The Curse of the Handheld Console

If you listen to the kids on the playground, videogames fall under a clear division of play. Both kids and grown-ups play games on their iPhones, and older siblings have the Xbox and PlayStation. But the Nintendo DS, I’m told, is only for kids. “Daddies don’t play DS,” my kid relayed to me one time, because that’s what some classmate had told him.

I’m sure I said something wise and mature, like, “I’d love to see the little smart alecks you hang out with beat Etrian Odyssey III.” But I saw his point. The Nintendo DS was originally positioned as a kid’s console – a handheld made for tiny little hands that’s perfect for playing Mario, Zelda, and Nintendogs on shopping trips or family vacations.

I finally had a chance to do all that adult stuff, while the kid kept plugging away in his own little world

But in my house, my kid isn’t allowed to play the DS, or any other handheld. Or, lemme clarify: it’s not that he’s not allowed, so much as I usually don’t put it in front of him. We play videogames together, at least half an hour every night after he’s done with dinner and his homework. I choose the games we play, and whether it’s a co-op game like Rayman Origins or a single-player that we can both watch and enjoy, like Beyond Good and Evil, I want to play games that we can actually play together, on the TV or the computer.

And that’s why I shy away from the DS. I know the impact that a handheld has on a gamer. I’ve seen the other kids, sitting at their brother’s graduation, or their sister’s swim lesson, eyes completely focused on the twin screens in their hands. I know how it feels to get so lost in the tiny worlds behind those screens, fingers glued to the little buttons that bring you so much closer than an iPhone touch screen. Playing a DS is like staring into a snow globe, or peeping through a pinhole. I’ve enjoyed dozens of hours with mine, and like the grown-up hypocrite I am, I’d rather not let my kid do the same.

Except there was the one time that I did let him play. Over the last year, he’s grown completely obsessed with Pokémon. He started with the trading cards and vending machine toys, and like a lot of kids, he was suckered by the cute surfaces and vast depths of the franchise. I humored his interest, and I even learned to play the card game with him (it’s not bad). But at some point, I knew he’d want to play the actual videogame.

So I picked up Pokémon Conquest, the tactical RPG that takes Pokémon back to Japan’s sengoku jidai era. I sat him down with my old silver DS and showed him how to work the controls. It took a few battles before he got used to it. Like a lot of handheld RPGs, Pokémon Conquest is a weird cross between watching a cartoon and doing your taxes. It’s full of stats and commands that only gain with a lot of repetition. But after a couple of sessions, he got the hang of it, and he was grouping and evolving his army all on his own.

While I tried to sit next to him and help, it was hard to crane my neck over his shoulder and see what he was doing. During game time, he would zone into those two little screens while he sat on the couch, or flopped across a chair, or hung upside down with his feet over the back of the couch – shuffling around restlessly but always keeping that little device the same few inches in front of his eyes.

At first I didn’t mind having the time to myself. I did a few chores. I caught up with Meet the Press. I pulled the air conditioners out of the window and carried them up to the attic. I finally had a chance to do all that adult stuff, while the kid kept plugging away in his own little world.

But it started to get to me. Like I said, I was used to playing games together. Now I wasn’t a partner – I was a problem.

I started bugging him: “Are you done with that yet?” The game has 17 kingdoms to conquer before you reach Oda Nobunaga, the historical figure who in real-life Japan was a brilliant, merciless general, and who in the game is just a young guy with a chic ‘stache and a Zekrom. My kid was taking his time, grinding practice battles and evolving his Pokémon. I encouraged him to get on with it, and he finally made his way to the boss battle – a difficult fight against the toughest Pokémon he’d ever seen, on a tricky, changing battlefield.

The first two or three times he tried that battle, he lost. In fact, he lost pretty badly. I saw that he was getting frustrated and I tried to help, but my advice turned out to be terrible. I tried to help him match up the movement patterns and distance attacks of his Pokémon, but I didn’t know any of the ones he was using. We figured out that he needed more ice-type Pokémon, but I had no idea where to find them. I gave him my best advice – and he blew it even more spectacularly than before, and that’s when he kicked me out of the room and played by himself.

I saw he was getting more and more frustrated. He would shut the game off and storm away, and I would hear him up in the bathroom yelling about “that stupid Oda Nobunaga.” I thought about pulling the plug and just making him play a different game – I still have that power, right? – but I stuck it out.

And then he finally got it. He rearranged his party and changed up his tactics, and one fateful night, in the last turn of the battle with almost no health left in his last surviving guy, he beat Nobunaga’s army. He called me in and let me crane my neck over his shoulder so we could watch the last scenes together.

“Can I play it again?” he asked me.

I took the handheld, closed it up, and said, “No. Let’s try something else.”

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Chris Dahlen, Commentary, Gaming, This is Your Kid on Videogames
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