4 Ways to Avoid Becoming the LEGO Movie Dad

I don’t want to be like the Lego Movie guy. You know the guy I’m talking about, the dad. Will Ferrell’s character.

Will Ferrell Lego MovieFictional characters are memorable when they’re built on a grain of truth. I think one of the reasons the end of the Lego Movie is compelling is because we all know someone just like that guy. [spoiler alert] We all know a dad who won’t let his kids play with his toys. A dad who has taken his hobby to a place where it’s not just a hobby anymore, it’s an obsession.

Is obsession too strong a word? Maybe, but hear me out.

Building up a Wall

When someone obsesses over something they entertain a relentless impulse in their minds. One thought, idea, or desire loops the racetrack in their brains over and over, preoccupying them, perhaps changing their behavior. The obsessive idea that loops in my mind sometimes: I want to keep all of my games in perfect condition and perfectly organized.

I love games. I think I could play CCG’s and tabletop games all day long for weeks and not get bored. I have a shelf full of them at home, plus the overflow box in the basement storage room, plus the microgames in my cubical for lunchtime battles with co-workers, plus the Magic decks in my computer bag, plus, plus, plus . . . you get the picture.

But if I’m honest with myself, the industry surrounding tabletop games and CCG’s breeds an obsessive tendency for perfection and order of which I’m susceptible. If I’m not careful, I could easily be pushed toward becoming that Lego Movie dad.

All of the sleeves, deckboxes, card boxes, cases, trade binders, 9-pocket pages, expansion sets, foil cards, and special edition re-releases cost a lot of money. All of them are also linked to each other in design and story continuity. And all of them give gamer dads an escape from the real world of raising small children: sticky tables from spilled food, grubby fingertips, dripping noses, and little hands still learning not to crush or drop everything you put in them.dragonsegg storage bag

It’s easy to see how any dad who has spent his fun money on the latest Dice Masters expansion and a few packs of Magic (or Yu-Gi-Oh! or Legend of the Five Rings or whatever) can get a little obsessive about keeping “at least something clean in this house,” or about keeping “at least my stuff in order.”

Here’s the problem: as soon as “dad’s games” become “dad’s games” we’ve built a wall between us and our kids. We’ve taught our kids that it’s okay not to share, that daddy has some toys you can’t play with, and that it’s perfectly fine for him to treat these brightly colored cards and figures and dice like precious treasures even as he shoos you away from them.

How to Avoid Becoming the Lego Movie Dad

By the time my son was three and a half he wasn’t really taking naps through the afternoon anymore. He became hip to the fact that while he usually slept his afternoon away, I was out in the living room with his mom, or some friends, or other family members playing board games and card games. He wanted in. He desperately wanted in. After giving it some thought, here’s what I’ve done. Maybe these ideas will work for you too:

  1. Find games your child can grasp, and play those a lot.
    My son is five years old now. For the last year we’ve been playing a lot of games. Some of them are the standard kid games: Uno, Go Fish, Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land. But others are games I’ve introduced him to: Forbidden Island, the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, and Ticket to Ride.
  2. Make up easy rules for the games which are too complicated for your child.
    With both Forbidden Island and Ticket to Ride I altered the rules so my son and I could play. For him, it’s all about handling all the pieces, spending time with me, and just enjoying the bold colors of the trains and cards. So, I made the games simple. I still stuck to the basic premise, but I removed a lot of the rules. I’ve tried to make it so that on his turn he can choose between one of two options. I’m sure there is research out there by a child psychologist about how many concepts a child of four or five can process in a game. I don’t know where that research is. I just know that for my child, limiting the choices on his turn to one of two, or at most three, has proven to be enough. After teaching him basic, truncated rules to a few games my son and I started playing two and three games a day. As a result he feels included and gets to play with “daddy’s toys.”
  3. Always, always, always embrace the story elements of the game and be willing to ignore competition or strategy.
    Little kids just want to play, they don’t necessarily want to win. I once taught my elementary aged nephews how to play Pirate’s Cove. Those two or three games were some of the most exciting games of Pirate’s Cove I’ve ever played. My nephews adopted pirate accents, acted like they were stabbing each other, and absolutely rejoiced in every little bit of gold they could get their hands on. They didn’t even want to bury their treasure (which is how you win the game) because they wanted to keep pretending to be rich pirates! They also didn’t want to fight each other in a sea battle too often because they didn’t want to damage their ships! It was hysterical. It was story and character driven. It didn’t matter that they could have won more games by playing strategically. It was just plain fun.Pirate's cove
  4. Keep the expensive cards and the complicated games put away until your child is sleeping.
    Do I let my nephews get their hands on my Magic: the Gathering Cube? No. Those cards are expensive and I’ve spent years building that thing. Do I bring out Pandemic with my five year old and risk losing all those little cubes by letting him play with a game that is way too difficult for him to grasp? No. That would be pointless. But I also keep these games put away until after he’s tucked in bed. There are lots of things parents do, watch, or use after their children are in bed. This is perfectly appropriate. But what makes the Lego Movie dad different is that he left all his Legos out in the open for his son to see but not touch. This is where the problem began for him.

Two Miscellaneous Ideas

  1. If you play CCG’s, set aside a box of un-sleeved cards for teaching little kids to play. Choose duplicates and commons that aren’t worth anything to you and that aren’t being used in decks. Pick cards that are free of overly violent and sexual images. Make this box the family’s collection of Magic cards (or whatever your game of choice is) and play with it a bunch. You’ll have fun bringing your child into your hobby, and your child will have fun spending time with their dad. (After all, how many copies of Amphin Cutthroat do you really need?)
  2. Keep the games that your kids aren’t ready for out of sight. Use that plastic storage container in your basement for housing your most expensive CCG decks and games too complex or too violent for little minds. Out of their sights is out of their minds, and that means less of a wall between you and your kids.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to become the dad in the Lego Movie. I love games, always have, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I want to look forward to a lifetime of games with my boy. That lifetime can begin right now. I’d rather have him crease and crinkle Harry Potter cards and lose a random piece of Blokus than have him think that games are a part of my life that he can’t touch – a hobby that he can’t participate in.

Harry_Potter_card

Do you have kids? Or do your friends or siblings have kids? How have you involved them in your games?

Generation Ships and an Unfortunate “Ascension” into Mediocrity

For my latest post, I’m taking a bit of turn from my usual Magic- and RPG-related writings to share my thoughts on “Ascension,” a recent science-fiction mini-series that aired on the Syfy channel in December of last year.

Ascension

In the previews and promotions leading up to the three-night event, Syfy teased up several trailers that set up the show’s premise: back in the 1960s, when mutually-assured nuclear annihilation seemed imminent, the U.S. government built, in complete secrecy, an interstellar spacecraft (the “U.S.S. Ascension”) that would take 600 volunteers to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. The goal was to ensure the survival of humanity when all seemed on the verge of worldwide destruction. With the technology of that time period, it would require a travel time of 100 years, far too long for the original crew to survive the journey. It would be up to their descendants to land the ship and colonize whatever habitable or potentially habitable worlds they would find there.

The U.S.S. Ascension is what is known as a “generation ship.” Wikipedia’s entry on generation ships defines them as “a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels across great distances between stars at a speed much slower than the speed of light.” What fascinates me about generation ships is the tension and forced destiny that the descendants undergo throughout their journey. All of the talents of the original crew must be taught and passed along to their kin. Those born on the ship have absolutely no say over where they can go or what they can do with their lives; their options are exceedingly limited from the moment they’re birthed. Perhaps the most dismal experiences are those who live their lives in the middle: those who were not around to see Earth or the ship’s launch, but will not live to see their new home. The battle to remain faithful to something so long-term and distant, something humanity as a whole is not all that great at doing, is an amazing concept that’s rich in ideas.

The opening of “Ascension” begins with the crew of the ship in year 51 of their 100-year journey, at the “point of no return,” which is their last chance to turn around and head back to Earth, if they so chose. The fight against the futility of being mid-voyage shows in the crew’s constant jockeying for political and reputational leverage, as well as a caste system of sorts between the upper and lower decks of the ship. The outdated and somewhat backward culture of the ship represents what a contained society would look like based strictly on American morals and customs from the 1960s. There are those who see the big picture and want to preserve the mission’s integrity no matter what, but, as we learn throughout the show, very few of them have an unblemished record or backstory.

I enjoy this kind of “gray area” morality play, but the way “Ascension” was told never truly brought that tension to life for me. After setting up the main characters on the ship and their current status, the first part of the series culminates in a “big reveal” that, while unexpected, breaks apart what could have been a captivating piece of television.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Ascension,” but still intend to, allow me to present you with this warning:

Spoiler-Alert

The turn of events is this: “Ascension” is not in space at all; it never left Earth. Instead, it’s an immense laboratory to put together 600 of the best minds in a contained environment for generations in order to cultivate inventions ahead of their time (such as the MRI) and, more absurdly, to develop latent psychic powers in its crew. One of the teenage descendants shows increasing abilities in clairvoyance, precognition, and energy projection, which leads to chaos within the government team when things in the ship start to reach a breaking point. At the end of the third part of the series, the girl’s magnified powers transport the ship’s first officer to another planet entirely, bringing some reality to their fabricated adventure.

Unexpected? Sure. But what a let-down for where this story could have gone.

I’m so completely exhausted with tales of intrigue and cover-up making their way into science fiction. The devolution of the show’s original premise into a government conspiracy conceit made “Ascension” little more than a tired X-Files retread of characters running through wet-sheened, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers while chased by black-suited government agents. The nineties called and want their “black ops” storylines back. There was, I feel, so much potential to take the “high road” of fiction writing and explore the complex natures of what folks would be like in a preordained journey within a generation ship.

If the generation ship concept is one you find intriguing as well, I’d strongly recommend reading “Chasm City” by writer Alastair Reynolds. One of the main characters in his novel, Sky Haussmann, is among the final generation of his ship and details the years leading up to their landing on a far-away planet and how the crew has changed during their time aboard. It’s certainly a whole lot wealthier in imagination than what “Ascension” attempted.