Don’t Read This Unless You 1) Have Children and 2) Play Video Games

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I promise you, it will bore and annoy you, just as it would have bored and annoyed me before I became a parent. But now I am one, and I’m wondering if anybody out there is dealing with a toddler on the cusp of becoming a junior gamer.

I say this because my daughter, who’s 3 and a half, just played her first game. She’s always been fascinated with the Web, especially sites with Flash games, and for about a year she’s been insisting on sitting on my lap and directing me while I played various games on her behalf. It’s a treat that I ration extremely sparingly, but over the months I have helped her, by proxy, harrow the hellish dungeons of quite a few Elmo and Boohbah and Teletubbies games. (I am a frickin’ master of Teletubby gaming: if you want to help Po slide down a snowy hill, or if Dipsy has lost her hat again, believe me, I am the dude that you want to know.) It was all strictly a vicarious experience for her: we were working off a laptop, and she just didn’t have the hand-eye to deal with a trackpad.

But this weekend we were kicking it at the PBS Teletubbies site when we encountered a dire situation: five bunnies who needed to be clicked on and placed in their bunny-shaped holes. Normally this is the kind of emergency that daddy deals with himself, but the rookie showed some interest in getting actively involved with the case, so I handed her the controls. Slowly, agonizingly, but determinedly, she clicked on each bunny in turn (she does a weird two-handed click, holding the button down for a good 5 seconds, because her mom’s laptop’s trackpad doesn’t give good tactile feedback), then nudged it toward the appropriate burrow. This is quite uncanny for a parent to watch for the first time — you’re so used to your child being incapable of gaming that it’s like watching some beloved pet suddenly walk upright and eat with a knife and fork. When the fifth bunny hit home, an unseen Tinky Winky (who had been doing color commentary throughout) shouted ‘Yaaaaaay!’ and you could almost see every neuron in my daughter’s brain fire at once. Her skull practically glowed: she was alive with a kind of pleasure I’d never seen her experience. Dancing ensued, and I blush to say that she did not dance alone.

Then two things happened. One, she climbed back up in the chair and started playing again (the game had restarted automatically, natch). Clearly she wanted another taste of that good stuff. And two, she looked at me over her tiny shoulder and said something that she’s never said before: “Daddy, you can go now.”

My feelings about this watershed were mixed. I’m happy because she’s happy. And God knows, I am not bummed that she’s learning how to entertain herself, because I’ve been entertaining her for 3 and a half years, and I could use a break in which to perform some basic personal hygiene. But I have no idea how this works — which or how many games to let her play, etc. etc. There’s no way I’m letting her near a console yet. In the past I’ve steered her to a site called Poisson Rouge, which I love because it’s elegant and semi-educational and has no licensed characters (I’m not just a gamer, I’m also a psychotic neo-Marxist), but she has to be nudged there: it’s not really her first choice. Is anybody else dealing with this stuff? I want to look to my own experience as a guide, but there basically weren’t any games when I was 3. There are no maps for these territories.