I'm often surprised when talking to my children how little I really know about their lives anymore. We have such a tight grip on everything about them when they are tiny that it's hard to shake that impression of our role even as it changes. I used to have responsibility for every detail of their days, and now they select their own entertainment, seek out their own books, enjoy inside jokes with people I've never met, and eat foods I had no hand in. Like most of parenting it's bittersweet.
But every once in a while I make a point of grilling them past the one word answers I'm used to getting and try to find more information so I'll understand them better. Most recently I did that with Aden and her latest computer obsession and I learned a lot.
Compared to most of the kids we know, mine own a fairly limited amount of technology. They share a single iPad that they got as a Christmas gift a few years ago from their aunt. (They have about a dozen apps on it, which their friends with pages and pages of apps to scroll through find amusing.) Aden has a laptop we got her with schoolwork in mind, and a DS thingy that I don't quite understand, but it wasn't expensive and she mostly uses it as an awkward means of creating her own animation. A few months ago we hooked up an old Atari to the TV, and Quinn enjoys playing Frogger and Pitfall II. We have Netflix streaming but no cable. None of them own phones.
Despite this limited access to modern devices, my kids are well-versed in current video game culture. Aden is obsessed with the Legend of Zelda and can tell you when the latest version of GTA is out. My kids are all into Minecraft and make many small items in its image out of perler beads.
I've offered to my kids to get them a modern gaming system if they feel left out among their peers. Same with phones, actually. Just because something doesn't interest me doesn't mean I want them to be out of step with what the culture they live in is up to. But they insist they are fine. They don't mind sharing the iPad. They don't need video game options beyond what the box of vintage Atari cartridges offers.
It's a little odd to me that my kids don't ask for things. They just don't. Even when they need money for a school field trip they offer to pay for it themselves, and I always insist that no, that's part of what we signed up for as parents and we are happy to contribute $3 to the Urban Ecology Center, etc. Maybe we just trained them too well when they were small not to ask for things at Target. Target is two blocks from our house so we are there all the time. If I had to ward off begging for things every time we went in I would go insane, so from the time they were each old enough to understand they got the lecture on the walk to the store that they weren't to ask for anything, so they didn't. They still don't, and maybe there was stuff they wanted that they just learned to live without and now it's a habit. I don't know.
In any case, they spend time online huddled together around a single screen laughing and exploring things I know nothing about. I trust them not to delve into material too mature for them (they honestly don't seem interested) so I leave them to it. Mona can be secretive about what she's watching because she's intensely private (she does all of her homework in secret, too, so that's just how she is about everything), but Aden is surprisingly willing to share. She wants me to know what she's doing online, I just seldom have time for it.
When I make the time it pays off. Aden got me hooked on Gravity Falls, which recently had its series finale that we all gathered together to watch and it made me cry. That was a show she found herself by just looking around the internet, and not even something her friends were into. I loved watching Gravity Falls with my kids. They caught me up on season one and most of season two and then we watched the rest together when new episodes came out. We're all sad it's done (and hoping for a movie).
But Gravity Falls, with it's clever writing and excellent voice actors (and frankly I'll watch anything Kristen Schaal is in), was in many ways a conventional cartoon. There were nods to current technology in that there were things hidden in the credits or that only lasted for a single frame that you'd have to be able to freeze to find or figure out, or in that they wrote the program with the expectation that fans would dissect it all and discuss it online. Again, we don't have cable or a DVR, so it was interesting to see how adept my kids were at searching out episodes online that had been altered just enough to escape copyright issues. (They can tolerate cropped images, but not anything that changes the pitch of the voices, and one episode included a border of weird cartoon animals.) But otherwise the experience of watching the show was normal for me. It was just a complete story told well.
Less conventional online entertainment for me is the endless YouTube channels available. For a long time Aden was into Nerd Cubed (and there is a limit to how much of it I can take, but the guy is genuinely funny and this clip of Nerd Cubed Plays Crashtastic still cracks me up). The most self-aware moment I ever saw on one of his episodes was when he decided to address any parents directly to convince them to purchase a particular game for their kids, and he introduced himself as "that voice you keep hearing from your child's bedroom or the kitchen" which pretty much summed it up.
All my kids follow Dan and Phil, who are a pair of cute British boys who do a whole range of online...not reviews, but they play games together and let you watch. The episodes are edited so you spend as much time looking at the game on their screen as you do their faces as they chat and smile (unlike Nerd Cubed where you only ever see the game being played and listen to a voice over). They are charming and funny and my kids got me caught up on following their exploration of The Sims where they created a character named Dil and dress him in bunny slippers and cycle him through various hobbies and activities. Dan and Phil are like idealized versions of the kind of fun doing commentary that my friends and I used to do in high school to amuse ourselves. I completely understand why they are successful and why my kids like them, although the closest thing I can think of like what they do from when I was younger would be MST3K.
I don't quite understand the popularity of all the Minecraft channels and parodies online. There are endless opportunities on YouTube to watch other people playing Minecraft and it is about the most boring thing I've ever seen. The ultimate exception is this clip that I actually found many years ago before my kids had ever heard of Minecraft (yes, I somehow beat them to it) and it remains one of the funniest things I've seen online. But there are small programs people put on YouTube with their Minecraft creations that have made my kids both laugh and cry. Aden is exposed to the music she likes first through parodies, and then later in their original form (and she usually prefers the parodies). My friend Gabby and I in high school used to write very short stories together on her dad's old manual typewriter and pass them around at school for people's amusement, but our stories (however funny we found them) were not for worldwide release. That element of modern kids' entertainment is very different indeed, but otherwise still something I can relate to.
The new thing for me to try and grasp was when Aden wanted to show me Undertale. This was where we departed from the kind of narrative I understood.
Video games are the pervading culture of my children's generation. It doesn't matter that we don't really have any in our house, it is literally part of their language. I had noticed years ago when my kids were little that when they were playing and someone needed to stop the game for a moment, they would say "Pause." Never "Time Out" or "Gimme a second..." It was always "Pause" or "Pause Game." I related it to their sense of pausing the DVD player or VCR, but "Pause Game" is universal.
The word usage I hadn't noticed until I heard it mentioned on a podcast of Grammar Girl (which, if you are a word nerd and don't listen to, you should, because she's great) was "Verse." She did a program on how kids today use it as a verb, and when one person is going up against another in a game they refer to it as "Versing" someone. ("Who are you versing? Can I verse you next?" etc.) That sounded really odd to my ear, and I dismissed it as something obscure, but then noticed that, in fact, my children use it all the time. I'd somehow missed it until it was pointed out.
But beyond video game vocabulary, kids today are used to a different sort of narrative based on the structure of those games. The closest thing I can relate it to would be a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, where there are multiple endings. However, that doesn't begin to cover it.
When Aden stumbled across Undertale online she got deeply into it, then shared it with her siblings. She created jewelry based on it so that when she wears it in public she might find other fans. When she and Quinn got to the end of what they considered to be the perfect version of the story they both wept. Quinn insisted they were happy tears because it was all so right and nice. This piqued my interest so I asked Aden if we could watch it together for Movie Night. Which is a weird idea to me, actually, to watch a video game as a story alone.
Now, remember, my kids almost never get to play the games they are interested in. They do that sometimes at a friend's house, but at home they watch other people play on YouTube channels. And when Aden wanted to show me Undertale she had to track down a specific series of videos tracking one person's game. She wanted it without commentary, and in Pacifist Mode. (There is also a Genocide Mode, but that one has an understandably different outcome.) It was in twelve parts, each roughly about half an hour long, so it took more than a week for us to find enough time to watch the whole thing. All three kids, having seen it all before, were eager to watch it again with me.
Essentially it's the story of a little girl who falls down a hole into an underground world where "Monsters," who were defeated in a long ago battle with humans, now live. She travels in this world meeting different characters and uncovering more parts to a larger story with the aim of one day finding her way back out. The animation is in that retro-pixilated style that is sort of in at the moment. (No wonder the Atari games still hold appeal.) The music is simple, but surprisingly good. (I'm not able to simply block out music in the background, so that's a deal breaker for me.)
It took me a few episodes to learn to keep up. There is no spoken dialogue--you have to read everything, and quickly. There are conventions I didn't understand about touching things in the game to save your spot in it, and the actual game play didn't interest me at all. I liked the portions where the girl is wandering about and interacting with the other characters and the environment, but periodically she bumps into something that starts a "battle." The screen shifts to a monochromatic simplified display, and apparently the player moves a little red heart (symbolizing the child's soul) around in a small box trying to avoid being hit by the attack of the moment.
The battles, the puzzles...Most of that I had trouble finding the humor or the drama in, but I was fascinated that my kids all follow that intently. I can see getting involved in playing a game yourself, or maybe watching someone you are sitting with play a game, but watching a recording of a stranger play a video game as entertainment eludes me. Aden tried to impress upon me the significance of what was happening at key moments, saying things along the lines of: "Don't you see, he did that whole battle on reduced power!" (or something like that).
But the story as a whole was very good and I'm glad I watched it. There were moments that were genuinely funny or sweet, and there was a touching sort of reveal at the end. There is bit of a twist (I suppose this is a spoiler, so if you don't want to read it jump to the next paragraph) where by the time you get to the last parts of the game you are judged by how kind you chose to be. Normally in a game like this you rack up levels and experience based on how many creatures you destroy, but this one judges you differently without warning. If you hurt anyone along the way it works against you. You are made to examine why you would choose those actions. It makes you stop and ask yourself why you would assume there are no consequences. That was surprising. In the Pacifist Mode setting we were watching the player hurt no one and always made the kindest decisions possible, but I'm sure most people playing for the first time are caught short when they unexpectedly have to account for the stain on their soul.
Anyway, here was where the narrative took a turn I still don't quite get. I thought the story was over, there had been a big battle, we now understood the why and the who of things that we didn't know when we began, and then we jumped back to an earlier time and place in the game. Apparently all the "Save" buttons we touched along the way were points you could return to? None of the stuff that we'd just done from that point on had happened, but we still retained that knowledge. It was like time travel, but it wasn't. The game retains a memory of what you've done and interacts with you accordingly. So after going through a big emotional set of scenes that felt like a conclusion we were participants in an amusing cooking lesson, then we gathered additional information, and then we went back to the place at the end for a different version of the old confrontation. Then came the true conclusion, which my kids found to be exceptionally satisfying.
So the kinds of things my kids watch and the ways in which they watch them are different from a lot of my experience, both past and present. The way in which they consume and interact with entertainment is different from any other time in history. They have Skype, they can form connections all over the world, and even the more traditional things they do have a modern twist, because even as their online lives are global we keep a shorter leash on our kids than many did in the past. They spend a lot of time on the trampoline, but it has a net to keep them safe. Even though they often bike around the neighborhood on their own they are not gone for long stretches where I don't know where they are. They do llama hands and perler beads and play in the Gaga Pit at school.
I find all of this interesting, because this is the baseline for what my children will one day refer to as "the good old days" of entertainment and play, when things were simpler, or better, or truer, or whatever. When I think back to my childhood, the things I remember in terms of entertainment are: If you missed it when it aired on TV or in the theater you missed it, being outside unsupervised all day on the weekends (which definitely had its ups and downs), cartoons after school, my brothers were into comic books and I was into Nancy Drew, roller skating in the street, and making fake newscasts into a tape recorder with friends that just devolved into laughing. I can't claim any superiority in how I amused myself as a child, particularly when I remember how much time I spent with my friend Rachel burying things in the backyard in second grade. (This included putting my hamster in a hole and timing how long it took him to clean all the dirt off his fur.)
There is still a lot of overlap, but the things that have persisted vs the things that have gone seem so random. We still play Uno, but kids today haven't heard of Tinker Toys. (When I asked about Tinker Toys at Target none of the staff under 30 had any idea what I was talking about. Only a clerk in her 40s lit up in recognition.) Record players are back for some reason, but we have no way to make a mix tape. We still have roller rinks but I don't think I've met a kid under 12 who can work a yo-yo in decades.
All I know is when I got home from work yesterday after leaving the kids on their own and I asked them what they did all day, they said, "The usual: We had a dance party." Apparently when Ian and I leave the house they fire up music on the iPad and switch on the mirror ball and dance until they wear themselves out. I had no idea. What do other kids do?