Like many gamers, I live in hopes that my two-year-old son will one day want to play games with me. A lot of gamer dads harbor this wish, because it means that we will have at least one other person to play games with us when we’re too busy being dads to actually get together with our friends. I like to think that he and I will one day create opposing armies in Summoner Wars, and run them against each other. I want to teach him Settlers of Catan, finally proving to his mom that it’s an awesome game. And if he becomes appreciative of history like me, I’d like to see how well he does at stuff like Twilight Struggle. This is such silly speculation when he’s only two, but a lot of other gamer dads would be lying if they said they didn’t think about these things.
But unlike a lot of other gamer parents, I don’t want to MAKE him play games. It’s my hobby, not his. If he ends up loving interpretive dance (something that would please his mother no end), and wants to be a dancer, then I will stand by him every step of the way, make it to every recital, and be so proud of him. And if he loves to play board games with me, I’ll count it a blessing and enjoy those moments too. But I’m not going to decide his interests for him. So you can imagine my surprise when he started coming up to me and sayiug, “Game daddy?” He then will point downstairs towards our game shelf and begin the descent down the stairs to pick one out.
This is partially adorable because he’s now at an age when he learns new words every day. Among these words is the phrase “Pace Hoke,” which every Blood Angel should know means “Space Hulk.” I haven’t yet reviewed Space Hulk (though I almost certainly will someday), but this is the grail game in my collection. Though out-of-print, I was able to find a used copy for a very fair price, and even though I don’t play it constantly, it’s still a favorite. It is also now a favorite of my son, who finds the slavering aliens on the box cover to be very cool. He loves the floor tiles, which he knows are put together like a puzzle. And he likes the miniatures, which are decidedly not child-friendly. They have jagged pointies all over them, and they are designed mostly to be looked out and painted, not handled by a toddler. He picks up a handful of dice and derives great pleasure from hucking them into the box lid. And he likes to look at the fancy color pictures in the rule book (I do too, since the miniatures in there are all painted).
You’d think I’d be a wreck letting a toddler play with the most expensive game I own. But he does very well. He picks them out of the foam, looks at the pieces, and fights the Space Marines against the Genestealers. He puts them back when I ask, and then asks for me to open the plastic bag full of tokens. He dumps them out, picks through them, then helps me put them away when we’re done. And when he’s done with Space Hulk, he picks out another game to open and play with. His particular favorites include Nexus Ops (which also has cool plastic pieces), Ticket to Ride Europe (“choo-choo”), and Fearsome Floors (which lets him build his own bad guy).
He has no concept of the rules to any of these games. He merely knows that they are daddy’s toys, and that if he asks politely, daddy or mommy will play with him. At first, I admit I only tolerated this ritual. I paid a lot of money for these games, and I put a lot of time into curating a collection of which I’m pretty proud. But my son is perceptive enough to know that daddy just owns a bunch of toys. They are silly boxes, filled with very expensive cardboard and plastic, that are used for play. I may put on airs and act like I’m doing something constructive with my time, but it’s just another way to play with my friends.
It’s very easy for an adult to forget this. I once read a thread on Boardgame Geek proposing that we say we “tabled” a game instead of “playing” it. The rationale was that we are adults, and we therefore are above things like “play.” This was deservedly met with derision by most of the other users, but more of us have this attitude than will admit. We like to find games with lots of pieces, rules, and drab graphics, and act like we are sharpening our minds. We are, but that’s not why we’re doing it.
Before this gets too goopy, I know that we’re adults here. When we were kids, we reasoned like kids. When we are adults, we move on to things that are more grown up, even while we keep playing games. And that’s a natural thing. But it’s easy to let that transition rob us of some of the joy that comes from gathering around a table with your loved ones and friends and laughing and cracking jokes while you play. And it’s easy to forget that those toys aren’t an end unto themselves. They ideally exist to facilitate social interaction. The best games promote that, and the worst ones fight against it. When I’m with my son, every game is just a big toy for us to play with together.
And while its fun now, it makes me even more excited for the future. Not just what games we will play together, but all of the other joys our lives will share. I’m glad that even at this young age, we have something we can share.