By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
It's a football Sunday, and between NFL matchups on television, Tyson Cole-Hines and his 9-year-old stepson create their own drama on the field with a video game on their Xbox 360.
This is a father-son pastime, playing Madden NFL 10 or NBA 2K8 on a 62-inch flat screen. But late at night, the gaming gets edgier.
That's when the Reston dad launches into higher-octane battles against enemies and aliens on mature-rated fare like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4. In these war games, bullets are flying. Bad guys go down. Things blow up.
This all happens in Cole-Hines's hushed suburban townhouse, long after his third-grader has been tucked in and before his infant twins awake for their 3 a.m. feeding.
"The wee hours," Cole-Hines says, laughing and recalling how he dons a headset and plays online, connecting with a buddy in Texas.
So go the lives of dads -- and some moms, too -- who grew up in the Nintendo generation, started families and have created their own ways to enjoy gaming with, and without, their children.
Some of them are gamerdads who never stopped loving free hours with a controller. Others are like Mark Bulkeley, who is not so much a fan of gaming as a dad who enjoys what his kids enjoy. Either way, a lot of fathers have become used to the idea of losing, which they seem to do a lot.
In Great Falls, Bulkeley turned a small attic room into what his family calls "the hut," a gaming nook with three flat screens and three PlayStation 3s, set up side-by-side on a red-carpeted platform so he and his two sons can play with or against each other online.
On a recent Saturday, the three sit in their designated chairs -- dad in the middle -- facing three screens flashing with jeeps and planes and gunfire from Battlefield 1943, a World War II game.
"Dad is obviously not the best player," says Luke, 11, as his animated Marine takes the driver's seat in a jeep.
His father readily agrees, conceding that the boys long ago surpassed him.
"I'm dead already," he notes matter-of-factly.
The hut was not inexpensive to set up, Bulkeley says. Maybe $3,000 when he adds up three flat screens, three gaming systems and the three copies needed of the several games they might play on weekends.
But it did make gaming into a family enterprise -- at least for one gender. Bulkeley's wife, Christa, has no interest; his 15-year-old daughter Emily prefers Facebook and occasionally Wii.
"I just decided that if we were going to play, we ought to have three screens and play together," he says.
Bulkeley, 37, says his own father did not like the games, considering them a waste of time. Now that he's a dad himself, he simply imposes limits, like no gaming on weeknights.
As he talks during the Battlefield game, he loses his focus on the screen.
"Oh, how'd I die?" he asks his sons.
"C-4," says Luke.
"Who did that?" he asks.
His sons' victories offer a reversal of sorts, because in other games and sports Bulkeley still comes out ahead. His sons, perhaps like all sons, revel in the chance to beat him.
Andrew, who is about to turn 14, notes that he always scores highest. "You can just tell by looking at me," he assures.
There are, apparently, a lot of dads like Bulkeley.
"What we're really starting to see is a cohort of fathers who grew up with the games," says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "The dads who grew up with Pac-Man and Sega are now in their 30s or even in their 40s."
A Pew poll last year showed that about two-thirds of fathers take part in their children's gaming -- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. By comparison, 49 percent of mothers do.
Some moms admit that they have little interest in gaming.
"I don't know the first button," says Christin Klaff, 42, whose husband plays the games with their sons, ages 10 and 12. "Practically all of my friends, we have never touched a controller."
Moms may be more inclined toward gaming since the Wii system came out, although Andrew Bub, 38, a father of two who runs http://www.gamerdad.com, says fathers remain more comfortable with controllers. "I think it's more popular with dads versus moms, but that demographic is changing fast."
His wife and kids join him to play the new Beatles version of Rock Band, each taking a role on a no-fail mode. "You can't lose, and that's important, I think, for families," he says.
Bub says a lot of dads play late at night "to escape a little, or to get away from the Teletubbies . . . . Especially for people who classify themselves as gamers, they play after the kids go to bed or in their man cave downstairs or at a friend's house."
Some dads might prefer it that way, partly because -- against the natural order of age and life experience -- they are, in fact, no match for their children.
Shap Bashar, 39, who works in the District and lives in Virginia, recalls being "master of the arcade" in 7th, 8th and 9th grades. "I wasted a good part of my youth playing video games," he confesses.
Even so, his sons outplay him in Lego Star Wars on their Wii system. "My son was getting to these levels I couldn't," he says. Not just the 8-year-old. The 4-year-old trounces him, too.
This world of child domination is only just arriving for Tyson Cole-Hines, who still prevails in most sports games against his third-grader. "The margin of victory is getting smaller and smaller," he notes.
Now 32, he remembers when his grandmother bought him his first Nintendo, when he was still in grade school. "I treated it like gold," he says. On weekends, "it was wake up, don't eat breakfast, just start playing video games."
Years later, Cole-Hines, who works as a project executive at a construction-related company, has a PlayStation2, a Wii and an XBox 360.
In spite of so many gaming possibilities, he has time to play only now and then. Sometimes late at night online with his buddy or his brother. Sometimes at home with his 9-year-old, Jaylen Cole-Williams, whom he also coaches in football.
On a recent Sunday, Jaylen leads his stepdad in Madden NFL 10. His mother, Kia Cole-Hines, whose gaming is mostly limited to her iPhone, looks on every so often as she tends one of her infant twins.
"I'm going to score right now," Cole-Hines tells Jaylen. He has the Arizona Cardinals on a promising drive. "I hope you take it okay," says Cole-Hines, indulging in a bit of trash talk.
Jaylen steadily eyes the formation on the field. He's got the Minnesota Vikings and a plan of his own.
The clock starts. But then . . .
"Sacked!" Jaylen announces triumphantly as his father's quarterback is stopped.