There’s absolutely nothing in the world that can prepare you to don the mantle of parenthood. You can spend years psyching yourself up for it, visualizing it and hardening your resolve, and when the moment comes you’ll still be overwhelmed by a tsunami of realization at your own unreadiness. The best you can do is to gird yourself to grapple with that unreadiness and learn the ropes as quickly and aptly as you can manage.
But hey, aren’t videogames supposed to offer us the chance to play the role of someone else? Isn’t that the bright and shining promise of the medium, that it will allow us to broaden our lived experience by seeing through the eyes of another person? Surely there must be games that can teach us what it’s like to be a mother or a father.
Ha! Fat chance. Games have thus far dealt with parenthood about as nimbly as a toddler with a Faberge egg. Potent titles like That Dragon, Cancer notwithstanding, the number of games that have something meaningful to say about the travails of parenthood are exceedingly rare. If you want to prepare yourself for the arrival of a little one in your life, games are the last place you should look.
Or maybe not—if you squint a little and cock your head just right, there are important lessons about being a parent that you can learn from a whole host of titles. Games will let you practice a wide variety of skills that you’ll need as the caretaker of a newly-minted small person. You just have to know what you’re looking for. Take, for example:
1. Harvest Moon
The Lesson: Get used to doing the same tasks every day.
When a baby arrives in your life, it brings with it a whole host of new daily chores. You’ll be changing diapers, doing more laundry (especially if those diapers are cloth), washing and sanitizing bottles, feeding your child (and preparing that food), giving them baths, picking up toys, and plenty more. It’s an enormous amount of work.
The Harvest Moon games are about taking care of a farm and raising crops and livestock. It’s not a perfect analogue, but they do require the same sort of rhythm as childcare: Every morning, you get up, you water your crops, you brush your animals, you milk your cows, you collect the eggs from your chickens, you weed your gardens. Harvest Moon is about finding a Zen-like pleasure in routine, in accomplishing the same rote tasks and slowly building toward a larger and complex enterprise. You know: like a baby.
2. Viscera Cleanup Detail
The Lesson: Get ready to deal with gross bodily fluids.
There’s no avoiding it: babies are messy. They don’t come into the world knowing how to use a toilet. Or tissues. Or napkins. The best thing you can say about them is that at least when they’re barfing they don’t need someone to hold back their hair, because they seldom have any. As a parent, it is going to be your job to deal with their various excretions, so get used to rolling up your sleeves and diving right in.
Viscera Cleanup Detail is a game about cleaning up a space station after a grisly alien invasion in the style of Dead Space. There are bodies, bloodstains and pieces of gnarly extraterrestrials strewn all over the place, and as a certified Space Janitor it’s up to you to grab your trusty Space Mop and Space Bucket and get Space Cleaning. It is a pretty gross game. It is also, in many ways, a reasonable facsimile of certain challenges you will be facing as the parent of a young child.
3. Octodad: Dadliest Catch
The Lesson: Get used to pretending you know what you’re doing.
Nobody really knows what they’re doing as a parent, just like nobody really knows what they’re doing as an adult. There are some basic skills that you learn pretty quickly, like how to change a diaper and how to hold an infant without dropping them, but the vast majority of us are cobbling together our understanding of parenthood from personal experience, research and gut instinct, and there’s so much conflicting advice about how to raise a child that you can never be a hundred percent sure about what you’re doing.
Octodad is a game about an octopus who is living as a suburban father and pretending to be a human being. He finds basic tasks like making coffee and mowing the lawn unusually difficult, because he does not have opposable thumbs or, indeed, bones. Octodad struggles on valiantly and masks his difficulties because he loves his family. It is a game about doing your best and praying that no one realizes how much you’re struggling to cope with accomplishing the bare minimum of personhood. I empathize a great deal with Octodad.
4. Persona 4
The Lesson: Get used to only having enough time to do one thing every day.
Whether you’re a working parent or a stay-at-home dad like myself, the vast majority of your time at home is going to be spent taking care of, or at least being consciously aware of, your child. Children need a lot of attention; they need to be fed, clothed, changed, washed and loved. As their parent, you are their entire universe, and they are taking all of their cues about what it means to be a human being on the planet Earth from you. They are watching and learning from you every single moment they are awake. You’re not going to get a lot of time to yourself, is what I’m saying.
Persona 4 is a game about being a high school student in rural Japan and exploring the world inside of the television to fight shadow-demons and gain a better understanding of yourself and your friends, and also there is a bear. It’s not inherently very much like being a parent, but there is one key lesson you can take away from it. In Persona 4, you wake up every morning and go to school, and then after school you are allowed to do one activity before night falls. Maybe you go to soccer practice. Maybe you do a little martial arts training with your girlfriend. Maybe you go fishing in the river. Maybe you journey inside the TV to clear a dungeon. But you only get to pick one thing to do each day. It’s kind of like when you finally get your child to sleep at night, and you have an hour or two to yourself before exhaustion overtakes you. Your time to yourself each day is going to be extremely limited, so get used to picking one thing and sticking with it.
5. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
The Lesson: Learn when to tag in your partner.
If you’re fortunate enough to be raising your offspring with the help of a partner, your initial instinct will probably be to double up your efforts and spend all of your time together, and that’s a good idea for a time. Soon, however, you’ll find that “divide and conquer” is a necessity when it comes to the mountain of tasks involved with parenthood. You’re each going to get burned out by the intensity of childcare, and it’s essential that you try and arrange it so that you’re burned out alternately, and not concurrently. Know when to tag out, and be ready to be tagged in.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a game with two protagonists, whip-wielder Jonathan and magic-user Charlotte, each of whom has abilities better suited to certain situations. At the touch of a button, you can swap between them, letting you choose the most effective character for a given task. Certain bosses alternate weaknesses, forcing you to swap in Jonathan or Charlotte on a moment-to-moment basis, presumably freeing the other character to fold diapers, sanitize milk bottles, or turn the laundry over.
6. Who’s Your Daddy
The Lesson: Get used to saving your baby from harming themselves.
There are approximately twelve million ways that your baby can get seriously hurt, and as a parent it is your job to prevent as many of those possible outcomes as you can manage. Babyproofing the house is a real responsibility (and can sometimes be a considerable hassle), and if you’re the sort of parent determined to allow your baby to have a place next to you in every area of the house, rather than relegating them to their room, your task gets all the more difficult.
Who’s Your Daddy is a goofy, one-on-one competitive game in which one player plays a father attempting to babyproof a house and the other player plays a crawling baby intent on killing themselves as expediently as possible. In real life, of course, babies aren’t quite so suicidal, but it is their mission in life to touch, grab, taste, pull and explore every single object they can get their hands on, and they have zero concept of danger and injury. They have a particular fascination with electrical cords and plastic bags. It’s not a bad idea to cultivate the kind of situational awareness necessary to prevent your offspring from sticking a fork in an electrical outlet.
7. Diner Dash
The Lesson: Get used to keeping a lot of plates spinning at once (and pressing on anyway when some inevitably fall).
Becoming a parent means multitasking. All of those daily chores that I mentioned earlier are constantly coming due, and you’ve got to stay on top of the laundry, the dishes, the baby’s meal and nap schedule, and sometimes more—maybe your child, like mine, needs some daily medicine, or maybe you have a goldfish with a very strict feeding schedule. It feels very often like you are serving many masters, only one of which is the two-foot-tall cherub with his face smeared with blended raspberries.
Diner Dash, in its many incarnations, is a game about keeping lots of different people happy by quickly shifting your attention to various tasks. You need to seat customers at tables in your diner, take their orders, deliver their food, get their payment and bus their tables in turn, all the while each of them steadily becomes more and more impatient and dissatisfied. Sometimes, you get overwhelmed. Sometimes a customer gets irritated and leaves before you can even seat them. In playing Diner Dash, you’ve got to get past your failures and press on, because if you succumb to being overwhelmed then the entire diner goes unhappy. You won’t be able to stay on top of everything as a parent: sometimes the laundry stays in the dryer overnight, sometimes the sink piles up with dishes, sometimes the floor doesn’t get swept. Sometimes you don’t get to take a shower. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The Lesson: Prepare to be afraid.
The moment that my son was born was the single scariest moment of my life; the five or ten seconds before he took his first breath, in which it seemed entirely possible that the breath might never come, were the closest I’ve ever come to knowing true terror. That’s the thing you can’t prepare yourself for, no matter how much you try. From the moment you become a parent, everything is more frightening because you have an expanded capacity for loss. You can imagine that fear, intellectually, but to imagine fear and to feel it seize hold of your gut and focus your entire consciousness into a single thought are quite different things. You learn to fight it, that fear, and master it, so that a parade of nightmare scenarios no longer keep you up well into the night. But it never quite goes away.
Shelter is a game in which you play a mother badger escorting her cubs through the wilderness. You’re responsible for feeding them, protecting them from predators, keeping them near to you and preventing them from drowning or being consumed by fire. They cannot fend for themselves. They can starve or be killed, and if this happens you will be responsible. An “escort mission” is a familiar trope in videogames, and it’s one that’s often derided, frequently because games often fail to provide adequate means of protecting those you’re supposed to escort. Parenthood shows us that real life also sometimes fails to provide such means. If you mean to become a parent, you’ll have to learn to live with this new capacity for tragedy. Like I said at the outset, you can’t really prepare yourself. You can just imagine, and wonder, and wait.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.