I remember the Christmas as a child that we got an Atari 2600. It was a cut throat time. There were three of us boys and we all wanted a turn. Since only two of us could play at a time there was always one kid who had to sit there and watch while the other two went to town on PacMan, Tank, or Space Invaders. We would eye each other waiting for the moment the third life was lost and the game would be over. My brother Ian was really good at being the one who never relinquished the joy stick. Some how he would convince us, every time, that it was still his turn, and that me or my brother Chris were the ones who had to give up our coveted player spot. This usually resulted in a fight that ended with our Father taking the Atari away and Chris and I playing a game Ian called boss, where upon, he would be the boss and we would do his bidding. It’s exactly like it sounds, no pretense or anything. We would simply do everything he said, from rubbing his feet to going to get him snacks. I think sometimes he even used a really bad Italian accent to act like he was the Godfather. Chris and I put up with it, believing that, because Ian was the older brother he had some magical spell over us. I still can’t rationalize why we did it other than he presented it as a fun time, convincing us we were actually enjoying ourselves, like a twelve year old Svengali with hypno eyes and the ability to make us sing Michael Jackson out loud in front of an audience and then totally forget about it.
Before I go on, let me explain that I am not “gamer”. I enjoy video games, but there is a culture there that I have found I am simply not privy to. It’s like Chinatown; you know there is more going on, you can see the people ducking into dark doorways and disappearing around corners, cluing you into the bigger business going on in the shadows. There’s a mystery, but not one you will ever solve, unless you go into the deep dark corners of your soul. Or so I’m told.
About two years ago my brother in law gave me an Xbox 360. It was a very sweet gift and one I wanted to embrace by jumping in and living the “gamer” life. It did not work. I played by myself and never once went online to play with strangers, many of whom I’m told are kids playing boss themselves, in Luxembourg, Japan, or Akron. He included a bunch of games and two of them were Lego based, Pirates of the Carribian and Star Wars. I put those aside in favor of other games that I thought provided a fuller story and an original and fully realized world, what I look for in such things. Then, on Christmas, my wife Nicole gave me and my son a joint gift, several more Lego games. I was surprised, as was Max, and her rational was that, regardless of not being a “gamer”, this was something Max and I could do together, an activity we could share that had some mental benefit. I was skeptical at first, imagining us sitting next to each other, not talking, silently playing a game, but, as it turns out, she was dead on. My son Max and I have started playing the Lego games together on a regular basis and it has been delightful.
The games themselves are a little violent, but only as much as the movie on which they are based, and even that violence is very stylized. For example: in Star Wars when you are playing Obi-Wan Kenobi and you have to fight The Sand People, you whip out your light saber and strike, but as you hit anything they break up into lego blocks and spill all over the ground, everything is made of legos and the game makers never let you forget it. As someone who loves movies I have a great appreciation for the stories of all of these series regardless of whether I like them. They are all fun and we talk about the story as we go and I make sure Max knows what is happening. Nothing about the games takes themselves too seriously, as a matter a fact they are peppered with in-jokes, sometimes from other movies. In the Raiders of the Lost Ark Lego Game I noticed, in a scene that takes place after the initial bar fight in the Himalayas, Luke Skywalker hanging from a cave from the Empire Strikes back, waving to us. If you watch carefully during fights in some of the games you will even see that characters aren’t punching, but giving each other noogies, the whole time. There are things like that in all the games as they have a great sense of humor.
The best thing about all of these games is that they are all simply big puzzles. Max and I have to sit there and figure out how to get out of a certain area, or look at all the parts of the screen to decide how to proceed in order to move on. It is great for both of us but especially him. They are also becoming teaching tools. There are moments he gets frustrated because he is not sure how to move the controller and he tries to get me to do it for him. Most of the time I tell him no, and make him figure it out himself. We will sit there as he goes over the same spot several times until eventually he manages to jump over the hole or swing on the vine, and without fail, there is always a big smile on his face when he does it himself. (Full disclosure, sometimes I do take his control and show him how to do it if he gets too frustrated.)
We live in a world populated by screens and just like watching TV we limit this activity. This is not like TV where an episode ends and you can just say turn it off. There are chapters of a sort but you never know how long it will take to get from one to another. My advice is to set a timer and when it goes off turn the game off no matter what, otherwise you could wrapped up in a game for a couple hours and not notice, not that I have ever done that accidentally. In the end, Max uses his brain and is working his eye hand coordination to play these games. They work for his age and his personality and he is beginning to really be able to focus on the goals of each story. The only movies he has seen out of the games we have access to are Star Wars ( not all of the movies) and Harry Potter (The first two movies) and he enjoys being able to inhabit the Lego versions of the world and play the characters. He gets very excited when he can play Ron, in Harry Potter, and turn into a rat that must go through a maze to solve part of the story’s riddle.
Max is just 5 years old and playing these Lego games is very new for him and me, but so far, it really is a great activity for us. Also, this is a weekend only thing, as during the week we generally don’t turn it on, and it is often used as a reward for things achieved. Unlike playing with my brothers when I was a kid there is no fight here, only some disappointment when I tell him we have to turn it off. As strange as the idea of the Lego Universe is to me (How did this even develop?) Max and I have a great time exploring it together, and this time, we both get to be boss.
For us it is 5 years and older, might be different for you. I’d imagine someplace between 5 and 7 if you’re game to try. No pun intended.
A little violence, and a lot of silly.