On Family Gaming

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: David Torre
Online Layout: Matt Barton
Special Thanks: Andrew Bub

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Anyone caring to browse the videogames on the shelves of their local Electronics Boutique can easily pick out the target demographic these fine products are designed to captivate: Young boys just shy of the age of accountability (somewhere between 12 and 42). Most modern games concern subjects that most of us two-legged jars of testosterone can handily relate to—football, martial arts, World War II, fighter jets, evil space mutants, and swords and sorcery. Games that girls and especially older women can relate to, though, are about as abundant as vegetarian options at a Texas barbecue. Chances are that if you happen to spot a female on a videogame box, she's nearly naked save for that "I want you, you big honking super ninja" expression on her pretty little pixilated face. If she's feminist enough to pack a weapon, she's still feminine enough to expose a sincerely generous décolletage and plenty of luscious leg while doing so. Of course, there are a few titles whose appeal extends beyond the male domain; there are those SIMS games, for instance, and we've all seen Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover sitting next to the "Learn Spanish" and "Design-Your-House" applications, though it's debatable whether this "make-up simulator" could accurately be called a game. There are also plenty of games for kids, including Vivendi's Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue and THQ's SpongeBob Squarepants: The Battle for Bikini Bottom. Yeah, I didn't think you'd be rushing out to add these games to your collection—these are the kind of games non-gaming parents buy for their kids because Doom 3 looked a little too scary, though it's debatable whether Doom 3 is truly more harmful to a child's developing psyche than a product called SpongeBob Squarepants.

A picture of Sponebob Squarepants.
Fun for the whole family?

© Vivendi International

According to the average modern gamer, there's certainly nothing wrong with the market—we've got good games for anyone bold and brazen enough to pick up a controller and hit a START button, even if all the non-boy games are as embarrassing as honeymoon flatulence. However, not all gamers are happy with this stinky situation. Despite the vast assortment of videogames and systems, there is still the occasional scruffy-looking nerf herder one finds stamping his foot in the middle of a Game Stop and raising enough cane to damage the sugar economy of Barbados. I'm talking about some guy in his mid-to-late thirties; balding on top, a little extra padding around the middle—okay, a LOT of extra padding—and two wide-eyed offspring, boy and girl, attached to each hand1. A woman standing just outside the store and suddenly very interested in a potted plant, might be his wife; she certainly looks embarrassed enough to be. "I said the family games," you hear her husband yell at the disgruntled clerk, "not this Barbie and SpongeBob bullshit! I want a game we all can play! The whole family! Is that too much to ask?"

What in the name of NVIDIA is this chucklehead so upset about?

As it turns out, our frustrated father of two isn't quite as deranged as some may think; at least not on account of his demand for a good, fun, family game. You see, videogames haven't always been so exquisitely classifiable into nice, neat marketing niches, nor have so many of them been marketed exclusively at those lucky enough to own a penis. Indeed, as most of us know who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, when videogames first appeared on the scene, we gamers had to wait our turn—and yes, sometimes grandma stole an extra one. Junior wasn't the only one watching with eager eyes and twitching hands as Dad tried to figure out how to hook the Pong machine to the RF modulator. Indeed, often enough, Mom got impatient, pushed him out of the way, put the TV on the right channel (3), then sent old "Darling Will-ya" out to dispose of the accumulated cardboard boxes and Styrofoam packaging while she clobbered kids 1 and 2 in five straight matches of some pretty furious ponging. By the time Dad made it back in, his six-year old daughter was daring him to take her on, and he was scared.

If Junior had announced that the game was his and his alone; and that mom and sis ought to be out doing girlie things—well, I doubt old Junior would still be around to play Doom 3 today. Despite what injured pride he may have suffered by losing to his little sister, our good boy learned that it's better to pass a game paddle than be on the wrong end of a wooden one. Pong wasn't just for boys; it was truly fun for the entire family. Of course, the venerable old Pong game wasn't the only game that shares this quality. One of the most popular games of all time, and which 9 times out of 10 will be the only game in those bars and restaurants that still feel compelled to provide some digital recreation--Ms. Pac-Man--is still just as solidly entertaining for girls as boys. Indeed, many a young boy has been surprised by a mom, who, while never giving his latest Xbox graphics-festival a second glance, will promptly beat his best score if he dares show her Namco Museum on his GameBoy Advance. Ms. Pac-Man, like Pong, is far wider in its appeal that most games are today. The same can be said for nearly all classic videogames; anyone who's smart enough to leave a tip at a sushi bar knows better than to underestimate the skill of moms at games like Frogger, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Tetris. To tell you the honest truth, I still think my fiancée lets me win at Super Mario Bros., though I've lied to her repeatedly about my manly ability to boldly admit when I'm outmatched. It's just plain wrong to assume that these games are more fun or more suited to male audiences than female ones, and it's not necessarily a bad thing when your eight-year old niece can lick your best score at all of them.

Atari Ad.
This ad is targeted at parents and emphasizes family gaming.

Image scanned and cleaned up by Duane Alan Hahn from the F of i

What happened to games that had such wide appeal? Why are so many modern games targeted at a very narrow demographic of the population, and incapable of the sort of universal success enjoyed by the classics?

The problem, as I see it, is that game developers have found it easier to market games for specific audiences than for general ones. Perhaps one of the first questions an aspiring game-maker hears is, "Where would we file this title on the shelf?" Now, I reckon that most women want to play Medal of Honor and Halo about as badly as I want to sit through a "chick flick" like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. A movie that's made specifically for women will probably not be much fun for a guy and vice versa, yet clumsy efforts to "add something for the opposite sex" are usually laughable and better off omitted—just consider the cringe-worthy "romantic" scenes in so many action flicks.

The truth is, not many guys want to watch a "chick flick," not many gals want to watch a "macho movie," and hardly anybody but your 8-year old nephew wants to see that sorry stuff that passes for modern "family films." The reason is simple: These films are made to appeal to a very definite and narrow audience; the "target demographic." From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to fit a film, book, or game into a narrow but well-established genre. The reason is simple: People are more willing to buy something that seems familiar to them than to risk money and time on something new. People already know Klingons, Romulans, and warp speed drives; why bother learning a whole new vocabulary? Fans of science fiction novels will probably be nodding at this point; it's a sad thing when the majority of readers and publishers are afraid to try new authors and the hottest thing going are behemoth franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek novels. If the bile rises in the back of your throat every time you see Star Trek: Voyager novels hogging the science fiction shelf at your local bookstore, you can appreciate what I'm talking about here. Since science fiction author Spider Robinson has already written a great rant on this subject, I'll refer to you him.

Only the very finest and brilliant directors and writers are truly able to attract the interest of a wider group—it's one thing for a filmmaker to proclaim a film is "fun for the whole family," quite another to keep said family attached to the edge of a movie seat during such films without recourse to SuperGlue. Yet, when a director really does accomplish this feat, we leave a theater as excited to tell our grandma as our kid brother—"You've just got to see Shrek." "Hurry up and see Little Nemo before it leaves the theater." "How many times have you seen Titanic?"

I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we're going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers. I said something pompous like "Only when our products come out of a deep connection with real-life will they resonate with the mass market."
--Dani Bunten Berry, creator of M.U.L.E.

While it's easy to pick out films that'll pretty much entertain the oxygen out of most chromosome-carrying members of homo sapiens regardless of age, race, or orientation, I challenge my readers to think of as many modern games in as many minutes. Now, I'm not saying that we don't have a lot to be proud of these days, but most of our most celebrated accomplishments, namely advancements in graphics, don't mean much to most "soft core" gamers, if by that term we mean people who don't have Doom 3 installed on their boutique-built holodeck. It's really hard for most of these hard-core types to understand why so many of us stuck out here in meatspace neither know nor care that their new VPU has "the most advanced pixel shader engine with up to 16 parallel pixel pipelines capable of an incredible 6 gigapixels/second fill rate in full precision!" Truth be told, if you've got time enough to figure out what all that means, you probably got more time on your hands than the average soccer mom—and chances are time's not all you've got on those hands.

The question that I'm trying to answer in this essay is why so many older games appealed to whole families, whereas almost every modern game appeals to a narrow demographic. This could easily involve a discussion about abstraction and avatars, but I want to focus on something a lot less academic—namely, the fun factor and the importance of solid gameplay. Generally speaking, we've seen the same specialization trends occurring in videogame production that we've seen almost everywhere else: There are more and more types of products and services for more and more types of people, but fewer products and services for everyone. What we lose in this transition, and what I hope we can still make some efforts to conserve, are those videogames that really can attract the interest of the whole family. My bias, which I will state most clearly for the critics, is that the world's best games, like the world's best movies, are always those that do manage to entertain a broad audience and are not limited to a specific demographic.

I'm limiting my discussion here to home gaming via computer or game console, since that's where the majority of family gaming took place during the 80s.

As a freelance game critic, who had just become a parent, I realized something: I play every game that comes out. I read most websites, most magazines, and am privy to super-secret press releases. But when I walk into Toys R Us, Best Buy, Target, and look at the games for the kiddies.... I have no clue what's good and what's bad. I realized that the game press has (almost) completely ignored the parents among its readership. For shame!
--Andrew S. Bub, Gamerdad

The Pong Years

The first home videogames were the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) and Atari Pong (1975). Both units seem almost ridiculously low-tech and simple today (the Odyssey wasn't even a digital device), but they were as exciting in the seventies as miniskirts—well, maybe not that exciting, but they were definitely instrumental in bringing the joy of videogames to American families. Soon afterward, a horde of Pong clones appeared, many carrying the familiar slogan: "Fun for the entire family." For once, the phrase was used accurately. Hundreds of thousands of American families spent countless hours sitting in front of televisions that had suddenly transformed into an interactive family activity.

Wizard Ad.
The box of an early PONG style game. Note the family gaming emphasis.

Despite the minor variations among the hundreds of Pong clones, the concept remains the same: "Avoid Missing Ball for High Score." Most Pong games are similar to tennis; players control paddles that move up and down to intercept a ball which bounces back and forth. The graphics are as simple as you can get—just blocks for the paddles and a small block for the ball. Sound is either non-existent or limited to a ping. Nevertheless, as primitive as this unit would appear today alongside a Sony PlayStation or a Microsoft Xbox, the game was a colossal hit and established a new industry that now trumps even Hollywood in terms of sales.

Why was Pong so successful? Well, to be honest, I think it's fair to admit that a large part of this unit's popularity was due to novelty value. This was a time when most people thought VCRs were just the grooviest thing ever, and just being able to do something with a television besides watching mind numbing sitcoms and Hawaii Five-O was nothing short of a revolution. Television had become something you could do as well as watch. If you can imagine a new device to turn your microwave oven into a personal teleportation device, then you realize just how exciting all this stuff was to people who'd never imagined such a thing was possible. Still, there's more going on here than just novelty value--Pong is a prime example of abstraction in videogames; what you get are big blocks, small blocks, and an illusion of motion—we might almost call it "naked gameplay." I choose the term "naked" very deliberately, of course, since I'm trying to convey the notion here of a game stripped of all ornamentation and obfuscation. With Pong, we miss out on antialiasing, anisotropic filtering, Phong shading, fog effects, texture lighting, and even parallax scrolling. Isn't it nice?

What you do get with Pong is something that's about as close to "pure gameplay" as you can get and not be out bouncing a ball or tossing a Frisbee. Pong is, first and foremost, an activity; it's not a virtual world and doesn't even pretend to be. In 1975, people realized that they could get all the stories they wanted just by watching television. People who bought Pong didn't do so because of the awesome screenshots on the back of the box. People bought it because it was new, unique, and, by God, it was fun to play. However, there was a single catch: Pong, in itself, is excruciatingly boring. You wouldn't want to spend ten minutes playing this game all by your lonesome. Watching lunchroom ladies scrape the burnt spaghetti sauce off the bottom of a ten-gallon boiler is a more fulfilling way to spend your afternoon. If you were to somehow actually play this game for a few hours by yourself and then look at the clock, you'd be reduced to tears as you thought about how worthless and meaningless your pathetic life had become, and rightly so. Pong ain't a one-player game.

Playing Pong with your family, on the other hand, is a different bucket of chips. You see, the fun is not so much what's happening on the screen, but what's happening to you and your family when they're spinning those dials on their paddles, their hands sweating, their eyes straining, their teeth biting down on their tongues. Is this game primitive? Hell, yes, it's primitive, but so is that silly human instinct to do something with our time besides working for the man. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the best graphics card ever made can't make a game fun. Pong, on the other hand, has more fun packed into a handful of 70s era microchips than most modern games can manage with gigabytes of hard drive space and Pentiums faster than the onboard computers of Nasa's Apollo spacecraft. But the fun is not in the chips, just as the fun of basketball isn't in the ball or the hoops. The fun of these crusty old videogames comes out when you're eight years old, and you just beat your dad with everyone else in the room watching. The fun is hearing your mom yell "Goal!" and smack you down just after you declared you had no real competition. Playing Pong, you start to realize something that's a good bit more important than the number of simultaneous colors displayable on a high-resolution monitor.

The true fun of videogames isn't graphics. It isn't a masterful story arc, a well-acted cut-scene, or even a cute bouncy character that's more recognizable than Mickey Mouse. The true fun of videogames is having the people you love most in the world gathered around a television set, all laughing, cursing ("shucks" or "shit" depending on your family's relationship with God Almighty), and about as damnably happy as you're ever going to be, even if you're too damn stupid to realize it until much later--When it's all gone, and the fun that once held your family together is just one more item sold at a garage sale, like some obsolete, wood-grained Pong unit that nobody wants anymore.

Family Gaming on Classic Game Consoles

As most game historians are well aware, a lot was going on in the videogame market of the early 80s. People soon caught on to the fact that all "365 Games" in their off-brand pong machines were just silly variations of the same game, and most of us were convinced that there were greater things on the horizon. The time had come for Atari's popular 2600 videogame system, which was soon followed by a wave of me-too units, all boasting how much better they were than the competition (and some were!). I don't want too spend time discussing the technical differences among all these systems, though; you've got Bill Loguidice's amazing System Matrix for that purpose. What I do want to focus on here is the simple fact that a great many of the games for these systems encouraged or even required multiple players. Now, while some of us were lucky enough to have a constant supply of friends dropping in for a few rounds of Combat, the rest of us relied on our genetic associates, namely Mom, Dad, and whatever siblings could be coaxed into having a good time.

A screenshot of Combat.
The pack-in game for the Atari 2600, Combat, does not allow solo play.

That is, of course, unless you want to play "blow up the immobilized tank."

Atari shipped its original 2600 game system with a humble little game called Combat, a title that required two players. Now, it may strike some readers as odd that a game system would ship with a game that couldn't be played by one boy alone in his room. Yet, that's precisely what Atari did, and Combat remains one of those strange games whose lasting appeal can only be blamed on that mysterious "fun factor."

Combat pits two players in a deadly battle of speed, accuracy, and strategy. The object is simple: Shoot your enemy. The other "games" on the cartridge are variations on this theme; players tired of tanks can fly bi-planes or jets instead. I preferred the tank level, however, since the walls provide a nice strategic element missed in the other levels. Like Pong, Combat is not a game that requires an instruction manual or a tutorial to play, nor does it ask for a significant time investment. The difficulty of the game is entirely dependent on the skill of your opponent, and only dead tank captains underestimate their moms and sisters. Other game consoles released around this time also included multiplayer pack-in games. The Intellivision (1980) shipped with Las Vegas Poker and Blackjack, which features a two-player mode, and the Colecovision's (1982) pack-in, Donkey Kong, offers the same two-player option as the arcade version. Nintendo shipped both its original and Super Nintendo systems with one or two player Super Mario games. To my knowledge, Combat remains the only pack-in game in history that required two players. Many games on classic systems allow for multiple players, and even though popular titles like Ladybug, Pitfall! and Frogger are typically described as "one player" games, short gameplay sessions made almost all games eminently suitable for a whole family of gamers. It's called "It's my turn, hand me that joystick."

My wife and I had a Lady Bug high-score competition with another couple that lasted months. My wife and I would take turns running up the highest score we could in one sitting, then call up our friends and give them the score to beat. They would do the same and back and forth it would go for weeks and weeks. Ah, the good old days.
--Martin Parrott, AA Regular

Of course, games for early systems like the Atari 2600 were by necessity very simple, but one very important point I'm trying to make here is that simplicity does not also imply obsolescence. Unlike so many other game theorists and critics, I do not posit a "Timeline of Progress" for the purpose of showing how much better games became as engineers cranked out more sophisticated hardware. In my mind, Pong and Combat remain just as appropriate for family gaming today as they did back in the early 80s. These games are successful because they do not immerse players in a gaming world, but rather in a gaming activity. Indeed, as many retrogaming enthusiasts will be quick to point out, in many ways an Atari 2600 is still a finer videogame system than modern day consoles. Advanced graphics, sound, and animation may add to the fun and atmosphere of a game, but only in the way that shiny new uniforms and a magnificent ball court add to the game of basketball.

Playing ATARI games can be very good for kids (providing they've done their homework and cleaned their bedrooms). For one thing, it's time spent in the home, with the family. Increasing hand-eye coordination and developing a longer attention span. Learning how to be a good loser—and more importantly, a good winner. And finally, having fun while preparing for the future.
--Atari 2600 Advertisement

Family Gaming on Classic Computers

Many folks unfamiliar with gaming history find the concept of multiplayer computer games rather odd. That's because most modern PC games are designed for only one player, and there are several reasons for this. One is that modern PCs require a monitor, and the typical 17" model makes it difficult to see the action at a distance (say, from the couch). Anyone who's ever tried to huddle four people around a PC is aware of this problem. Another obstacle modern PCs pose to family gaming is limited controller options. Most PCs are equipped with only two input devices—a keyboard and a mouse. Usually these input devices are tethered fairly closely to the computer, and passing a mouse from player to player is impractical. The only solution is the "hot-seat," that is, to switch seats with the person in front of the computer. This game of musical chairs quickly gets tedious. Even if players own a joystick or joypad, there is typically only one of them, though the rise of USB ports may make it more common to see multiple joypads attached to the same computer. A third and perhaps more important problem is the expense of a good gaming rig; even though PCs have fallen in price, they are a far greater investment for most families than a game console. Add to this the problems of technical system requirements, fragile components, and tedious installation processes and you can understand why family gaming on modern PCs is a very rare thing indeed. In short, true family gaming with a modern PC is a difficult business.

Most of these characteristics are not shared by vintage computers, like the Commodore 64 or Atari 8-Bit computers. The Commodore 64 was not much more expensive than the game consoles of its day, yet sported quality arcade-style controllers and games available on cartridges (plug and play). Unlike modern PCs with their bewildering hardware and software options, most vintage computers all shared the same basic hardware and the operating system was almost a non-issue for most casual users; inserting a cartridge or typing Load"*",8,1 are certainly not difficult enough procedures to warrant the publication of a Dummies guide. Even though some games required quite a while to load from a data tape or disk, getting a game up and running was seductively simple.

However, perhaps the chief advantage classic computers like the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers had for family gaming was that they could be attached to a television instead of a pricey and much smaller computer monitor. Since the single television in most homes was located in the living room, many classic games for these systems were designed to entertain the whole family. Though there are countless games I could choose to illustrate this point, I shall restrict myself to one of my family's personal favorites, Ozark Software's M.U.L.E. (1983), which was published by Electronic Arts and ported to a wealth of systems including the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PCJr., and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

M.U.L.E. is a fascinating game for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was programmed by a fellow named Dan Bunten who later underwent a sex-change operation to become "Dani Bunten Berry." Thus, depending on your personal philosophy regarding such changes, M.U.L.E. is one of the first classic games created by a woman. Let's not risk the irony being lost on our beloved readers: One of the truly classic family videogames was created by a transsexual!

A screenshot of MULE.
M.U.L.E. title screen, C-64 version. Note the variety of avatars.

This bit of trivia isn't the only thing that makes M.U.L.E. stand out. It's also one of the few multiplayer games that successfully combines arcade action and economic strategy. Like most truly wonderful and universally appealing games, M.U.L.E. is "easy to learn, yet hard to master." M.U.L.E. is a four-player economic strategy game set in the far future on an isolated planetary colony. Each round (12 total), players must choose property, outfit it with either a mule equipped for food (affects a player's time limit per round), energy (required for any mule production except for energy), smithore (used by the store for making more mules), or crystite (the only pure luxury produced by the colony) production. When this is accomplished, players scurry back to the pub to win money gambling, then sit back and wait to see their production results. At the end of each round, players enter "trading" mode, in which players can buy or sell commodities, either from the store or from other players. Scarcity determines the value of each commodity; if the colony is suffering from a food shortage, a player specializing in farming stands to make a bundle. Random events, like cosmic storms, pirate raids, or fires can seriously affect a player's chances of economic prosperity. Once a player learns the basics (buy and outfit mules, establish production, and buy and sell goods), the learning curve rises sharply. Should a player produce more energy or risk a crystite mine? Is it better to sell all that food now, or let the other players' supplies run out and thus cause a spike in demand? Some players seem to get ahead by hunting the mountain wampus, who hides out near one of the mountain ranges.

What's even more amazing and unlikely about M.U.L.E. is that it's almost as much fun to watch other player's take their turns as it is to play your own. The merciless time-limit ticks maddeningly towards the end of a turn, and it's downright pleasurable to watch your dad's mule run-off before he makes it to that property in the far right corner. It's also helpful to keep an eye on the results of the assayer's office; maybe you can claim that high-crystite property your mom discovered during her turn for yourself!

A screenshot of the C-64 version of MULE.
M.U.L.E.'s trading screen. The pacing of this game is flawless. Some parts

allow all but one player to rest, whereas others require everyone's input.

Like the other games I've talked about, M.U.L.E.'s appeal is certainly not due to its graphics. Even the NES version is surprisingly Spartan compared to its contemporary games. Strangely, efforts to bring the M.U.L.E. concept "up-to-date" with enhanced graphics have failed miserably. Does anyone remember Linel's Traders game for the Amiga, for instance? However, an independent game publisher named Gilligames has released a game called Space Horse which the author, Todd M. Gillissie, claims is inspired by its predecessor. Indeed, Gillissie approached Electronic Arts to enquire about securing the rights to use the M.U.L.E. title, but was not successful. The surviving members of the original M.U.L.E. team claim that Spacehorse is the best clone to date.

The Present State of Family Gaming

As the 80s blended into the 90s, we saw fewer true family games and more one-player titles, particularly on computers. There are at least three reasons for this worth exploring: One, videogames for home systems were abandoning their video arcade roots; two, games became more aesthetic and mechanical; three, videogame marketing began to focus mostly on boys.

The early home videogames were either ports of popular arcade titles or were "inspired" by those titles: Pitfall!, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Space Invaders. The exciting stuff was happening in the arcades, and the first home consoles were efforts to bring that experience to the home. Now, what's important to realize about arcade machines is that they are designed purely to make money. That means getting as many quarters into the cashbox in as short a time as possible. To accomplish this, game makers tried to make their games difficult enough to keep playtimes well under five minutes, but simple enough to learn in just a few minutes or even seconds. A perfect example of this concept is Atari's Computer Space versus their far more popular Pong game. Computer Space was very difficult to learn and play and was a commercial disaster. As Nolan Bushnell put it, "Nobody wants to read an encyclopedia to play a game2." Pong was the complete opposite; it was incredibly simple and its instructions could be summed up as "Avoid missing ball for score." Result? Instant success. A final trait of arcade machines worth noting is their emphasis on competition, either expressed directly as player vs. player or indirectly with a High Score table. All of these factors: brevity, simplicity, and competition, are what made the early videogames so appropriate for family gaming.

Let's take the case of a mother of two. Now, how much time do you think mom has to dedicate to learning a videogame? Oh, I'd say roughly five to ten minutes. How long does she have to drop everything and play a videogame? Oh, maybe five to ten minutes. Of the three traits of arcade games, most moms are probably least interested in the competitive aspect, yet I seem to recall my own mother going on for weeks about her Space General rating in her favorite game, Gorf, which featured both short playing times and simple gameplay. Now, let us contrast a game like Gorf with Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Granted, Super Mario Bros. is not a particularly difficult game to learn, yet it is unquestionably more complex than Gorf. Players must learn not only how to move, jump, climb, and bash through walls, but also the difference in the various power-ups and enemies. Moving around and jumping with a +-controller is much more complicated than just moving left and right with a joystick or rotating a paddle. Already, we've managed to rule out many folks who just don't want to bother learning a whole new skill. Furthermore, an average game of Super Mario Bros. lasts far longer than a round of Gorf, particularly if the player is skillful. Can a busy mom set aside thirty minutes for a round of Super Mario Bros.? Finally, though there is a score factor in Super Mario Bros., the emphasis is on completing levels and eventually the game, not just racking up points. The significance of this fact is that mom will not be able to play briefly and come away without that special feeling of fulfillment that comes from a job well done3. Of course, let's not forget here that a game of M.U.L.E. can take up to an hour or even longer. The difference is that M.U.L.E. allows up to four simultaneous players (so no one gets bored and starts getting into trouble while mom is taking a turn). Also, the frequent breaks and convenient stopping points are perfect for quick chores, like changing diapers or microwaving dinner.

A screenshot of Super Mario Bros..
Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Simple, but not simple enough.

As games "advanced," they became more complex and involved. Learning curves rose along with graphical capabilities. Mega-popular games like Civilization, Command and Conquer, Bard's Tale, and so on required exponentially more time to play and learn than older classics. Videogaming went from "wham bam, thank you ma'am" to long-term relationships.

What price, complexity? Well, for starters, most of our beloved family members discovered they simply didn't have the time to invest in these new games. With the parents out of the picture, videogaming fell into the hands of those lovely little people who don't have to work for a living: Children and teenagers. Game consoles lost their function as a "family activity" and became dedicated babysitting devices. Far from bringing families together, videogames began tearing them apart. Gamers grew to love the digital delights that could only be enjoyed in electronic solitary confinement; games became something that parents "Just didn't understand." Games stopped offering multiplayer modes and focused on making those periods of solitary confinement more like the world outside. After games had reached the "breaking point" of complexity, game marketers focused their efforts at the only people who seemed to have an interest in buying these new, more sophisticated videogames: Small children and boys (why game marketers did not continue to target girls is something of a mystery, though I suppose we could argue that the average 13 year old girl is too busy with other interests, like boys, to fool around with videogames).

Now that the reality of family gaming had disappeared, gamers desperately sought a substitute in graphical realism. Now that the real Dad, Mom, and Sis were gone, boys sought replacements in the form of smarter artificial intelligence, realistic and detailed virtual environments, and story-based games. The lone boy left on the basketball court after everyone else was gone had found a way to bring back, however imperfectly, some of the thrill of the game with the help of his imagination and a few robots.

Nowadays videogames have become so far removed from family activities that many parents blame them for tragedies like the one at Columbine. Gamers work in isolation, glued to their televisions or PC monitors. The mega-popular Doom 3 makes this self-imposed isolation a selling point; play this game alone, in the dark, with surround sound encasing you in a world far removed from your own. The raw violence of the game is sure to win the condemnation of parents anyway; it's far better for Junior if he experiences this game by himself, far away from family observation or interference.

I seem to have managed to paint a pretty dark picture of modern gaming. However, the picture is not quite as grim as this. For instance, many of the most popular games are not one-player but massive multiplayer online games like City of Heroes and Everquest. Unfortunately, since these games require a dedicated computer and internet connection, I doubt that many families will experience playing them together. Most families can't afford multiple computers in the home, even if they did have the time to learn how to play these rather complicated games.

What about family games for third generation and contemporary game consoles? The Sega Dreamcast sported four controller inputs and several games that made full use of them; some that stand out in my mind as suitable for family gaming are Wacky Races, which unfortunately suffered from several technical flaws, Chu Chu Rocket, and Worms Armageddon. Gauntlet Legends has a nice four-player cooperative mode and cartoon violence, though I suppose it might not be suitable for everyone. The Gamecube and the Xbox also feature 4 game controller inputs, though a quick glance at the Electronics Boutique offerings for both systems indicates a dearth of 4-player family games. The few gems that stand out are Super Smash Bros. Melee and the Mario Party series for the Gamecube, and Kung Fu Chaos for Xbox. These games are suitable for family gaming; hopefully we will see more of them.

Probably the most exciting family gaming taking place today began, ironically enough, in the arcades: Konami's infamous Dance Dance Revolution. I doubt my readers will need much in the way of introduction to this game; stand-alone units are helping to rejuvenate quiet arcades all over the world, and the series has made quite a splash on the PS2 and the Xbox. Dance Dance Revolution and its many sequels and spin-offs has generated quite a buzz on the gaming scene, but, perhaps more importantly, is attracting the interest of those types of people long disenfranchised from videogaming; namely, women and girls. Of course, part of the reason for the game's success is its simplicity—players "dance" by stepping on pedals that correspond to the arrows displayed on the screen. Essentially, the game is one of speed, timing, and accuracy. Simply put, it's a "dance" version of Simon and almost as popular.

Eyetoy is probably the most interesting innovation for the past 5 years. DDR is another one. These are games that you can put on, and no matter who is over, they will be interested, even Grandma.
--Andrew Bub, GamerDad

Much like PONG, DDR is not a game about graphics or immersive game worlds. Instead, the fun of this game is located squarely in its gameplay; this is gaming as a physical activity, not a virtual environment. Indeed, though all versions sport nice graphical layouts, it's not difficult to imagine this game being a success if the graphics were limited to Pong-like graphics. This simplicity is essential for getting "non-gamer" types into the game; anyone passing by the game will grasp the essence of its gameplay. Parents like the game because it's good exercise; it gets the family off the couch and into a fun, competitive activity. DDR is one of those games that can help sell a game console to people who normally would never consider such a thing; it's a brilliant game that I wish I had thought of first. If you can't have fun with DDR, you take yourself way too seriously.

Another great family game is Sony's EyeToy for the PS2. The EyeToy is a small camera that sits on top of the television and records the players' faces, arms, legs, or whatever other body part they want to play with. It really does "put the player in the game." The first game made exclusively for the device, Play, is actually a collection of 12-mini games ranging from dance titles to silly kid's games. One game requires a player to keep a soccer ball off the ground using only his head while another has kids clean the fog off a bathroom mirror. Another title, Groove, is similar to DDR. The game plays tunes and asks players to move their arms or head to reach certain contacts (which appear above or beside the player's own image on the television.) Planned games include a family-style board game called Saru EyeToy and a baseball game. Most reviews I read of the EyeToy were overwhelmingly positive and corroborated Sony's claim that it was indeed fun for the whole family. Also, Konami's new Dance Dance Revolution Extreme for the PS2 offers support for the device. This might very well be a perfect marriage of two exciting family games.

Finally, Nintendo is due to release Donkey Konga for its GameCube system at the end of September. This game, which requires special "conga" controllers, allows up to four players to clap and drum together to help Donkey and Diddy Kong become famous musicians—or just jam out on some cool bongos. Much like the games mentioned above, Donkey Konga will primarily be a game of timing and rhythm. In the user comments on Amazon.com I noticed one enthusiastic previewer had remarked that even his mom loved the game. Perhaps Donkey Konga will help establish family gaming on the GameCube.

DDR, Play, Groove, and Donkey Konga all have one feature in common: They immerse players in a fun activity rather than a visually stunning virtual world or compelling storyline. My contention is that this quality is what makes or break a family game, and as game developers slowly begin to realize that solid gameplay sells more games to a bigger audience than solid graphics, I don't doubt that the videogame genre will soon start to sport more "universal classics" that almost everyone can enjoy.

The Future of Family Gaming

Though the times may seem bleak for good family gaming, our irritable young nerf herder may content himself with the fact that as the videogame market grows and expands, the chances increase that some enterprising company may decide the time has come to create and sustain a family gaming niche. The smashing success of Konami's DDR has certainly not gone unnoticed; who knows what innovative new products companies may release over the next few years? Aspiring developers would do well to read Dani Berry's list of "Good Multi-Player Design Elements," which includes such sage advice as "keep the features down," "use time-limits," and "allow personalization." Berry doesn't just provide advice, but also her rationale. I certainly can't offer developers better advice than Berry's; therefore, my sole piece of advice will be to study her list carefully.

Never before in the history of videogaming has the potential been so ripe for a truly wonderful family gaming experience. Videogame technology has made huge leaps since Pong, and there's no good reason why a modern family game shouldn't take full advantage of it. However, developers need to strongly consider the importance of accommodating up to four players at once (Mom, Dad, two siblings), short turn time, frequent breaks, and a very low learning curve. I would also like to see more games offering collaborative or team-play; why not let a family join together in accomplishing missions against the computer? Family videogames must find ways to reward players besides simply defeating opponents; working together is a valuable skill that deserves to recognition. And last, but not least, we've got to get away, at least temporarily, from the same old tired "macho" subjects that are so near and dear to us red-blooded young men. This means opening up some new subjects and themes for videogame exploration—subjects that have that broader, more universal appeal that is found not in the game itself, but in the experience of playing it with those you love.


1 I'm told that Brits call these characters "spods."

2 This quotation is taken from Steven L. Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games, p. 34.

3 The original Mario Bros. game actually comes closer to being a true "family game" than its decedents.