It was a warm Sunday afternoon when my six-year-old nephew walked -- ran, tumbled, materialized, crash-landed -- into the family room, shattering my tranquil state of mind as I busily shot bad guys from rooftops, balconies, and bridges while piloting a jetski through a flooded section of an abandoned Spanish colony.
The boy was very much in awe of what was happening on-screen.
“What’s that you’re playing, Uncle Jed?”
He repeated the unfamiliar name. Uncharted. He pointed to the TV. “What’s his name?”
He probably thought that was a mouthful, because he fell silent and just watched. I continued my journey through the flooded city, blasting enemies out of their perches with a grenade launcher. I was also terribly concerned that the boy was picking up some unhealthy ideas from all the violence going on.
Then again, his grandmother brought him up on a healthy diet of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and he was certainly no stranger to Hollywood violence.
Finally, I reached a spot where the heroes could disembark and continue their murder spree on dry land. The boy leaned forward, guarded but eager.
“Can I try?”
Hm. This was certainly a situation I had never found myself in at his age. I had always been the expert on video games, even as a pre-schooler. The very idea of a grown-up teaching a kid how to play a video game was alien to me, and yet here I was, about to do that very thing as I handed over the controller, all the while thinking about what a bad parent I might make.
“Hold this to aim. Press this to fire. You can take cover behind a wall by pressing this. You run with this, but if you want to walk you have to push it just a little bit. You pick things up with this. You can change your weapon by pressing this or this. And use the right stick to look around.”
He struggled for a bit with the complex instructions -- a boy of the touchscreen era trying to come to terms with yesterday’s technology. Soon, though, he was scoring headshots and timing reloads with frightful competency. I was starting to feel that he’s had enough.
“I have another game you can try,” I cut in.
“You play a blue robot. It’s called Mega Man.”
His eyes lit up. “A robot?” He was already handing over the controller to me, oblivious of highly important things like saving progress, checkpoints, and achievements.
I quit Uncharted and fired up Mega Man 9. “This is what games used to look like when I was a kid,” I told him almost wistfully.
He nodded but kept watching. He offered no comments about how ugly everything was. We sat through the cheesy intro and I started the game. We were greeted by the traditional stage select screen.
“Which robot do you want to fight?” I asked.
“That blue one!” he immediately said while pointing.
“You, uh, you can’t do that. That’s you.”
“Oh... okay, that one.”
I began to teach him the ropes. “Use this to move. This makes you jump. This makes you shoot.” And that was everything he needed to know. I was actually pleased at how elegant that all was.
So the boy embarked on his great journey... and fell into a bottomless pit right on the first screen of the level.
“Yeah, that’s a hard jump,” I commented.
The boy embarked on his great journey once again and made the leap across the bottomless pit. Seconds later, he was cowering under a ledge with two bars of life left, too afraid to jump up to face the enemy robot up there, and wondering where else he can go.
“That’s tough,” I said. “You should have known where those enemies would be so you wouldn’t take so much damage.”
He grunted in response. A moment later, he exploded in a starburst of blinking white circles. The third time he attempted it, he made it to the ladder on the very top of the screen.
“Yes!” we yelled.
He died on the next screen. Maybe some kind of robotic egg dropped on him. I don’t quite remember. What’s certain was that we were soon staring at the game over screen.
“That takes you back to the level you were playing,” I explained while pointing at the menu choices. “That lets you choose a new robot to fight.”
He chose a new robot and began exploring a new level. Minutes later, we were greeted by the game over screen once again. The cycle repeated, and I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember was my nephew shaking me awake, handing me the controller and telling me he had to go.
“Thanks,” he hurriedly added, sprinting off while humming -- was it some 8-bit tune he heard just minutes ago?
I shrugged and went back to slaughtering pirates in Uncharted.
The following week, the boy reappeared in the family room, ready for another exciting afternoon of gaming. I was much farther in Uncharted now, and I caught him up on the story as I traversed a slew of impossible jumps and crumbling ledges. Soon, another firefight exploded onto the screen.
Convinced that I really was destined to be a rotten parent, I turned to him with an offering of unbridled and uncensored movie-grade violence. “You want to play this fight?”
He shook his head. “I want to play the game with the blue robot.”
“But that looks like an old game.”
Fine, then. I fired up Mega Man 9 and handed him the controller. “Why do you like this better? Isn’t Uncharted just like the Indiana Jones movies your lola likes so much?”
“Mega Man is a robot.”
As if that was explanation enough. I settled in on the couch, resting my eyes while I lazily answered the series of rapid-fire questions he was starting to ask. “Why does he look like a human? Why is there a gun on his arm? Why does he make that face when he jumps?”
Questions we’ve always wanted to know in our own youth. I think the boy is going to turn out just fine.