The absent dad
June 14, 2008
Tomorrow is Father's Day here in the U.S. and in about 50 other countries around the world. To all you gamer dads out there, I wish you a happy day spent with family doing things you enjoy. In my house, games with co-op modes get a lot of attention on Dad's day, and I recommend defining "co-op" liberally to include Lego Star Wars, Guitar Hero, Frisbee, a long walk, making pancakes, and the classic retro game of catch in the backyard.
Dad's are cool. As a father myself, I say this with no effort to be objective, but I think fathers are often fascinating people, quietly leading interesting lives, even when we fail or fall short. While mothers may represent the face of parenting to many people - we've celebrated Mother's Day in the U.S. since 1914; Father's Day wasn't officially recognized until 1972 - a good, caring father plays a vital role in the life of a child.
And it's not all about sentimental sighs and Kodak moments. Fathers can be brave. Fathers can be heroic. Fathers can do deeds of daring on behalf of their families. Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have been telling us their stories for as long as those media have existed. Everybody agrees fathers can be engaging and compelling characters. Everybody, it would seem, except video game designers. Where are the video game dads?
Consider the wide range of fathers depicted in films like 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Incredibles (2004), John Q (2002), Frequency (2000), Field of Dreams (1989), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), The Rookie (2002), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Life is Beautiful (1997) - not to mention dozens of older films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Father of the Bride (1950), Kramer vs Kramer (1979), and The Kid (1921). All of these films - dramas, comedies, action movies, sports movies - position fatherhood as the narrative and thematic centerpiece. Being a father can drive one to take risky action, weigh strategies, self-sacrifice, pull your hair out - all sorts of interesting and empathic conditions and situations.
I'm sure demographics play a big role here. Gamers are perceived as relatively young, so it is assumed (perhaps correctly) these consumers have little interest role-playing as a family man or purchasing a game featuring such a character...unless he's a really bad-ass dad. Solid Snake in MGS4 interests me in this regard. He's old (and that's a welcome novelty), but not burdened by family responsibilities. At least as far as I know. I might have missed a subplot somewhere.
Most game designers I've met are also young. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what percentage of male game developers are fathers, but I'm guessing it's low relative to workers in other industries. This may also help explain why we see so few fathers featured in video games. I'm not blaming anybody for anything here. As they say, "write what you know," and a designer in his 20s may not feel comfortable or credible creating the sort of character I'm looking for.
Narrative games, like other media, rely on stakes to elevate the hero's imperative. "Save the world" is certainly a clearly defined and easily communicated imperative, but how many more games do we need to tell this story? A dad who must save his family; a dad who must sacrifice for his family; a dad who must stand up and do the right thing because his son or daughter is watching him - these imperatives are no less compelling and potentially much more richly interesting than yet another mission to save the planet.
So to all you whippersnappers making games [grin], I say: You are awesome. You do incredible things. I admire (and envy) you, and I'm earnestly grateful for all you do. I'm just suggesting that on Father's Day, why not give some thought to us gamer dads. We're out here in increasing numbers, and I believe we're hungry for a character or two we recognize and can relate to. If you make it, we will come. Or something like that.
Do it for dear ol' dad. :-)