When Jenna’s son Guillaume turned thirteen, she expected some friction. He was at the age where he was carving out his identity and independence, arguing and questioning his social worker mother, who raised him as a single parent in a rough Chicago neighborhood.
She wondered how this rebellion and separation would take shape. Would Guillaume fall in with a rough crowd? Would he experiment with drugs? Would he dress weird? These were ways Jenna herself rebelled as a young teen.
“It was a classic case of ‘takes one to know one,'” Jenna jokes with me. “I was a troublemaker as a kid, and I was expected God would exact his revenge on me through my own kid being a troublemaker, too.”
But Guillaume was part of a new generation, one who connected early to the Internet and mobile devices. He grew up gaming, and as he approached his teen years, he was into apps and mobile games. So his rebellion took a different shape: he wanted to play shoot-em-up games now that he was old enough — according to him, at least.
“He wanted those violent shooter and war games,” Jenna says. “Stuff like Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto, all that. Never mind that it wasn’t age-appropriate. But he had cousins and friends that played those games, and he wanted to play along as well. He was tired of being the little kid.”
Mother and son went back and forth on the issue for awhile. Jenna wouldn’t buy or allow Guillaume to download shooter games; she didn’t want to encourage violence or aggression, especially since they already lived in a rough area. But Guillaume would get around her by playing the games at his friends’ or his dad’s family’s houses. Guillaume lied about this to his mom, and Jenna would find out later by talking with other parents or family.
“That made me mad more than anything,” Jenna says. “I did not raise my kid to be a liar.”
But what could Jenna do? Grounding Guillaume didn’t do much — he seemed content to stay at home with his comics and TV. Gaming became the focus of loud arguments, and the pair’s relationship began to deteriorate. They could once talk out issues together, but Guillaume grew sullen and uncommunicative — Jenna’s worst nightmare.
What Jenna needed was some common ground — a way to hook into Guillaume’s interest but still push her values as a parent. Luckily, a whole new generation of games on the horizon aims to teach empathy, kindness and cooperation, and make anyone who plays them a better, more emotionally dynamic human being.
Jenna had always vetted Guillaume’s games to include some educational or emotional value. Jenna used his innate interest in games as a reward for doing homework and getting good grades. If he did his work and kept up in the classroom, he would let him play on the computer — and later, the tablet — for a limited time each day. “And always supervised,” Jenna said.
She was strict about what kind of sites he browsed or what apps he downloaded. “I made sure everything was age-appropriate, and tried to reflect the values I wanted to teach him: giving back, community, integrity,” she says.
Rewarding Guillaume with games worked for both mother and son when he was young. Guillaume was young enough to accept the terms of the arrangement, and Jenna had a wide variety of games to draw upon. “There’s a good amount of appropriate games for [younger] kids, games with more than just entertainment value,” Jenna says. “I could find him something educational, something good, that still entertained him.”
Now, Jenna says, Guillaume had outgrown a lot of the games of his youth — Mario, Animal Crossing and others — and was eager to move onto more sophisticated, complex titles. But, according to Jenna, there wasn’t a glut of options available for older kids and adults that offered challenging, entertaining gameplay, good values and “were cool enough in a way that older kids like.”
For Jenna, there was a gap in the market. “There’s got to be something between, I don’t know, Mario and Modern Warfare. Educational games were too ‘on the nose’ for him,” Jenna says, “not very sophisticated and kind of condescending sometimes. They felt like homework to him — not fun. But the games he was drawn to, I didn’t see anything of much value about them. They were violent and disturbing to me.” Until Jenna could find a way to bridge the gap, she and Guillaume keep clashing.
Jenna isn’t an gaming expert, but she’s onto certain trends and tendencies in the gaming market. Many critics liken today’s mainstream gaming market to the current vogue in Hollywood for blockbusters — big, bombastic entertainments designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
Just like how Hollywood blockbusters overload viewers with sensory excitement in the form of explosion, car chases and other action set pieces, so too do games attempt to replicate the same stimulation in the form of options, graphics, sounds, violence and action, according to The Atlantic.
And like Hollywood, these blockbusters in gaming have the feel of the can’t-miss pop culture event — a spectacle at the center of a pop culture conversation that everyone wants to be in on. Just like how no one wants to miss “The Hobbit” or “The Hunger Games” at the cineplex, no one wants to miss out on the latest “Elder Scrolls” installment or “Call of Duty,” whose trailers pop up on TV and cabble, just like their cinematic counterparts.
But just like there’s a smaller-scaled independent movie scene making material for the Web and for film festivals, a small but rich vein of independent-minded producers are eking out a place and name in the market. Many of them are fueling a small revolution in gaming, especially as gaming rises as the entertainment of choice among a new generation. These games aim to elevate gameplay and teach players values like empathy, cooperation, critical thinking, kindness and far-sighted thinking — and they might just offer Jenna a way to bridge the impasse between her and her game-loving teen son.
These experimental games are diverse in their aesthetics, objectives and narratives, but collectively they make up what some experts call a burgeoning “deep gaming” movement, according to Fast Company. These games share the same basic structure of games — players have objectives or challenges to win, master and overcome. But instead of shooting the most people, players win by demonstrating some kind of emotional growth or insight into the characters or situations they encounter.
One of most-discussed of these alternative titles is Journey, designed by Santa Monica-based company Thatgamecompany for Sony’s PlayStation platform. In Journey, players make their way through a desert towards a mountain on the horizon. As you travel, you encounter another player, anonymously and randomly assigned through the Internet, and you must help one another connect, solve puzzles and explore a lost civilization — all without using words to communicate.
Released in 2012, Journey was lauded for its minimal, serene visuals, but what struck most fans of the game was the sense of wonder, awe and peace the game evoked, as well as the spirit of peace and cooperation that arose working together with anonymous, temporary companions to move forward in the game. The game was designed to encourage cooperation among strangers, as well as a spirit of altruism.
“Right now, most games feel like summer blockbuster films, all explosions and crappy dialogue,” Thatgamecompany creative director Jenova Chen told The New Yorker. “A big part of the games industry still hasn’t figured out how to give players something new. That’s what I want to do.”
Chen and his company succeeded — Journey went on to become nominated or win many game-of-the-year accolades — a surprising achievement for an indie game company that almost went bankrupt while developing the title.
Some alumni from Journey have gone on to create Luna, a fable-like puzzle game whose themes focus on transformation and learning from mistakes. Like Journey, Luna wants to evoke an emotional experience beyond the sensory and stimulation overload of typical blockbuster games, creating a world that fosters self-reflection, compassion and empathy. Luna isn’t yet available to the market but its company, Funomena, hope to announce a release date soon and have been previewing the game as late as fall 2014.
In the meantime, though, those interested in the burgeoning “deep games” movement can explore other titles, such as nature simulations like Mountain and Proteus, which offer a meditative, trance-like, even spiritual experience for players.
Jenna herself likes the idea of games like these, but questions whether or not they’ll appeal to a young, male demographic like the one Guillaume is growing into. A lot of the appeal of gaming is not just the games themselves, but the idea of playing the same titles alongside their friends, she says.
“You get to Guillaume’s age and it’s all about peer belonging,” Jenna says. “Unless you have a uniquely independent ringleader who seeks out these games and makes them cool, they’re all going to want to play Call of Duty, if only to talk to one another about it.” It might be difficult, Jenna implies, to get these more empathetic games into the groups that might benefit from them the most.
But there are signs that these empathy-based games are gaining traction in the market. The release of Journey on PlayStation in 2012, for example, became one of the year’s best selling titles — according to The New Yorker, it was the fastest-selling title for the Sony platform in North America and Europe and broke sales records.
Their modest but real success comes as the demographics of gamers themselves begin to shift. In fact, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is now 31 years old. Nearly half of gamers are women. Last year, for the first time, adult female gamers outnumbered boys under age 18 as the largest video-game-playing group in the U.S., according to Fast Company. These growing audience segments prefer other types of games beyond the shoot-em-up console titles that sell in the millions, and have fueled the success of many mobile titles, for example.
The broadening of the gaming audience may work to shift gaming in unexpected ways. Adult female gamers, for example, may theoretically prefer to play a title like Luna or Journey for its aesthetics or its emphasis on emotion and cooperation.
But others are skeptical much will change. As Jenna points out, “What adult female has enough time to sit down at the end of the day to play a console game, especially if they have responsibilities like jobs, families and a home to run?” In the end, the major console releases may remain blockbuster-like titles that appeal to those with enough leisure time on their hands to make their way through colorful adventures and worlds — or boys eager for vicarious thrills and action.
Demoralized by her constant fights with her son, Jenna realizes that her days of using games to actively teach him certain skills and values are coming to an end. She questions just how much a kid can learn from a game in the first place after a certain point — especially when it’s something like empathy or compassion.
“It’s one thing to practice reading or other skills with a game as a small child, like learning colors and shapes and sounds,” she says, “But as a child gets older and you teach them more complicated values and skills, you have to teach and engage them in a different way.” Something like empathy and compassion likely needs to be taught though example and action from the beginning of a kid’s life, she thinks. “It’s like doing service projects at church, or taking the time to listen to a friend — and making sure your kid knows this is an active choice and why you make it,” she says.
Still, it’s possible to teach empathy at a mass or institutional level, especially as worries over cyberbullying and growing narcissism in social media escalate. Storytelling, for example, is one of the most primal, simple yet effective ways we can learn to step in another’s shoes and understand the world from their point of view. Reading has been shown to expand our emotional palette, according to The Guardian, engaging parts of our brain that are designed to empathize with others.
Another important lesson in teaching empathy is learning to extend it to others beyond our immediate circle of friends and family. It’s natural for humans to empathize with people like or close to themselves, but true empathy, according to psychologists, means expanding that ability to others outside our typical circles.
Ironically enough, Jenna has incorporated some of these methods into her parenting of Guillaume to teach him the art of compassion and stepping into another person’s shoes. As part of her reprimand of Guillaume’s game-playing without her permission, she made him read novels and memoirs about war experiences, such as classic novels as All Quiet on the Western Front. She also took him volunteering at their church, where he worked over a few months with recent war veterans, many of whom sustained serious injury and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Guillaume got see and hear firsthand what it’s like to really be in a war situation, and his mother made sure to discuss his thoughts and experiences with him. “The veterans told him stories of what it was like to really be in battle,” she said. “I asked him how it felt to play those video games now after hearing those stories. He didn’t feel that great about them after that.”
In other words, she opened the door to the more complicated emotional reality of an experience that a game can often flatten or diminish.
Ironically enough, social media also is another valuable avenue for mother and son to teach and learn empathy. When Guillaume turned 13, he got onto Facebook and Instagram, with the proviso of keeping his accounts accessible to Jenna.
“We talk about what we see on the network, and how it might appear to others, and why someone would do this or that, who’s a ‘cool kid’ and who’s not, and what that means in terms of how they might experience a day,” she says. “It’s really analyzing human behavior, I guess, but in a way that I hope teaches him sympathy and kindness. Sometimes he’s not into talking, like a lot of young teen boys I guess, but he knows he doesn’t get access unless he’s up for an open discussion every now and then.”
Jenna and Guillaume still wrangle over the gaming issue, though Guillaume stopped playing shooter games “illegally” at his friends’ and cousins’ houses. Jenna says she’s been looking for “more creative” games to share with her son in the hopes he’ll broaden his tastes and interests as he grows more independent-minded, “including a little more independent from the influence of his buddies,” Jenna says. But learning about different games has at least kept her in dialogue with her son, “even if he gets a little ‘Ugh, mom’ about it,” Jenna jokes.
Jenna has also learned that one of the best ways to teach empathy to her young son is to extend it to him when she can. “As Guillaume gets older, I notice that I can’t just ‘talk at him’ like I maybe used to,” Jenna says. “I have to be more patient and listen to his point-of-view before I start offering my own take immediately. But when I do, it pays off. We’re both more patient with each other, and I think more understanding.” In the end, listening is one of the most basic yet overlooked ways to teach kids emotional intelligence and empathy, and parents and children often need to do it most with one another just when their relationships begin to fray. ♦