This week’s iQ: smartparent was many months in the making. In addition to a great in-studio interview with Jessica Trybus, we filmed a ton of footage at WQED’s Family Game Day and the National STEM Video Game Challenge winners’ event back in June. It was so exciting to see all of these elements come together for this episode.
Personally, this episode was a great learning experience. I was a kid who didn’t grow up with console games, and — with the very notable exception of my beloved Oregon Trail — “winning” at a digital game or reaching its endpoint was something I thought only other people did. My main experiences with console games came at my orthodontist’s office, where the (very smart) staff had set up a slim waiting room with four monitors connected with four different gaming systems. I’d gravitate toward Super Mario Brothers 1 or 2, and I’d play for 15 minutes or so and try to keep my mind off of whatever fresh hell my poor mouth would meet a few minutes later. Since I only played for a few minutes at a time — and was usually preoccupied with dread — I never really did well, and I never really improved.
When I was in middle school, I remember my friend Rosie obsessively playing one of the Sonic the Hedgehog games on her Sega. For a solid week she’d get up in the morning, play the game, pause the game, go to school, come home from school, un-pause the game, play until dinner, then pause the game and start all over the next morning. She beat the game a few days later. Since I wasn’t much of a gamer myself, I imagined that this was what it took to win something: Total dedication, and total absorption in the task. I could barely get past the first two levels of Sonic, let alone beat a boss level. Between my lack of experience and my certainty that I’d never have the time or ability to actually be any good at these games, I’ve mostly stayed away.
Interestingly, my work with Common Sense Media forced me to re-evaluate my idea of myself as a gamer. Last year, I reviewed a really neat game called Spirits of Spring, and this year I reviewed Stephen Universe: Attack the Light, and (unbeknownst to my colleagues) these two experiences offered me the first time I’d ever beaten a boss in a video game. Heck, Spirits of Spring is the first game I’ve ever played where I reached the end. I was terrified when I got these assignments. I’m not a gamer! I thought. How can I review this if I can’t get past the first level? But I did get past the first level; these games were each scaffolded and organized well enough to help me ramp up my skills and progressively get better. If I’d played Mario or Sonic with more consistency — or at least a little more concentration — I probably would have caught on to the same kind of building complexity.
Plus, each of those games had some pretty thoughtful messages baked in about empathy (in Spirits of Spring) and teamwork (in both). I’ve long heard that MMORPGs and console-based RPGs can be imbued with deep insights and great messages, and I believe it: In fact, I’m much more convinced of the value of those gaming experience than I was by that late-eighties, early-nineties refrain that gaming systems were great for learning because they help kids develop hand-eye coordination. I think I’ve always believed that gamers could derive great value, insight, and pleasure from gaming; the difference is that now I realize I could be a gamer too.
I think that’s the thing I find most empowering, joyful, and exciting about this episode of iQ: smartparent. This show’s message is that anyone can admire, design, and play games, and we’re not kidding: There are tons of flexible tools out there for programming and prototyping that can help anyone create a game that explores themes and game mechanics that excite or interest them. Gaming is for everybody — everybody, it turns out, including me.