The Wonder Years

A father marvels at his children's capacity for playing videogames

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The Wonder Years

My children are apparently born game-players—perhaps because children are born problem-solvers.

Not five minutes ago, my three-year-old son Ian proudly came to me with a packet of fruit snacks he’d retrieved from a nearly six-foot-high cupboard by stacking a stool on top of a chair and climbing up to it. (Gonna have to introduce Vagrant Story to this one someday.)

He couldn’t figure out how to open the packet, though.

Of course I opened it. Of course I did, with an admonishment that stacking stools on chairs to get fruit snacks is dangerous, and that if he did it again he couldn’t have any more. “I didn’t fall!” he rebutted. Of course.


My daughter June started playing games and fiddling with controllers early. She managed to buy the family an Xbox Live membership with a couple button-presses (thanks to some not-fully-thought-out ad placement on Microsoft’s part) at little more than a year old. She exhaustively completed a Dora the Explorer game on a DSi XL I’d ceded to her. She’s a wiz at Bejeweled (the video game and the board game—best $5 Toys ‘R Us clearance purchase I ever made, that one) and Peggle (she completed the whole thing herself at four or five years old).

Kids strive to overcome obstacles. That’s how they learn. It’s a wonder to behold, truly. They have a persistence for defeating challenges that I can no longer match, but I can still remember what it was like when I was young (and even not so young) and had the time and patience to do the same.

Since having kids I don’t play games like I used to—I have not nearly enough time or energy for whatever I can’t save or put down immediately. I play enough Hearthstone to get the free pack from Tavern Brawl every week; I’ve never passed Rank 19. I could never in a million years play through a Souls game.


I started playing Dragon Age: Origins while my daughter was still on the way. I named my rogue heroine “June,” after the name we’d already picked for her. I got all the way to the Deep Roads, which I saved for last, before she arrived. Over six years later, I still haven’t finished with dwarf country.

We moved two summers ago to be closer to family and look for work, and Ian, not even two at the time, soon found Plants vs. Zombies on his grandmother’s iPod and became utterly obsessed with it. He’s equally satisfied to either play it himself or to watch me do it.

(Update: He has brought me another pilfered packet of fruit snacks. The child is a menace.)


I’ve played through Plants vs. Zombies twice from start to end with Ian on my lap. Everything’s unlocked except a handful of challenge levels (I just cannot crack Bobsled Bonanza). The Zen Garden is full—June especially loves arranging the plants, and she’ll play the game with him when I’m burned out on it. Both children are always delighted when a zombie I’ve designed to look nominally like me appears, leading a charge. “A daddy zombie!” they’ll shout, and they’ll cheer when his head pops off. I’m still not sure quite what to make of that.

Apart from overcoming challenges, though, kids have an enormous raw capacity for just doing what they wanna, without goals to complete, that I also can’t match. It’s fascinating to watch. Ian can spend hours in “Last Stand,” patiently lining up plants in neat, strategically useless rows, happily starting over after the zombies invade the house (“They ate my bwaaaaaiiins!”).

His favorite plants are the Magnet-shroom, the Hypno-shroom, the Marigold, and the Imitater—especially when it’s copying something that’s all but useless to copy. He demands mushrooms on daytime levels. Playing according to his whims becomes a sort of special challenge mode unto itself, where I see if I can complete a tough level with the plants he has granted me. Cob Cannons and Chompers? Bring it on.

So, no, I don’t play games like I used to anymore.

But I’m really having fun seeing how my children play them.

Justin Hoeger is beset on all sides by children and pets. He plays when he can. This is his first piece for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @Sarcasmorator.