A couple of months ago, I asked my 7-year-old son which video games he wanted for Christmas. The list he handed back made for depressing reading.
At the top, of course:.
A video game version of social deduction games like Mafia or Werewolf,it threatens to swallow up all other forms of entertainment — movies, TV, toys, everything — like a snack-size bag of Skittles.
Second was Roblox, a weird set of creation tools kids mostly use to create, upload and then play with an endless list of grim video game ripoffs. Watching any child play Roblox is a fast-track to insanity. Brain worms in their purest form.
Third on the list: a game called “Zooba.” Zooba? What on God’s green earth is Zooba?
A cursory Google search says Zooba is a free-for-all battle royale combat game where animals fight to the death. But until my son clumsily spelled it out on a purple Post-it note, I’d literally never heard of Zooba. I still only have a rudimentary idea what the hell it is. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to delve deeper into that rabbit hole.
Kids — mainly my kids — have terrible, terrible taste in video games.
As a journalist who’s spent the majority of his career covering video games, my home is a treasure trove that most adults, let alone kids, would salivate over. We have a PS5, two Nintendo Switches, an Xbox Series X and easy access to almost every major video game release, sometimes weeks in advance.
With practically every classic major release of the last decade at their fingertips, my children choose these strange, bottom-feeder, free-to-play iPad games about doing flips on a BMX. Human Fall Flat, a weird-ass game about… humans falling flat I guess. Who the hell knows?
For a period of two months, my children played nothing but Goat Simulator, a meme game, essentially, that was strange when it was first released seven years ago, in 2014.
They could be playing Mario, or Rayman Legends, or Ori and the Will of the Wisps. They could be playing anything except Goat Simulator!
These choices don’t come in a vacuum. Driven by YouTubers and amplified by strange algorithms, they manifest in the evolutionary swamp of the playground, where — between flossing and dabbing, presumably — children swap tips on which terrible video games they should torture their parents with next. Kids no longer play tag or hide-and-seek. No, they designate “imposters” and play Among Us, before heading home to beg hapless parents to install Fortnite on iPads designed for “homework.”
Later, they might trawl through the App Store, endlessly watching trailers for terrible free-to-play games designed to ruthlessly drain credit cards of their loot. It’s a constantly shifting nightmare, and the end result is grim: We have an entire population of children with god-awful taste in video games.
I didn’t anticipate this. Once, as a child-free (read: care-free) adult, I always imagined myself being a “cool dad.” I like new music, I get… stuff, I pass the “vibe check.” Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine my precious video games would be the medium that made me feel like an out-of-touch grandad refusing to move with the times, but here we are.
But is this the same thing? Have I become my parents, radio dials glued to classic rock, complaining about hip-hop not being “real music”? That’s definitely part of it.
Yet Roblox and [shudder] bloody Zooba aren’t Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. It’s hardly a seismic shift that stubborn middle-aged brains can’t adapt to. More like children being collectively and uncritically gazumped by apps and algorithms beyond their understanding. My son doesn’t know that free-to-play mechanics are often exploitative. He’s seven. He doesn’t really understand the difference between a finely crafted experience like Mario Galaxy and Lucky’s Tale. He’s just happy to have a controller in his hand.
The kids are all right, I suppose — and it’s my job to steer mine right. I get that. But the tide is strong. The politics and peer pressure of the playground are a heavy weight for any parent to push back against, particularly when boosted by social media and YouTube. But I’m trying. I’m trying my damnedest to teach my kids what a good video game looks like. To foist my own tastes upon them like all good parents should, goddammit.
The sooner these wee buggers learn to like what I like, the better. That’s what being a parent is all about, right?