Because most games are still primarily about agency – regardless of whether that is exercised through combat, racing or exploration – they can’t really convey to young male players what fatherhood is actually about.
Maddy Myers and Seb Wuepper both wrote some time ago about the proliferation of games where the typical AAA grizzled dude protagonist is fleshed out a little and made more human by giving him a fatherly role.
“I think I’m just playing the wrong Dad Simulators. I can’t empathize with playing as a character that has immense social and physical power and misuses it to hurt the characters in the game that I have come to like, seemingly at the game’s behest. I don’t want to play a game and feel as though agency and value has been misattributed to the incorrect person” – Maddy Myers
One problem I see is that these games – like the movies Taken, Leon or Man on Fire – all frame the paternal purely in terms of justification-for-force. Home-invasion thrillers like The Purge (or its videogame equivalent The Castle Doctrine) provide a fantasy world where being a “Good Dad” is synonymous with being an agentic, forceful individual who functions by dominating others.
Themes of protectiveness associated with fatherhood are just there to provide some sort of moral veneer to typical power fantasies related to directing physical force at other people. These games aren’t really about fatherhood in any real sense.
In my experience, early fatherhood isn’t an exercise in the sort of agency we associate with traditional videogames. For men, learning to nurture children is often about stopping trying to exercise so much control. Fatherhood requires us to unlearn everything we previously thought we knew about manhood. Yet there are still men in the world who believe that doing dangerous things like dressing up as superheroes and climbing tall buildings is an appropriate way to convince courts of their ability to nurture.
Having children has been a difficult adjustment for me precisely because of the reduction in agency it entails. I’m psychologically wired around things that are very difficult to do while carrying a baby around or playing Duplo with a toddler.
Childcare is The Sims or Jostle Parent. It’s a tamagotchi with a direct line to social services.
The boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment … Men see a hierarchy of autonomous positions. Women see a web of interconnections between people. – Sherry Turkle
Books and movies have generally done a much better job than games when it comes to helping me come to terms with this change.
We had our first child when I was starting the final year of my undergraduate degree. During my then-wife’s first pregnancy, one of the film geeks on my course leant me the DVD of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Eraserhead is one long nightmare sequence which, from where I was sitting, seemed to centre primarily on the horror of agency-loss. The protagonist – a stand-in for the director – is left alone with a sick baby to care for, and suffers various metaphorical castrations (the standard Freudian metaphor for a loss of agency).
Why does a movie like Eraserhead exist? If men are bad at expressing themselves, its doubly true when their emotions are socially unacceptable; childish even. At its core, Eraserhead is about the selfish, stupid feelings that creative people have about becoming parents. When will I finish my magnum opus? How will I ever get to become heavyweight boxing champ now? The film allowed me to acknowledge that this is to some degree normal, even if it’s something that people don’t talk about.
A spiral of guilt. Feeling bad about wanting to do things that require focus and the use of both hands. Seeing your partner take to the whole thing more naturally than you. Finally seeing your inner child for the spoilt brat they are.
Will Self’s Book of Dave pretends to be a piece of post-apocalyptic scifi, but it’s primarily a parable about how our culture churns out men who are ill-prepared for fatherhood. Titles like The Last of Us fail to address this because their mechanics leave little room for dadly expressions that move beyond the vengeful or protective. They can’t correctly emphasise inaction. The medium won’t allow it.
Traditional videogames are poorly equipped to deal with a transition which is primarily about the diminishing of agency. It’s not rare to hear game designers raise these sorts of concerns. Lofty ideals about how there must be something more that games can be about. I’m not talking about the stuff of cutscenes and dialogue; but the mechanics that make the game a game.
Games stop feeling like games when they deny us agency. We start to call them slurry terms like “walking simulators”.
Being a grad student is a lot like being the presumed player of the latest open-world 500-hour completion sandbox game. You’re assumed to be the kind of person that can just show up whenever and play for 9-hour sessions. A teenager with a never-ending surplus of free-time and paradoxical cravings for fantasies of free-roaming.
As I moved through the Ph.D., things mostly went well on campus and at home. That’s primarily because I tried my best to treat the thing as a regular weekday 9-5. During the first year I only worked 4 days a week and had The Boy to myself on Fridays to do bonding and stuff. I’d usually be around at breakfast time, and home to cook dinner and put His Majesty to bed.
But there was a creeping sense that I was entering a place that was unsuitable for people with young children. When you’re a dad in their mid-20s, academia is full of older folks who think you’re a bit young to have kids.
The archetypal grad student is a bastion of agency; working until 3am everyday, generally swanning about doing what they want most of the time. These assumptions were embedded in things like conferences, where I felt great guilt going away for 3 or 4 days to arse about drinking and using long words in self-indulgent contexts under the guise of professional networking.
I feel an ongoing conflict between wanting to have a “decent” job before the time my children are grown, and knowing that academia will most probably mean less money and more away-time than other more mundane things I could be doing. Combine that with the imposter-syndrome that comes with studying games in an old-fashioned uni with no games programme, and it has been paralyzing at times.
Fatherhood is like one of those bad escort missions, long ago consigned to game-design history by fans and developers alike. Children are mission-critical NPCs with bad AI and friendly-fire permanently on.
Some days I wish that the only requirement for being a good dad was punching a bunch of Bad Dudes in the face while looking cool. Then I remember I’m probably not alone, and that’s why The Last of Us and its ilk are so popular in the first place.