Family Ties

“Hey Mommy,” my son Jonah said as my wife entered the room. “We’ve all been talking and we think it’s time for you to play against real humans.”

“Real humans?” Sarah clutched at her chest. “Do you think I’m ready? I don’t think I’m ready. No more bots?”

“You’re ready,” my daughter Lily gave her a thumbs up. “Do you want to play a game of League? We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Okay. If you think I’m ready. Let me grab some coffee and I’ll be right there.”

Thirty minutes later, the four of us cheered as the opposing team surrendered. We high-fived and typed “thank yous” to our fifth teammate online, a friend of Jonah’s. We all congratulated Sarah, who’d played a terrific game against a much more experienced opponent top lane. It was a family milestone we talked about for the rest of the day, replaying scenes from the game in increasingly dramatic and silly renditions.

Inwardly, I pumped my fist.

See, last year my family realized that we had drifted into dangerous territory with our use of entertainment media.

For years, while Sarah and I slept in on weekend mornings, my son built endless Minecraft worlds. During those same mornings, my daughter watched cartoons in a different room, eventually also drifting towards Minecraft. Meanwhile, after the kids fell asleep each night of the week, I would sit, headphones plugged in and playing City of Heroes, Magic Online, Champions Online, or DC Online, whilst my wife watched television. Over time, we too started spending time in separate rooms, me on my PC and her watching TV. As Android phone apps and iPads became more popular, Sarah logged countless hours during each day on games like Bubble Wars while I played Cards and Castles, Hero Academy, and Kingdom Rush. Our kids would beg for turns on our devices so they could play these games too.

Now, each of these activities is fine. We are clearly a house of game-lovers. And each of those games—from Minecraft to Kingdom Rush—are super fun in their own right and earned the attention we gave them. My wife and daughter loved keeping up on their favorite shows and television characters. We were all, in other words, thoroughly entertained by our individual endeavors.

The problem, we started to realize, is that each endeavor was, in fact, individual.

We were spending time in the same house, occasionally even in the same room, but we weren’t sharing experience. Each of us escaped into our own private fantasy worlds, having our own private triumphs and defeats. We each had rich, detailed adventures completely apart from the other members of the family. The use of headphones to block each other out became common.  Our activities started to look more and more like isolation.

Over time, we each became critical of the others’ entertainment habits. My wife worried that Jonah wasn’t getting outside often enough. Jonah wanted to know why Lily always hogged the television. Lily wanted to know why Jonah wouldn’t play Minecraft with her. I started to realize that my bedtime coincided with my wife’s less and less. We each had long lists of worries and grievances.

Sarah—bless her—called a family meeting.

In the family meeting, we aired our grievances and hashed out possible solutions to our long list of worries. Each person wanted the others to curb their habits, but was reluctant to give up something that personally gave them hours and hours of joy.

Here is where we landed: Entertainment media (i.e. television and games) in my house is now a shared activity. You must find another person to join you, or you simply can’t do it. Period.

That sounds pretty Draconian, and it took a while to get there. But we’ve held true to this rule for the better part of a year now, including the introduction of League of Legends to our household. Our thesis was that a) if you had time to play or watch, you had time to connect with someone, and b) connecting with loved ones is one of the most important things you can do.

What’s really remarkable as I reflect on them are the results of this family adjustment:

  • Sarah and Lily have largely given up television. The big exception is that my wife and her mom have a weekly date to watch Downton Abby. Sarah and I have also watched every episode of Agents of SHIELD together, the first show I’ve seen in years.
  • We don’t have any mobile game apps on our phones or tablets. This was a loss for all of us at the time, but I haven’t heard any of us complain since.
  • After the kids are asleep, Sarah and I either read to each other or play games. We almost always go to bed now at the same time.
  • We play League together as a family constantly, and have introduced my kids’ friends to play with us too. I hit level 30 in January. Jonah hit level 30 this past Saturday (go Jonah!). Lily is level 25, and Sarah level 19 (almost… Runes…). We coach each other, and joke about the “Salazar Ranked team” we’ll someday assemble. League is obviously perfect for our new orientation because it’s a collaborative, team game.
  • Jonah’s love of Magic: the Gathering has resurfaced, and something he plays with a wide swathe of friends.
  • We host all-ages game nights more than ever, focused on games like Bang!, Spinner, and Settlers of Catan.
  • Last month we started our first family campaign of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Every Saturday and Sunday morning, we take a family hike through our local regional park, talking and laughing—often about our shared games.
  • For the most part, we don’t really argue anymore. Quite the contrary, in fact. The best word for my family right now is that it’s thriving.

I’m not here to be preachy. Whatever your relationship is to games and television, cool. For my family, however, this “entertainment is meant to be shared” revelation has been, well… a revelation. As a family, we probably don’t log as many total hours each week gaming as we used to, but the quality of our experience is much, much higher.

Most importantly, of course, our family is more connected than it’s ever been.

And now, hawt diggity dawg, we’re officially done playing against bots!

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