that of my partner's as well. The three of us love them, and my fiancée and I agree as parents that games play an acceptable role in his life. We have no qualms about integrating them into his long list of hobbies. He is a voracious reader, loves playing outdoors, and we go to a museum or library — or both — on a weekly basis. Video games have a deserved place in his life alongside those other activities, and it's vital to me that he never feels otherwise, that he never feels like he's making a mistake for liking games.

 Like movies, TV, and all other media, games should be allowed to be stupid when they want to be too. Like movies, TV, and all other media, games should be allowed to be stupid when they want to be too.

For Nathan, thankfully, he doesn't even know there once was, and to a lesser extent still remains, this stigma regarding the medium. I've taken it upon myself to ensure he never has to feel that way because it's so obviously undeserved. Some games are undoubtedly dumb. Like any artform, there are bad examples of art and examples of works not wanting to be art in the first place. Just as easily as news network pundits can point to Gears of War or Saints Row as examples of how video games can lack much emotional substance or artful merits, so too could anyone do the same for all other media. Books have things like Twilight, film has the exhilarating but shallow Fast and Furious, music has pretty much anything sitting in the top 40 at any given time. All media formats have their mindless fun, their turn-off-your-brain pop culture. There's a place for that in each medium, but it seems video games take more than their allotted criticism for allowing such works to exist.

I once knew someone who told me verbatim it would be more personally enriching to read any book rather than play any video game. When pressed on this opinion, she doubled down, confirming it's exactly what she meant to say. Taken not even to what may be its extreme, that means she would agree reading Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop or a Paris Hilton memoir would be better and more enriching for an adult than playing BioShock or Unravel. To anyone reading this who plays games, this is an obviously ignorant and, given her staunchness, concerning viewpoint, and yet it's surely believed by others too, others who have never played even a single game past its opening start button. How someone could speak so strongly about a medium with which he or she has no experience is alarming and honestly rather comical.

Luckily for my son, he is a part of the next generation. It's slowly catching on that his generation will be called the "digital natives" much like I am a member of the oft-maligned millennials. Whereas people my age were the youngest to adopt the internet and the age of limitless information, he will never know a world without those things. I had my first home computer when I was 11 or 12. Nathan and his peers were born into a world smartphones, digital everything, and will maybe never know what the word "encyclopedia" means as it pertains to the now unseen physical books that I used for my earliest book reports in elementary school.

The digital natives and their millennial parents are combining to welcome in this age of computerized technology. Gaming was an emerging medium when I was his age. To some extent you can forgive the scrutiny it's received because movies, television, even radio dramas have all faced similar scrutiny upon their inceptions as well. Now the youngest kids are being raised by people like me that grew up with games and know they aren't the brain-rotting filth our parents told us they were. They're just like any other entertainment medium. They tell elaborate stories, invite connectivity and cooperation, dare us to exercise our brain power, and much more. Even when they don't do some or all of these things, they're only offering a wide array of choices like literally every other art and entertainment form has done before and still does today.

A year or so ago I heard Greg Miller of Kinda Funny echo, down to every morbidly humorous word, the expression I had used for years in retaliation to this antiquated view of gaming. When asked by a fan when he thought this stigma surrounding games would go away he put it bluntly, saying it would happen "when all the old people die off." It's a bit dark, but definitely rings both funny and true. When the generation that criticizes games without ever playing them gives way to the world to be inherited solely by those who grew up playing and loving games — today nearly two billion people play some kind of video games — this stigma will dissipate permanently. When that happens, the art of video games will be free to express itself however its artists desire.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.