I still remember the first time I saw the Halo: Combat Evolved video game. There was a lot of buzz around about the game, and Peter, my 11 year-old nephew, had purchased the game, and was playing it at the family Thanksgiving get-together. Most of the talk that other parents were repeating to each other centered around the “terrible violence in the game” and how it should be banned. Admittedly, this kind of social anxiety had gnawed a hole of doubt in my opinion of violent video games and kids playing them. Peter, meanwhile, was furiously making progress and racking up achievements in the basement of my sister’s house, when the dreaded question was posed to me.
“Daddy, can I play … Halo — with Peter?”
I thought, “Whoa, isn’t this the controversial game I’ve been hearing about with the blood sucking aliens and scary shock troops shooting at them in a pool of blood in a fog of war like the Apocalypse?”
The searching, hopeful eyes of my five year-old, took in every pixel of my expression like a optical thought scanner.
“Hey Ann (my sister), isn’t this game really bloody?”
“I have no idea — just ask Peter, he’s downstairs”.
“Hey Peter, isn’t this game really bloody?”
“Nah, it’s not too bad. You’re just a Spartan defending Reach — from alien bad-guys.”
“Oh, how bad can it be . . . ”
*longish, ruminative pause*
Somewhere, in the middle of that thought, I allowed my son to become a Spartan recruit. It later turned out the aliens didn’t suck blood, and the Spartans were pretty noble soldiers. And the violence, well, I explained to my son that it wasn’t real, that it was just a game. He never made a big deal about it, because it wasn’t a big deal for me. And he never looked back.
I took up the cause against the Covenant, too — as soon as the controller was free.
Now, ten years later, we both had the fantastic opportunity to tour 343 Industries, the Microsoft division that took over the development of the Halo franchise, still housed in the former “Bungie Bunker” in Kirkland, Washington. We were both pumped at the prospect of reliving our first contact with Halo, playing the campaign in co-op mode and also playing the multi-player against all the developers on the team. We were both very excited, as several of the top people of 343 Industries and the senior staff involved with the Halo franchise were there to greet us. We did some great interviews, including a few questions from my fifteen year-old Spartan vet about breaking into the video game industry.
Playing games in co-op mode is a tremendous experience as a family. To be good at what’s happening in-game, you have to be communicative and supportive at what’s happening out-of-game. Unless you want to lose, you have to acknowledge each other in the course of the game, weigh in on each other’s decisions in-game, and share your emotional investment throughout the game-play with your child. I feel that gaming with your son (or daughter) is a fine way to practice and improve healthy ways of communication with your children, and even test out new ones. If we are worried about what our kids are playing (and as good parents, we always should be) what better way to show our concern and monitor their video game play than by playing with them?
But, back to the story: after being distracted at how radically well-rendered the visuals were, we found a few Covenant invaders who had shown up on our Halcyon-class cruiser uninvited, but we were in no mood for trifling, and our assault rifles nailed them all. It seemed like this father and son unit kicked Covenant butt pretty bad …
We then played several Team Slayer matches with about ten developers. (They warn you never to play against devs, as they know the game better than anyone). But we were playing together, father and son, army of one. Well, most of the time, we were randomized to different teams, of course. Much to my chagrin, one particular player on the Red team seemed to take unusual delight in pummeling me repeatedly with his gravity hammer! We had so much fun playing the matches that we went over our scheduled studio visit time by an hour. I guess that’s what happens when you play with family, and you play with the community of game-makers. We’ve played all seven games in the Halo story now, up to and including Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Our blood sucking aliens and scary shock troops were still there. And, judging from my son’s proud, beaming face, he hasn’t suffered any salient trauma from the violence. Letting my son play Halo ten years ago has worked out just fine. In fact, he now wants to be a game developer when he grows up. I guess that’s just what awesome games do: inspire our kids to do constructive and creative things with their lives. So I’m glad I let him join the cause.
The son’s perspective (by John Luke Venables):
Playing the original game at 5 years old and now at 15, I’ve learned a lot in the ten years that have passed, about some of the finer aspects of what makes a great video game. It’s no longer just big explosions and cool cinematics. It needs a thought-out story, developed characters and obviously big explosions. And, I feel Halo delivers all of these aspects in the most unique way. So, when my dad told me that I could come meet with some of the guys behind the Halo franchise, I was overjoyed. Being able to interview the people that have made one of my favorite games gave me the opportunity to see first hand, what goes into making games, and the real passion that these people have for what they do.
Playing the game was a whole other experience. Not only was I able to play with developers of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, but I also got to play against my dad. Being able to play games with my dad is a real bonding activity for us. It’s a way for us to let off steam, relax and kick each other’s butts. There’s no greater sound than hearing your dad shriek from across the room, as you destroy him with a gravity hammer! It was certainly an experience that I’ll remember, and I’m grateful that I was able to share it with my dad.
Please stay tuned for my in-depth interviews with the 343 Industries creative team behind Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary on making the game, relating to the fans, and leaving the old bugs intact.