Oceans Away!

Before I tell you the story of how I tricked and deceived my son, an innocent 7-year-old who trusts me with his life, his happiness and his dignity, let me first explain how much I hate Plants vs. Zombies. I cringe just typing the name. A clip of the music or a piece of the art is enough to make my gut shrink. I don’t blame the game, which is a perfectly great, smartphone-friendly tower defense title. I hate it because of my son.

We were stuck on a long plane ride when I introduced him to Plants vs. Zombies. I probably just handed him my iPad, in a distracted way, cuing up that game out of all the ones in my library because I thought he’d like the graphics. He became obsessed – teenager-in-love obsessed, cultist-in-thrall obsessed, me-and-Star-Wars obsessed. He would talk about nothing else. He liked to play the game, obviously, but that was just a fraction of his obsession: he memorized all of the plants and the zombies – their names and their back stories. He played all of the mini-games. He drew pictures of giant wars between the plants and the zombies and aliens and dinosaurs. Every single conversation turned back to Plants vs. Zombies. Walking to school with his mother, he would ask, “In Plants vs. Zombies, what’s your favorite plant?” Walking with me to get ice cream, he’d say, “Hey dad, did you know that in Plants vs. Zombies…”

All he cares about are the plants and the zombies, and which one’s stronger and what would happen if they ganged up on some robots.

Not only does he care far more about Plants vs. Zombies than I ever will – he only cares about the parts that bore me. I’ve tried to tell him about George Fan, the guy who made the game; he has no interest. I lever the game into discussions of the tower defense genre and he doesn’t care about that either. All he cares about are the plants and the zombies, and which one’s stronger, and who would win if x and y, and what would happen if they ganged up on some robots.

It consumed his imagination and nothing could knock it loose. So I started begging him to stop. I would change the subject; he would change it right back. I teased and threatened him, but he wouldn’t give up. So in desperation, I tried to trick him.

We were walking through the neighborhood, by the old pond that smells like algae. We were talking, like we do, and the kid started: “Hey dad. In Plants vs. Zombies …”

I stopped him right there and I explained that he had to quit, quit, quit talking about that game. And if he didn’t, I would take a desperate measure. See, I explained, the other night I was on the Internet, and I found a secret word that would make anyone who heard it forget everything they knew about Plants vs. Zombies. All I had to do was say that word and he would forget everything he’d ever learned, every good time he’d ever had. I would throw out his drawings, too, and then I would delete the game from my iPad and that would be that.

Naturally, he didn’t believe me. He dared me to say the word; I told him I didn’t want to. He demanded proof and I told him it was on the Internet, which, he doesn’t even know what the Internet is yet, so he’d just have to trust me. He kept insisting though, so I had to think on my feet, and that’s when – with a nod to Kirsten Dunst’s arc in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I got an idea.

“Listen, I still feel bad for the time I made you forget about Oceans Away. I don’t want to take away another game.”

Oceans Away, of course, is totally made up. But he doesn’t know that. He’s seven. He doesn’t know anything. He’s never played a first-person shooter, never played Tetris, doesn’t know what Half-Life is and has never heard of Blizzard, Infocom, Leisure Suit Larry or the Sega Genesis. He knows next to nothing, except what I tell him. Could I lie about a made-up game to him and get away with it?  Yes. Of course I could.

Here’s what I told him about Oceans Away.

It was a videogame that he played last fall. It was his favorite game of all time and he was really good at it. But he never stopped talking about it, so I wiped it from his mind. No, I won’t download a new copy and show it to him. No, I did not just make up Oceans Away. It was a real game. And I had to take it away from him.

Now, he still didn’t believe any of this. But I kept the story going for long enough that he was no longer sure that he didn’t believe it. The more questions he asked, the more details I had to invent – that the fish were fighting the crustaceans, and his favorite character was the crab, and the lobster’s name was Lobo – the more he started to play with the idea in his mind. And the more he protested – “Dad, if you’re making this up, I’m going to be so mad” – the more he was hooked. Proving it was fake would give him a chance to one-up his dad, but imagining that it was real would open up a new, strange power in the world – where a magic word could make him forget a game like a dream.

As silly as my prank was, there’s a weird kind of logic behind it. While he enjoys playing Plants vs. Zombies, he enjoys even more the process of thinking about it and playing with it in his head. It’s easy to sentimentalize the mind of a child. We like to picture them as boundless imagineers who can pick up a stick and build a world around it. But kids, like us, need something to work from – a character, an archetype, a story, a weapon – and something to play with in their hands and in their heads.

Plants vs. Zombies will hold my kid, at least until Pokemon takes over, and then Mario, and then whatever else can fill his mind – a mind that must look like the bolts and screws aisle of a hardware store, with hundreds and thousands of little plastic drawers sitting open and ready to fill. He needs this stuff, so he can consume it, digest it, and maybe someday, keep it to himself.

———

The kid is not going to be happy about this once he finds out what the Internet is. Give Chris advice on how to handle that day on Twitter @SavetheRobot.

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Categories:
Chris Dahlen, Commentary, Gaming, This is Your Kid on Videogames
Unwinnable On The Web:
  • http://twitter.com/deanputney @deanputney

    This game must be made now.

  • Chuck

    Heh, Lobo.
    "I got your downloadable content right here fanboy!"

  • Jim

    Delete "Plants vs Zombies" and replace with "Minecraft" and that's my son. Right there.

    I wonder if he can remember Boneyard Defence that he used to play and love…

    • http://twitter.com/jonjaques @jonjaques

      Ya same here, as we speak he is sitting behind me at work, using a spare computer we have to download mods, because the ones he had last week are no good or are boring and vanilla minecraft is great but it's not as good as mooncraft mod or SDK Reloaded or TooManyItems or……

  • http://twitter.com/MarijnLems @MarijnLems

    BAD Chris. Bad bad bad. Now do everyone a favour and put your kid up for adoption before you damage him even more.

    Also: he's 7 and he doesn't know what the Internet is? How'd you manage that?

    • savetherobot

      Well it's funny – he only uses the Internet when I'm sitting there looking something up for him. He's already starting to grok what it is and how to do a search, because he'll tell me, say, how to look up the Mario mushroom that he wants to download a picture of. But we don't give him free rein of the computer, so he doesn't really know how to find this stuff on his own.

      • http://twitter.com/MarijnLems @MarijnLems

        Ah. Surprisingly responsible parenting. ;-)

        • ResponsibleFather

          Yeah, save for the lying and all. This guy is a piece of trash.

          • Stu Horvath

            Two words: Santa Claus.

          • Johnny Blue

            Also: Jesus Christ.

  • http://www.ironrealms.com Jeremy

    I used to feel this way about the latest obsession my son would have. I wish I could have those days back now.

  • http://twitter.com/GWJRabbit @GWJRabbit

    This is mad genius.

  • DougJr

    I wish I could trick adults this way, that's amazing.

    PS: give it another 2 months or so and "Oceans Away!" will be a top 25 app store.

    • http://twitter.com/rosefox @rosefox

      You can. It's called "gaslighting". It's a standard technique used by abusers to keep their victims under control. I am not exaggerating this even slightly. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslighting for more.

      Mr. Dahlen, please take a moment to picture your son as an adult, with someone trying to sell him overpriced real estate or get him to invest in a doomed company. Every time he objects, they override his concerns by drowning him in spurious details. Imagine his partner saying, "Of course I didn't push you, you fell. Don't you remember falling? You tripped over that lump in the carpet and dropped your coffee mug; that's why there's a stain there. You're always so clumsy and forgetful." Is that the future you want for him? Your responsibility as a parent is to help your child make sense of the world and give him the skills to understand when someone else is lying to him, not to train him in questioning his judgment and self-trust.

      • Johnny Blue

        He's 7. Mr Dahlen's responsibility is to foster and nurture his child to the best of his ability, within the bounds that he restrains himself from throttling the brat and dumping his body in a lake before he turns 8.

        Why do I have a feeling the judgemental shits don't have kids of their own?

        • http://twitter.com/rosefox @rosefox

          You're right that I'm not a parent. I am the partner of an abuse survivor who took years to recover from being gaslit, and I feel pretty strongly about it.

          I'm certainly under no illusion that parenting is all sunshine and flowers, but there are plenty of ways of expressing frustration that don't involve creating an extended pattern of psychological manipulation and then boasting to your friends about it.

          • Cpt. Trips

            So you're not a parent and you're speaking on behalf of somebody else who could be offended.

            I think you just need to come down from your high horse.

      • savetherobot

        To be fair to my kid, and in case anyone's genuinely worried about him – I don't think he was ever really fooled by this nonsense. Yesterday I asked him, "Hey, remember 'Oceans Away'?" and he rolled his eyes at me.

  • http://twitter.com/Val_Seleznyov @Val_Seleznyov

    Harsh, but i understand the father's frustration.

    I'm 14 years older than my youngest brother, and for my 17th birthday got the original xbox with Halo: Combat Evolved. I made the mistake of letting him play it for a bit, and in that ten minute period he became kind of obsessed. He started referring to his blue care bare teddy as "grunt", and i'd come home from a hard day of skipping my college classes, and he'd be sitting in my room with the controller in his hand wanting to play.

    The writer is lucky that his kid is old enough to reason with. I'd tell my brother that "if you don't go away right now, the man will come and take you away" but it didn't work. I'd pick him up and carry him down stairs, and ten minutes later he'd have waddled up to my loft conversion.

    The one positive is that it helped me get into the mind of Master Chief. I knew what it was like to combat a mindless foe that just keeps coming and coming and coming, like with him and the Flood, and i think that helped me conquer Legendary difficulty.

  • eMolly

    So instead being the person to introduce him to new wonderful things in the world you've decided to be the person that takes them away? As well as to trade credibility for a few moments of your child not talking to you?

  • Blargh

    Do you remember Kirsten's arc? She makes the exact same choices over again, but with the addition of losing trust in everyone. I get the frustration, and also that he doesn't believe you, but there had to be a way around it that doesn't make you look like a jerk to him. For the record, my kid is obsessed simultaneously with Elmo and Mater from cars2…yes, the worst character from the worst Pixar film.

  • Xiphias Gladius

    Really? You don't remember <cite>Oceans Away</cite>?

  • Shelly Cone

    Chris this is such a great story! We shared it around the newsroom here. I have three boys who love video games so I totally relate.

  • Jason

    Maybe you should take him to be tested for Asperger Syndrome.

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  • Pankaj Negi

    My Kid is just like yours. He is die hard fan of Plant vs Zombies and can’t stop talking or thinking about it. I guess I have the cure now. Long live ocean away!