It began as an attempt to grow closer to my then-8-year-old twin boys. They were consumed with Clash of Clans, the latest video game sensation, and wanted to do nothing else. “Hold on!” they’d always say when called to dinner, before finishing an attack and arriving 10 minutes later to lukewarm food.
“What did you do at school today?” I’d ask at the dinner table in a feeble attempt to get them to open up. Blank stares. Right — way too open-ended. Be more specific. “So, who’s going to win the NBA championship?” Whatever, Dad. It was all Clash of Clans all the time, with the two of them talking intently about all things COC: What’s the most OP troop? Should I upgrade my archer tower or air defense next? If they weren’t playing Clash of Clans, they were on YouTube watching elite players, called Legend Leaguers, play.
That was three years ago. My relationship with my kids was foundering. So one night I woke up in a cold sweat with an idea, which I announced to my wife the next morning. “Denise, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to start playing Clash of Clans.” I could tell she kind of liked it, knowing full well my intent. I wanted to grow closer to Zach and Noah, and this was the only way I knew how to do it, how to connect with them.
So I dove in. First, something about me: When it comes to screen time, I set a lousy example for my kids. I’m always on my phone, checking box scores or Twitter, or playing one of a handful of games: Scrabble, Boggle, Candy Crush. And I’m no geography buff, but I recently went on Sporcle, a trivia quiz website, to see how many countries I could name in 10 minutes. The first try was underwhelming; I identified maybe 50 of them. About a hundred attempts later, learning from my mistakes along the way, I ran the table, nailing all 197. I mention this not to brag (okay, maybe a little), but to point out that when I start something, I don’t dabble. I dive in headfirst and keep playing until I master it.
Those first few months playing Clash of Clans were glorious. Zach and Noah taught me the intricacies of the game, and I caught on quickly, often excitedly showing them a replay of a particularly good attack and seeking their approval, which they’d always give. At the dinner table, Zach would playfully say, “Dad, let’s talk about Clash of Clans!” and we would, and those conversations would sometimes even lead to chats about other things. We were growing closer, and Clash of Clans was the reason. A few months in, the family went on vacation. After coming in from the beach and before going out to dinner, Zach and I squeezed in a few highly successful attacks that won a big war for our clan. At dinner, the four of us toasted our trip, but when Zach and I clinked glasses, it was to celebrate something else: the special bond between a father and a son that apparently only a video game can provide.
But then the inevitable happened. The boys lost interest in Clash of Clans and moved on to Clash Royale, and then to Musical.ly, and then to something else and something else after that. But I didn’t move on because I don’t dabble. Suddenly our conversation piece was gone, and that’s when it hit me: I’d started playing in an attempt to understand and relate to their obsession, and now I was obsessed with a game they no longer cared about. Noah completely cut bait. Zach still played occasionally, but I suspected it might have been for my benefit, to keep our COC bond going.
“Hold on!” I’d say when called to dinner, and then I’d maniacally finish my attack, or Zach’s or Noah’s, because while they had stopped playing, their accounts lived on, and it was up to me to attack for them, for the benefit of the clan. Suddenly, a typical night for me was to be curled up on the couch with three iPads, mine and theirs, taking turns attacking on each. I would occasionally still show my sons a replay of a good attack, but now all I got in return were some polite head nods. They just didn’t care.
Three years later, my Clash of Clans obsession is still going strong, and I’ve nearly reached that Legend League status they so admired a few years ago. But when I recently mentioned to them that I was getting close, all I got were more polite head nods.
Their new video game obsession is Fortnite. If they had it their way, they would play it 24/7, but because we have only one Xbox, they have to take turns and settle for 12/7, or maybe a little less after accounting for bathroom, food and school breaks. Part of me wants to partake; my relationship with them is again desperately wanting for a conversation piece, and while I realize that a relationship centered on a video game is less than ideal, it beats the blank stares. But another part of me has no desire. I was told the violence is cartoonish, but the gunfire sounds coming from the basement are more than a little cringe-worthy in this age of #NeverAgain.
Far from a commitment, I recently got the Fortnite app for my phone, mostly just to gauge their reaction. When I told them, it certainly got their attention. They glanced up from what they were doing and actually looked me in the eye! God, what a high. I still wasn’t sure, but a few days later, I took the next step and dabbled. It wasn’t at all fun, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. But oh, the looks on their faces when I told them. It was all I needed.
Steve Gordon is a longtime copy editor and currently the copy desk chief at ESPN The Magazine in Bristol, Conn.