A Gamer's Guide to Parenting

At the 2013 Game Developers Conference, Carla Fisher delivered the microtalk A Gamer's Guide to Parenting. The concept is game-like and simple: each of the session’s ten speakers gets 20 slides, each of which will be displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing. That gives each speaker five minutes and 20 seconds to talk about things that they might not otherwise get to discuss on stage at GDC. Below are the slides and the narration.


You can also watch the entire session for free at the GDC Vault

Carla presents A Gamer's Guide to Parenting at 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Image source.

At some point in your life, you, gamers, are likely to become parents or, at a minimum, play a significant role in a child's life. While I'm not going to talk about the birds and bees of becoming a parent, I am going to talk about coexisting as a gamer and a parent. Welcome to the Gamer's Guide to Parenting.

The Gamer’s Guide to Parenting explores the idea that kids are a multi-genre game with great production values, complicated AI, and in need of extensive QA.

Kids don’t come with a manual, though there are scads of after-market options available. The standard child-rearing books are priceless for figuring out if green barf is a reason to call the doctor in the middle of the night. That’s not my expertise.


I’m a children’s game designer with a background in instructional design and developmental psychology who spends a lot of time playing casual and hardcore games.

My idea of a manual is how to play with kids. I’m going to take your experience as a gamer and apply it to common childhood interactions. It’s how to use great game design to raise kids in a playful, gamelike way. (And, by extension, this informs game design for kids, too.)
So the first game and child-rearing task is...

Potty Training with Plants vs Zombies! You’re potty training Lil’ Gamer. He has no interest in peeing IN the potty. Lil gamer thinks, Why aim when you can sprinkle everywhere? You need to encourage him to aim, which means shaping his behavior.

Guiding children’s behavior is a significant task for parents. Much as we may want an easy path, there are no cheat codes or warp tunnels for potty training, good sportsmanship, study habits, driving a car safely... To change behavior, systems must motivate and reward the child for the desired actions.

Enter, Plants vs Zombies and achievements. The Sunny Days achievement requires collecting 8,000 suns, which is a ton compared to adventure play. It’s a radical shift in strategy. Rather than kill the zombies as soon as possible, you must kill them slowly to maximize the length of the round to collect all the suns.


It’s a beautiful achievement that doesn’t simply reward you for finishing tasks that are a normal part of playing. It rewards you for changing your strategy to play slower. Now if we transfer this thinking to parenting...

Parents are constantly implementing achievements, and when doing that, they’re playing game designer. 

You have to design a Sunny Days achievement -- a Potty Shot achievement -- that makes your son WANT to pee IN the potty, not just around it. Perhaps it’s as simple as a rubber duck in the toilet that he can aim for. It’s about finding ways to reward a shift in behavior.


So next up...

Baking Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Left 4 Dead. Time to make cookies, but Lil’ Gamer won’t leave you alone. You know that if you let him help, it’ll be a disaster. He’s 4! He can’t measure the milk or be near a hot oven

Think of the child as a noob, even at age 4. We never put a noob in a boss stage. (Unless you’re sadistic, please don’t be sadistic with children.) First you prepare them so that they feel ready for the task and work up to harder things. But the balance is that you want them to always be right on the edge of their abilities. Not too easy and not too hard.

This is the idea of the zone of proximal development. It’s the difference between what a learner can do WITHOUT help and what he can do WITH help. In games, as well as in life, sometimes, no matter how great the reward or how hard you work, you need help get to the next level.

The Zone of Proximal development is a social construct and where cooperative multiplayer games are awesome. Enter Left 4 Dead. It’s all about teamwork -- multiple people are needed to solve the levels and it fosters communication. Left 4 Dead is clearly not a game to actually play with most kids, but again, it’s meant to inspire how to interact.

So now, when you’re making cookies, make Lil’ Gamer a member of your Left 4 Dead cohort. Discuss what tasks he wants (and can) do, like sift the flour or pour in chocolate chips. Discuss your strategy. Operate as a team, and be playful and gamelike.

A Gamer’s Guide to Parenting is largely grounded in a developmental psychology concept -- dialogic reading. When you read with a child, you don’t just read the sentence, flip, read the sentence. You invite the child to become part of the storytelling experience. Talk about what’s going on in the book. That’s dialogic reading.

Games whether single or multiplayer have the same opportunities to talk about gaming and to talk while gaming. Now yes, I would be super ticked off if someone interrupted my game asked me to discuss the emotional state of the zombies. So there’s an art to this that takes time and practice to implement.

But fundamentally, the idea is to play WITH kids, throughout the day, no matter if you’re potty training, baking cookies, or playing Angry Birds. Because, ultimately...

Raising a child is a multiplayer game of strategy, discussion, and cooperation. Do your job right, and you unlock amazing levels of awesome and foster the next generation of great game designers. 
I can't just end on a soppy statement like that. So with 2 slides to spare, here's 9 more ideas to inspire all your interactions in parenting and in life in general.

Waiting Until Xmas Morning to Open the Presents with Cut the Rope


Statistical Regression Analysis with FourSquare


Telecommuting and Virtual Team Management with World of Warcraft

Media Literacy and Transmedia Production with The Walking Dead 

Inhibition Control with Beat Sneak Bandit

Conquer Performance Anxiety with Rock Band

Hypothesis Testing with Portal

Pithy Marketing Copy with Prose with Bros

Avoiding Airline Checked-Baggage Fees with Tetris

And that, my friends, is a Gamer’s Guide to Parenting.