As we start taking our kids to gaming conventions, I’m keeping notes on the practical things that we’re learning (see my previous posts). However, I realized a much more important and somewhat more philosophical thing this year:
Engaging kids is the future of gaming.
I guess that’s a no-brainer in a lot of ways. It’s obvious that lots of people know this because there are more and more RPGs and story games aimed at kids and most conventions are finding ways to accommodate families.
However, I think truly accepting kids as the future of gaming is less a matter of trying to aim games and activities specifically at them and more a matter of treating them like gamers.
Sure, they’re gamers who whine when they’re tired and who don’t always lose gracefully. They tend to wander off when they’re bored or distracted. It turns out they’re probably more fascinated by the things they’re interested in than whatever cool game just caught your attention. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this also describes the vast majority of adults.
It’s all too easy and often natural to treat kids like they’re a different species that through some miracle of evolution will someday become human beings. And of course we do make some special concessions for kids because you can’t exactly tell your toddler to go get her own damn groceries if she wants dinner tonight. But when there’s a common ground, like shared interests, the footing is a lot more equal than you might think.
One of the great things about game conventions is the sense of community. I think last year the kids felt a little like outsiders, but this year they weren’t newbies. They had a sense of what to expect, things they wanted to do again, people that they recognized. What they wanted more than anything was to be a part of that community. They wanted to be accepted as gamers. And in many ways, they were.
Of course, a lot of that experience was up to us, as their parents and the people they hung out with most. We changed our own expectations, ensuring this was something we were doing as a family event instead of a more typical con except with our kids in tow. Because they were of interest to one or both of the kids, we played games we wouldn’t have and spent our time looking at things we’d have bypassed. And Cam Banks hung out with us and was always as happy to see our kiddos as they were to see him—although he’s really family for all intents and purposes.
But what really struck me was the number of people at Origins we didn’t even know who helped create that sense of community for our kids. Instead of our kids being cute novelties or annoying inconveniences, they were treated like human beings who shared interests with all the other gamers there.
In no particular order, here are some of those experiences.
Our daughter loves The Legend of Korra and at some point I realized we could pull together a costume despite my severe lack of sewing skills. Many people said wonderful things to her, not only compliments and asking for photos but discussing the TV show with her—guessing the identity of Amon, dishing about favorite characters, predicting scenes that might come up in future episodes, etc. The best, though, was a Stormtrooper who made the “I’m watching you” sign that Lin Beifong gives Korra in the first episode. Like Korra, our girl sneered and made the signal back, and he did the “Whatever” sign just like on the show. She was thrilled. We may have a cosplayer for life because of how people interacted with her.
I’ve heard that the artists prefer the Gen Con set up where they’re part of the exhibitors hall, but the separate artists hall at Origins is one of my kids’ favorite places. Although it isolates the artists to some extent, it also creates an atmosphere where the kids can get the attention of an artist for several minutes. They remembered artists from last year, and we spent quite a lot of time looking at their work and talking with them. The artists were invariably wonderful to talk to, really engaging with the kids. Both kids bought something there, something that’s all the more special because it’s a reminder of the person who created it.
The kids saw other people they met last year—such as one of designers from Gary Games who’d played Ascension with our son. This year, the boy recognized him and they said hi to each other. Things like that make young gamers feel like they really belong.
In the exhibitors hall, there were several booths that really stood out. They demoed games for our kids, meaningfully answered their questions, and talked with them without being condescending.
At the kids’ request, we played in the Telestrations booth every single day. I have to admit, this is exactly the kind of party game that Clark and I tend to avoid—we wouldn’t have given the booth a second glance. But the kids loved it, and we all had a lot of fun playing it (and yes, we now have our own copy! Turns out it’s really fun!). At one point, the people in the booth were busy with another group, so the kids demoed the game for some customers who stopped by. And the Telestrations people let them, keeping an eye on things but not intervening. They allowed our kids to show off their expertise at the game.
An incredibly patient woman at SET Enterprises taught and played several games with my mom and then played a full game of SET Cubed with the kids. I have to imagine that after 10 minutes or so she was ready for them to move along (I know I would have been!) but she continued to teach and help throughout the game.
I wish I could remember his name, but the assistant of Maxwell Alexander Drake played several rounds of a game with my kids, teaching them strategies without condescending to them or letting them win without earning it. He interacted with them like they were human beings—you’d be surprised how rarely kids experience that.
The guys at Forged Foam are endlessly patient when sword fights break out around the booth. The kids visited that booth several times a day. Eventually our son did spend his birthday money there, getting a latex sword that he’s even fallen asleep with occasionally. I’m grateful it’s squishy.
As an added benefit to the kids’ con experience, the fact that Clark and I work in the industry means that our kids get to personally meet a lot of people who are involved in making games. After playing Get Bit, we introduced them to Dave Chalker who signed their game, and then they got to sit with him when it won an Origins Award. Because of these kinds of experiences, they just assume they can make their own games and create their own hacks to make games work better for them. Why not? Most of the cool adults they meet do this as a hobby if not a career. Creating and adapting things is in no way off limits to them. I love how that challenges their imaginations.
Here’s what I most take away from Origins this year: if you can, it’s worth it to take your kids to a convention, once they’re old enough to really enjoy it (that age will depend on you and on your kids). They can experience things that you might not have shared with them and may develop interests you didn’t expect. Few things connect you more deeply to something you love than being able to meet the creators and artists behind it. And sharing this with your kids will make you all the more involved in the hobby, and possibly introduce you to some aspects you never would have explored on your own.
My most sincere thanks goes out to those people who interacted with my kids at Origins. Who played games with them, who talked with them, who treated them like people worthy of their time, who saw them for what they are—fellow gamers and the future of this industry.
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