Family Game Night, Version 2.0

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Video games in Genevieve Woche's household used to be strictly kids-only. The adults weren't invited, and they probably weren't interested anyway. These days, it's a family affair.

On a recent weeknight, kids from the Rockville neighborhood piled into the family's living room, dancing and taking turns playing a guitar game plugged into the PlayStation. Some took turns at Dance Dance Revolution in another room. While Genevieve's daughters, Emily and Laura, played against each other on the toy guitars, their mom kept singing the words to the game' s Van Halen and Cheap Trick songs, over the girls' protests.

Genevieve, a real estate agent, grew up in this house. In the '70s, she played Monopoly, Scrabble or Risk in these rooms. But these days, the board games stay in the closet, and Genevieve says she doesn't miss them.

Video games get a bad rap for their addictive and sometimes isolating properties, but for Genevieve's clan, they are the catalyst for a raucous family evening like this about every week or so.

"These are the songs I loved when I was growing up," she said. "I like playing it, but it's just as fun to watch someone else if you're not the one playing."

This type of thing -- parents and kids playing together -- started, to some extent, when the first generation of gamers got older and had kids who are now old enough to play games. But, as some more active types of games have been catching on, they're also bringing in a lot of new fans who never cared for the things before.

Shawn Hirsch, a dad in Gaithersburg, said he always thought of himself as an "anti-video-game guy" until he saw Nintendo's new Wii system, the one that has players on their feet and swinging their arms to play.

Now he's spending time with his daughters, playing video game versions of tennis and bowling with his 7-year-old daughter almost every night after dinner. She now knows just about everything about the two sports, though she got a bit of a surprise when they went to a bowling alley and found that it wasn't quite as easy to play in the real world.

Hirsch said he has started to keep track of promising-looking new releases for the system. He'd much rather see one of his kids playing with the Wii than watching TV "on the couch like a potato."

At the moment, my fiancee's kid and I are both hooked, potato-like, on the Xbox 360 version of a game called Lego Star Wars II. We're playing in what's called "cooperative" mode, meaning that we have to work together to make progress.

I don't have much interest in Thomas the Tank Engine, so I don't know whether we could have built the same bond we have in any other way. Even his mom and dad don't always get the scoop on the stuff I hear about when we play together -- what happened today in school, or whatever. And best of all, at 6, he's young enough that he still thinks it's better to be Luke Skywalker than Han Solo. So it's working out pretty well for me.

This sort of bonding seems to be happening even with slightly older kids and their parents, too.

"He's a teenager, and he's at that stage where we don't necessarily agree on a lot of things," said Thomas Morgan of his 14-year-old son, Taylor.

But there's no time for family squabbles when it's time to fight the evildoers as a team in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon. The Morgans, who live in Potomac, have a projector in the basement of their home, complete with a 100-inch screen. It's like being in an action movie together.

When Thomas and Taylor play against each other, head to head, Dad's reflexes are no match for his son's in fast "shooter" games, though Thomas still has the edge on slower games that require more strategy. So the Morgans generally like to play in co-op mode when they play together. Sometimes they go head to head in online Halo matches against another Xbox-owning father-son team they're friends with in real life.

The games have been there for them even during some trying times for the family, Thomas said. . "When you're in the trenches with somebody, you develop a special bond with them," he said. "Even if it's just virtual reality."

He said their shared appreciation for a good video game "absolutely reaches across the generation gap."

Some parents say playing games is a rainy-day way to pursue their real-world hobbies with their kids.

Bruce Richardson races and tinkers with his Porsche when it's nice outside. When it isn't, he races and tinkers around with virtual cars on the PlayStation 2 with his 11-year-old son, Mark. Modifying cars in the games sometimes gives them ideas for what they want to do with the Porsche. Right now, they're working on the car's exhaust system, upgrading it as they upgraded the cars in their racing games.

"The game gives us stuff we can think about with the real car," he said. "It leads the way, in a sense."

The Richardsons, who live in Potomac, have a pretty sweet set-up if you're into racing games. They've got game-controller steering wheels hooked up to sawhorses in the game room, complete with gamer seats that have built-in speakers.

Bruce thinks the racing games are a good simulator for Mark, so he can learn the basic physics involved in driving. He looks forward to the time, a few years down the road, when his son will get his learner's permit -- and when Mark will get behind the wheel of a real car.

And, then, they will see if all those hours they spent together playing video games pay off.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company