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How Killing People With My Dad Improved Our Relationship

Veteran animator Erik Van Pelt explains how playing video games with his own father has improved their relationship, from Asteroids to Battlefield 1942 and beyond, in this personal Gamasutra feature.

We have all seen, heard, and read no end of press that focuses on the negative aspects of video games. Including quite a lot about how video games are isolating and anti-social activities that degrade real personal relationships.

Video games are the root of all evil. Brain softening, child-corrupting, hot coffee slinging purveyors of cop killing, pimp-handed avatars of loose morals and questionable character, engaged in all manner of congress.

Speaking of Congress, it seems that whenever a politician needs to strut, or as is more often the case, polish their moral credentials, video games are their social evil of choice to rally against in brandishing their family values.

Personally I'm a little tired of it, especially when my own experience has been exactly the opposite. If anything, killing people online with my dad has improved our relationship.

I am the kind of person that when I find something I enjoy I like to share it with friends, especially if it makes the experience more enjoyable for me. Video games are no different. It’s just more enjoyable to play with people you know and like than strangers who often don’t even speak the same language and sometimes can be just plain offensive. Additionally, it is unquestionably much more enjoyable to own bragging rights over friends and family.

When I was a kid we got an Atari 2600 for Christmas one year, and my dad and I used to spend hours competing with each other in games like Asteroids, Chopper Command, and Galaga. We had a great time, and later when emulators became common, we even revisited some of those old competitions and had a great time doing it. So I knew my dad enjoyed playing video games, and yet I hadn’t been able to interest him in playing modern video games.

Then, a few years ago, my dad came into town on a business trip and opted to stay with me rather than at a hotel. As it happened, when he arrived that evening, I was unwinding after a long day by killing people on the internet in round of Battlefield 1942.

As he came in, I said I’d be with him in a minute or two after I finished the round. He told me to keep playing and that he didn’t want to interrupt. He was going to say hello to Rachelle (my wife), bring in his bags and get himself sorted.

Then as he was about to leave the room something caught his eye, “Hey that’s a corsair!”

“Yeah this is Battlefield 1942, it's a first person shooter based on WWII.”

That seemed to catch his interest a little and as he watched over my shoulder he began to ask some questions: who was who?; was the object of the game just killing the enemy or was there was some greater goal?; and whether or not you could play both sides of the fight?, etc.

So I suggested he sit down and give it a go, and I would walk him through the controls.

He immediately gave me his standard excuses for when I asked this question; he didn’t know how to play or even what the controls were and didn’t enjoy the frustration of having his ass kicked repeatedly. That just wasn’t his idea of fun.

His interest however, was genuine and even as he recited his reasons for not wanting to play, I could see from the fascination in his eyes as he watched the game play out on my monitor that he really did. Provided of course he could actually get there and play as opposed to being slaughtered 2 seconds after he spawned.

Then I had an idea.

“I’ll teach you,” I said. “And it’ll just be you and me, and I’ll take it easy on you until you get the hang of the whole thing.

“How are you going to do that?” he asked. “We can’t both play on your machine at the same time.”

“We don’t have to,” I replied. “I have more than one computer AND they are networked. We can play on a LAN.”

That, he decided might be okay.


 

With both my wife and I both working full time jobs that often require a decent amount of homework, mine is a multiple PC household. So in the time it took to order a pizza, I had installed the game on both machines and set up a LAN game with just the two of us on a small map.

It took him a little while to get used to the controls, but playing one on one, with just me in a small environment, allowed him to get the hang of it fairly quickly and once he had the basic concept of what he was doing, he began to really enjoy himself. In fact he adapted so quickly that before long I wasn’t taking it easy on him anymore. He was holding his own quite nicely.

Add a case of beer to that pizza, and before we knew it was 4 in the morning, and we’d had one of the most enjoyable evenings that we had had together in a long time.

As it happened Father’s Day was only a couple of weeks off and so when it rolled around, I got him a copy of Battlefield 1942 Deluxe, with all the add-ons, whistles, and bells. It turned out to be one of the best Father’s Day gifts I have ever given my dad.

After playing some of the solo missions and customizing some of the controls to suit his own preferences, he was ready for online play. At first he was a little intimidated. Anyone who is a fan of FPS games or any other multiplayer online game for that matter will tell you that there is a world of difference between playing against the game’s AI vs. playing against a real human being.

He immediately commented on how much faster the game played, and how much more fierce the combat action was, and again expressed some frustration about having his ass handed to him over and over again by 12 year olds.

By then though, he’d had enough of positive experience to make him want to keep playing. He stuck to it and it wasn’t long at all before he began to discover the ins and outs as well as some of the tricks people use, and was soon thoroughly enjoying himself.

Live voice chat has added another level to our ability to enjoy the game.

I was of course aware of voice chat programs like Gamespeak, but until my dad stated playing, I either preferred a lonewolf style of gameplay or found that I quickly became annoyed with the conversation of 12 years olds who took the opportunity to practice their open-mic routines.

When Battlefield 2 came out we conveniently bought each other our own Christmas presents, and this time upped the ante with a pair of voice capable headphones to support the voice chat feature in BF2.


 

Voice chat made the game playable at a whole new level. Now instead of rushing headlong into death hoping for the best or becoming sitting ducks as we typed out a chat message, hoping the other guy saw it in the thick of combat, we could talk to each other.

Soon we were working together as a team, making and executing plans of attack, providing cover fire, healing each other, and providing ammo and support. It was awesome.

Anyone who has played a squad capable, first-person-shooter will tell you straight up that that any time you have a cohesive squad that communicates and works well together they utterly dominate the game. Quite often even one such squad well be so effective that they can more or less be the deciding factor in who wins a round or match.

Teamwork is the other half of that equation. Many of these games breakdown individual skill activities into character classes, where certain tasks and jobs can only be accomplished by certain types of characters.

My dad and I have had no end of fun by establishing a good defensible position where one of us was a medic and the other a support guy, and we rack up the kills and points healing, re-arming, and picking off enemies. If a friend joins us and we can add a sniper, we are all but unstoppable.

Of course that didn’t happen instantly, nor do these kinds of skills just magically happen. You need to develop them and in doing so, you are also developing your communication skills. One of the very first things we both noticed about voice chat was, that if we actually wanted to use it, we needed to be able to communicate and understand each other. Which is something we had both prided ourselves on being able to do fairly well.

What playing the game illustrated for us though, was just how much of a gap there sometimes was in what we thought we were saying to each other. At the same time because we were sharing a defined, common experience, the game gave us the opportunity to work on this and enabled us to close that gap.

Soon a conversation along the lines of:

“Kill that guy over there!”

“Over where?!”

“Over there, he’s right there!”

“Too late I’m dead.”

Became:

“Sniper in the 2nd story corner window of the western building” or “Claymore, left side of the south exit from the alley.”


 

It wasn’t too long before we discovered Ventrillo, which was a huge improvement over the in game voice chat feature. Additionally we found that our improved communication skills had transcended the game. We were talking more and I think understanding each other better in general.

Chatting online while playing games not only made the game more enjoyable, it also enabled us to just talk while we were playing the game. More than once the game has become a background element that is more of an excuse to have a good conversation than the focus.

Now we talk and play online for hours and often will use Ventrillo just to talk even when we aren’t playing the game. All without having to worry about a huge bill, which considering he lives 400 miles away, is a big deal. My dad and I talk more now, whether playing the game or not, than we did since I was still living with my parents. More importantly, even though we aren’t in the same physical location we have found a way to spend enjoyable time together, not just as father and son, but as friends.

My dad is 54 and I am 34. Three years after that first night of gaming, he has a game rig that rivals mine, complete with joystick and headphones with mic. He even has the special gaming keypad. These days he probably spends more time playing games online than I do. In fact, half of the time I go online to play, he’s already there, often in a game and squaded up with some of my friends, kicking ass, and taking names - literally now that Battlefield 2142 has added the dog tag feature. There is nothing quite so humiliating in a game as being knifed by your dad.

And it’s happened more than once while we were online playing a game that someone in the squad or chat room will pick up on the fact that half of the time I’m referring to him as “dad” instead of “Greg” will ask me later, “Dude was that you dad?”

“Yep sure was.”

“Ah man, that’s so cool. I wish my dad was into games and would play online with me.”

I heard that comment now so many times I’ve lost count, but I never get tired of hearing it. It is cool that my dad plays games.

Our wives think it’s a riot. My mom might even be a little ticked off at me for having help addict my father to video games, and whenever the phone rings at my house after 9 PM or so, my wife teases, “There’s your dad” and mocks, “Can Erik come out and play?” which to be honest I don’t mind one bit.

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