So, I realized then that being vigilant about my kids' gaming was going to require me to do some actual, strenuous parenting beyond simply trying to banish games from their lives and washing their eyes out with soap.
I needed to treat my games the same way I treat television. When my kids watch movies or TV shows, they do it in a room where I can easily supervise the content (it's one advantage of having a small place with one TV). And when inappropriate situations pop up, we talk about it.
So, I put in Fable II and signed in.
At first, it sure enough looked like a kids' game with cartoony graphics and some decent, offbeat humor. It was somewhat fun, but nothing special.
Then the first big cut scene started, and just as Drew exited the bathroom, I witnessed my six or seven year old character get shot in the chest and blown out of the top of a castle tower. My son giggled and said, "I love that part."
I turned and stared at him for a few concern-filled seconds and then told him to comb his hair and get dressed. He asked, "Did you rename your dog yet? You can use the dog collar to change his name if you want."
"Oh. No, I didn't know that. But I'm not concerned with it. His name is just fine as-is."
I spent the next couple of hours in the game, kicking chickens and giggling. Eventually Drew asked, "Did you get to the part where you have to listen to the starving guy beg for food for three minutes?"
That's a real part of the game, I would later find out. They actually time you, and your entire goal is to stand there and look him in the eyes as he begs for his life, while doing nothing to help him. You literally put down the controller and the game makes you just sit there and listen to him beg you to not let him die.
I said, "I just got to the part where you find the cross-dressing guy at the Temple of Light. He wanted me to go into his home in the cave and kill a bunch of monsters..."
My son snickered. "Oh, man. There's something really creepy in that cave. Did you find it yet?"
"I... I'm not sure," I said, scanning the room.
"Oh, you'll know it when you see it. It's over there by his bed. It's creepy."
I moved across the room, and there it was.
A dead baby in a crib.
See, this is what I'm talking about. At what age were you ready to see this? Because it just freaked the shit out of me and I've seen the Gene Simmons sex tape.
And you'd never even know it was there if you didn't stop and carefully examine the surroundings. No camera stopped to point it out. No narrative brings it to the player's attention. It's just there, hinting at an incredibly gruesome untold story.
What if they took out all of the other adult stuff from the game -- the condoms, the group sex -- and just had this. What rating would it get? If I played through the entire game to pre-approve it for my kid, I would have missed the dead baby completely. But you'll notice that Drew had no problem finding it. And he was deliberate in pointing it out to me. I'm still not sure he didn't find a way to hack the game and put it there himself, as a cryptic message to me. Or a warning.
Very slowly, I reached down and shut the game off. When I turned back, I did so the way one would turn on a crouched guard dog. My children stared at me in emotionless silence.
"Hey, uh... why... why don't we all get ready for bed?"
They nodded in unison, never taking their eyes away from mine.
"You know... if you want. If you feel like staying up... you don't have to... I... I think I'm just going to go lie down."
These things didn't come up in the old days of gaming. There weren't a bunch of complicated conversations with my parents when I played my Magnavox Odyssey with "Shooting Gallery" in the late 1970s. Even if it did come with a gun that looked like you could totally kill a dude with it.
Those were simple games, and even right up through the SNES days you didn't find many games intent on exploring themes about death and loss and morality and dildos and dead babies.
And my parents and I didn't play them together much. It was, after all, just a toy. My parents maybe would play it every once in a while, and even enjoy it, like a parent jumping on a trampoline with their kid. But the grown-up who would go out to the yard, alone, and jump on the trampoline for eight straight hours would wind up in a straightjacket. But fast forward to today, to my household, and you see both my children and I spend far more time playing games than watching television.
The same games.
That's me on the right
This is a good thing.
Gaming, I've now realized, gives my children and I something a lot of us didn't have with our parents -- common ground. In generations past you'd have a kid sneaking rock and roll music behind the back of his fundamentalist parents, and waiting until they went to bed to read gory horror comics under the blanket with a flashlight. It's not like that for us. Because we're both gamers, we speak the same language. It can open up a whole new channel of communication, and bring you closer... if you're willing to do it.
That shared experience became a chance to talk about subjects and situations that otherwise wouldn't have come up. That's what I've learned from my Fable II debacle. We can use it as a chance to talk about, for instance, why things you do in a game would get you locked up in the real world, and how zombies aren't real, but Nazis are. We can talk about how to handle the douchebag insulting him in WoW. And we can talk about why he's not allowed to play some of the games Dad plays.
As far as I see it, it's my duty as a parent. But make no mistake, if my son rolls a tank and can't hold aggro, I'm calling him an incompetent cockhole, right to his goddamn face. It's my duty as a gamer.